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Flash in the pan

Chili meets cheese

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The word “cheese” might not make you think “chili” the way “oil” makes you think “vinegar.” But they show up together in many dishes, like chili and cheese fries, hot dogs, eggs with chili and cheese, not to mention chili mac and cheese. In the Southwest, where chili is spelled “chile,” green chile cheeseburgers are a regional icon, along with chile con queso, chiles rellenos and their well-traveled little brothers, the jalapeño poppers.

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  • Chavelli Tsui

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan might be the only place in the world where the popularity of the chili/cheese combination is greater than it is in the American Southwest. Inhabitants of this Buddhist nation are often low key, polite and soft-spoken. They enjoy doing things like praying for universal harmony, telling dirty jokes and consuming hot chilies the way many Americans eat Doritos. One Bhutanese friend of mine reminisced, “As children we would eat ema (chili) until our ears rang. We’d cut the tops off and sprinkle salt inside, then squeeze the juice into our mouths. Then we would eat them.”

Bhutan’s national dish is a stew called ema-datse, made of little more than ema and cheese (datse). It can be a cruel, merciless dish. In my travels in Bhutan I’ve often waved the white flag at ema-datse, crying and laughing simultaneously, wondering how this could be possible, while tears, snot and other facial fluids I didn’t even know I had converged on my chin.

In the United States, slurping while eating is considered rude. In Japan, slurping over a bowl of noodles or soup is considered a compliment to the chef. In Bhutan, slurping while eating ema-datse is a matter of survival. It’s the slurp that cools, as the air rushing over your mouth offers enough relief that you can make it to the next bite.

A pile of Bhutanese red rice helps absorbs the heat as well. And while conventional wisdom states that cold beverages like ice water or beer aren’t real antidotes to chili heat, I drink them anyway. The relief may be temporary, like the cooling slurp, but I’ll take it.

And, paradoxically, another bite of ema-datse offers temporary relief as well. Very temporary. The fresh injection of cheese briefly takes the edge off the effects of the previous bite, for a fleeting moment until the next bite kicks in. This vicious and delicious cycle is part food and part out-of-body experience, thanks to the endorphin rush.

The absolute bare minimum ingredients for ema-datse are chilies and cheese, but onion, salt, butter and water are almost always included as well. Most recipes call for tomatoes too, which, like the chilies, can be red or green. Other ingredients like ginger, mushrooms and green onions are also commonly included. But you don’t want the dish to get too busy.

The most difficult part of making ema-datse outside of Bhutan is finding the right cheese. In the States, finding yak or mare’s milk cheese can be a challenge, and most cheeses here, including imports, fail to melt properly. They’re either too lumpy, too sticky or rubbery.

In proper ema-datse the cheese melts into a thin, smooth sauce that lightly coats the chili. It must not glob everything together, and must hold that consistency after it cools.

This presents a serious problem for Bhutanese expatriates. Thus, upon embarking for the United States many Bhutanese travelers are advised by their knowledgeable countrymen to use Kraft Singles or Velveeta in their ema-datse. The color might appear a bit funny to the Bhutanese, but the Kraft performs perfectly.

I regard Kraft singles like a rabbi regards pork. But on a multi-day backpacking trip with my Bhutanese friend Tshewang, I converted, if temporarily. For dinners, I had packed homemade dehydrated elk stew, while he packed nothing but Kraft Singles, dried chile pods, a few onions and salt. By the end of the trip I was trading elk stew for his simple Kraft ema-datse whenever he would let me.

That said, back in the American lowlands Tshewang prefers feta. A 50/50 mix of feta and queso fresco, aka Mexican farmer cheese, can work as well. Or equal parts feta and Kraft, if you can’t get queso fresco. Some use gorgonzola, too, which would get expensive if you eat as much of this stuff as the Bhutanese.

Here’s an ema-datse recipe for fresh chili (dried is a little trickier):

Thinly slice one onion and add it to a pan with 3 tablespoons of oil on medium heat. Add five cloves of garlic, chopped, and 1 or 2 tomatoes, in thin wedges, to the pan. Slice 1/2 pound of hot chilies—jalapeno, Serrano, cayenne, etc.—lengthwise into halves or quarters. Remove the seeds if you’re getting nervous. Add the chilies, and then wash your hands. Stir-fry briefly, then add 1 cup of water. Let this simmer for a few minutes, then add 2 tablespoons butter and a 1/2 pound of whatever cheese or cheeses you’re using, per the discussion above.

With the lid on, simmer until the cheese is smooth and bubbling. Add salt to taste, and simmer until the chili is tender.

Serve with rice, preferably Bhutanese red rice. With your hands, compress a handful of rice into a ball. Work some ema-datse on top of the rice ball, and eat. Have a phone close by to call 911, as necessary.

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