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Flash in the Pan

Will the real ema-datse please stand up?

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“We’d better eat this delicate dish of venison and morels before the ema-datse,” I cautioned. “Or we won’t be able to taste the subtle flavor.”

“That’s a myth,” said Kuenga Wangmo, my Bhutanese friend. “Ema doesn’t dull the taste one bit.”

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan nation tucked between India and Tibet. Ema is their word for hot chili pepper. Datse means cheese. When combined correctly, ema and datse form a dynamic balance between fire and cream that has become a part of the Bhutanese identity. Ema-datse is part food, part endorphin release and part out-of-body experience.

As children, Kuenga reminisced, “We would eat ema until our ears rang. We’d cut the tops off of hot chili peppers and sprinkle salt inside, then squeeze the juice into our mouths. Then we would eat them.”

I’ve been to Bhutan, and many times I’ve waved the white flag at the mercy of ema-datse that was toned down for tourists. The heat of the real ema-datse has no mercy. All the fluids in your mouth, eyes and nose converge on your chin, along with fluids you didn’t even know you had.

That evening, Kuenga and I were in my kitchen with Kinley Tshering, also of Bhutan, because we wanted to eat the real ema-datse.

Both Kinley and Kuenga came to the U.S. seeking higher education, and both—like virtually all Bhutanese who leave home for their studies—cannot wait to return. Bhutan doesn’t have the “brain drain” problem that some developing countries have, where the best and brightest get seduced by the charms of expatriate life. You can take a Bhutanese out of Bhutan, but only temporarily. You’ll never get the Bhutan out of a Bhutanese. 

Isolated from the rest of the world throughout most of its history, only in recent decades has Bhutan begun an ambitious initiative to “catch up” with the outside world. Care has been taken so that this “progress” not come at the expense of their thousands-of-years-old national character and identity, richly steeped in Buddhist tradition and timeless land-based rhythm of life.

Many Bhutanese who study abroad return home to become leaders in their fields. Kuenga, for example, is an anthropology major whose ambition is to use bone samples to trace the history of her race. Kinley is at the University of Montana studying fire behavior. When he returns home, Kinley will write Bhutanese fire policy. 

In my home, Kinley was preparing to light a fire in my frying pan. He cut the tops off an assortment of jalepeno, serrano and habanero peppers and sliced them lengthwise into halves and quarters. Since we were after the real ema-datse, Kinley didn’t remove the seeds. He cut an onion in half and then in slices. He cut a green tomato in half, and then in slices. He then sliced some shitake mushrooms. 

Mushrooms, like green tomatoes, are optional in ema-datse. But if you have them, use them. 

Kinley put half an inch of water in a cast iron skillet along with three tablespoons of canola oil on medium/high heat. Once the oiled water was boiling, he added the peppers, onion and tomato. He salted the contents, stirred briefly and covered the pan. After a few minutes he added the mushrooms. 

Button mushrooms, which cook faster, can be added later on when the cheese is added.

When the peppers started to get soft, Kinley crumbled a 50/50 mix of feta and queso fresco (Mexican farmer’s cheese) into the pan with some chopped “onion leaves,” as he calls them. At this point, there was still enough water in the pan to turn the mixture of cheeses into a thick, white sauce. 

The table was set with our pan of ema-datse, a pot of Bhutanese red rice (available at The Good Food Store) and my sensitive and subtle Montana side dish of venison and morels. No silverware. 

“It tastes better when you eat with your hands,” said Kuenga, as she compressed a ball of rice in her hands, put some ema-datse on it, and lovingly chewed. 

The venison and morels a la Montana were politely appreciated. And even amidst the real ema-datse, we could taste the subtle earth tones of fungus and meat. 

Meanwhile, my two guests were transported home by the flavors in their mouths. They practiced the time-honored techniques of mouth-cooling, like the slow focused inhale through pursed lips, the cooling slurp. “This is the real ema-datse,” Kinley said with reverence. “I need a fan for my mouth.” 

In the days that followed, I experimented. Ema-datse with zucchini. Scrambled eggs with ema-datse. Excellent, all of it. 

Still, I’m sold on the real ema-datse, as Kinley made it. I’ve been making really good batches with oyster mushrooms and wild coral mushrooms. The pepper rush is addictive. It seems to push the life force through your veins. Even before I’m hungry again, I’m pining for more. Ema-datse may not dull the taste buds, but it raises the bar of what food can do for you.

flash@flashinthepan.net

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