Monday, June 30, 2008

The National Dish of Bhutan

Now I can say it. I've tried the national dish of Bhutan, ema datsi. When I ate it I was unaware that Ruth Reichl had declared that Bhutanese cooking was "well known to be the world's worst cuisine." I'm sure there are other contenders, but based on my experience of the "national dish" I can safely say it's clearly not one of the world's best. Of course, not having tried it on its home turf, I probably had an adulterated version of the national dish, for better or worse.

My opportunity to try ema datsi occurred Saturday afternoon at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a free, annual event on Washington, D.C.'s mall, where Bhutan's culture, in addition to that of Texas, is being featured this year. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is one of the world's most isolated countries. Tourism to this small nation of 650,000 is strictly limited, and to high-end tour groups only, an effort to protect the country's fragile, traditional culture and "gross national happiness" from the tourist hordes. The Folklife Festival, which continues this Wednesday through Sunday, gives Americans a rare opportunity to witness the music, dance and artisanal traditions of Bhutan.

I'm reasonably certain that there are no Bhutanese restaurants in the U.S., so the honor of preparing the country's national dish for the festival went to a D.C.-area Indian restaurant called Indique Heights. Based on descriptions I've read of the dish, they seem to have modified it for American spice tolerance. The main components of ema datsi are cheese and chiles, augmented by potatoes and onions (in addition I detected a slight cilantro accent). Apparently the true Bhutanese version is extremely spicy. The festival version prepared by Indique Heights was rather mild. Also, in Bhutan the dish is made with yak cheese, but I believe a substitute cheese had to be used here. Ultimately, what you get is a watery, yellow cheesy sauce with peppers, onions and potatoes that seems hardly Himalayan at all. If anything, it resembles a sauce for mac and cheese or a topping for nachos. It wasn't especially bad, it wasn't especially good, but now I (along with thousands of other festivalgoers) have bragging rights to say that I've tried the Bhutanese national dish. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. For what it's worth.


Anonymous Mike said...

I was also at that festival and I'm going to guess that Indique (which makes great Indian food) did not do the Ema Datshi justice (maybe because it had to be toned down, as you noted). During the festival, I went to a cooking demonstration and learned about Ema Datshi. Although we could not sample the food, I went home and looked up the recipe. Here's a link to one:

I made it and love it. Be warned: it is very spicy. I think one of the keys is to get a cheese that won't completely melt into the stew, but will melt a bit but retain its form. That's why feta is the non-Bhutanese recommended option (unless you have access to yak cheese). I highly encourage you to try this (if you like spicy).


8:16 AM  
Blogger Bradly Jones said...

Great posts on this blog. I'm on my way to Dhaka and will be needing all the information i can get because I will be staying shortly in Bhutan, I need to be able to gather knowledge as well as pictures. Thanks for sharing. Your article was a real stomach massage.

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12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it's really hot and I am sure maximum of western people won't like it. But if you love spice try to use less hot chilli. Bhutanese prepare it with local cheese and it make great combination. Here is the link with pictures.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ema Datshi is basically impossible to make authentically outside of Bhutan because neither the specific kind of chili or yak cheese required can be found outside of the country. You might be able to find the red rice to go with it, but that's all. If what you had tasted like a watery sauce to go on mac and cheese, it probably was. Ema Datshi is never watery, and wouldn't typically be served with the additional vegetables you mentioned since "Ema" means chillies and "Datshi" means cheese. Shamu (mushroom) Datshi and Kewa (potato) Datshi exist, but neither of them are Ema Datshi.

You can find recipes online that approximate the taste decently, and if you like (very) spicy food I suggest giving it another shot. Ema Datshi might just be my favourite dish!

2:41 AM  

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