At this point, Chef Boy Ari wishes to bid fond farewell to Ken Picard, managing editor of the Independent and stalwart supporter of Flash in the Pan. Our captain is moving on to greener pastures in the Green Mountain State of Vermont, and this Pan-o-phile, for one, will miss him. So, in the spirit of camaraderie among mountain dwellers—and this week’s feature story on Bhutan—I’ll dedicate this Bhutanese hot Flash to El Picardor.
Like the smoke of juniper incense drifting through a monastery, the pepper vibe in Bhutan is prevalent, something you share like air with whomever you’re with. Locals believe it provides vigor and stimulation—“stimulation” being an understatement. When the chili hits, it’s a fine line between exhilaration and excruciation. But when the flames subside, you reach for more—because the adrenaline rush is so addictive. Bhutanese food is where oral fixation meets sadomasochism—so hot it makes fire seem as spicy as tepid oatmeal; so hot it burns you twice—on import and export.
The flagship in the chili armada is ama-datse, the national dish of Bhutan. There is little in this dish that isn’t chili pepper. Here is how you make it:
First, smoke some mustard oil in a pan. “Smoking” is lingo for what you always must do when cooking with mustard oil. It means heating the oil until it smokes. You do this to deactivate the isothiocyanates, chemical compounds that are the active ingredients in mustard gas. All plants in the mustard (or brassica) family contain isothiocyanates, including broccoli, cabbage, kale, horseradish, and many others. In dilute doses, isothiocyanates are part of the characteristic flavor of these plants. But isothiocyanate concentrations in mustard oil are high enough that it’s a good idea to smoke it first. Never use it raw. By the way, those of you who don’t have any mustard oil: read on. I have good news.
After you smoke the oil, you can add a chopped onion to the pan. But it’s not really necessary, because you’ll never taste it anyway! So you might as well just start adding the peppers. Cut off the tops, where the stem connects, and put them in the pan with mustard oil, turning back the heat to medium after smoking the oil for 10 seconds. Fry the peppers in the oil, stirring often. When they start sticking to the pan, add water, and put a lid on the pan. Now it is freaming, which means frying and steaming at the same time. At this point, it may be a good idea to leave the kitchen for a little while, because you might start to cough.
After about 20 minutes of freaming, (adding water when it dries up), the peppers should be collapsed and soft. At this point, wait until the water in the pan is nearly gone, and then add chunks of cheese—ideally, a variety that doesn’t melt. Lifeline Farms makes a great “curd cheese” that will not melt. If you, dear reader, know of any good non-melting cheese options, do tell! Heat it long enough for the cheese to get soft, and then spoon it over rice. A generous portion of mayonnaise on the plate is a good flame retardant. Beer is highly advisable as well. If things get really rough, a spoonful of sugar in the mouth should pull you through. I made some ama-datse the other day with jalapeño, Louisiana, serrano, and cherry bomb peppers. None of these are exactly “junior partners” in the pepper Mafia. I’m still buzzed.
Here’s another good Bhutanese recipe, a condiment called ise (pronounced “is-ay”). Mince 1 cup tomato, 1 cup onions, and 1 cup cilantro, and combine in a bowl. Stir in 1 cup of dried, crushed red chili flakes, and 1 tablespoon of salt. Then, smoke 1/3 cup mustard oil in a pan for 10 seconds, and then carefully pour it into the bowl, stirring in the sizzling hot oil. Now you have ise. What’s nice about ise is that you can use it to customize the hot-factor of your meal as you go. Ise is great on fried rice, in soup, in ama-datse (yeah, right!), or on basically any meal you want. That and some mayonnaise, and you’re covered.
Those of you who want mustard oil, go to www.patelbrothersusa.com/new/ and order some. It may come with a label that says “not for internal consumption,” or “for massage only.” But if you smoke it first, you’re good to go—until Homeland Security restrictions ban mustard oil altogether.
Those of you interested in learning more about the nation of Bhutan can come to a presentation on Thursday, Sept. 26, in Urey Hall on the UM campus, from 7–8 p.m. One hour of slides and stories from the students and faculty who joined Chef Boy Ari in Bhutan. Sorry for the short notice on this... To make it up to you: the first four e-mailers with a good mayonnaise option win a free bottle of mustard oil! George Slow Food Wonderboy Ochenski has been bugging me for months about mustard oil, so he gets the first bottle. Next three e-mailers...
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org