In the spring of 1998, when we were living in Shanghai, Dave and I spent two weeks in Bhutan. It was a splurge, meant to be our "last hurrah" in Asia before we returned to the US later in the year for good (or so we thought at the time).
Travelling by car along Bhutan's one road, we gawped at the magnificent, nearly untouched mountain landscape
dotted with majestic dzong (half administrative buildings-half monasteries).
We caught a few archery matches (it's the national sport),
met plenty of friendly locals,
noticed, after three or four days, that most of the country's traditional stone and wood houses are decorated with a phallus or two,
and marvelled that in this world there still existed a place that kept beat to such a leisurely rhythm.
In Bumthang, a Wild West sort of town set deep in an impossibly green, fertile valley, we joined Bhutanese villagers who journeyed for miles, mostly on foot and dressed in their finest clothes,
for a spectacular three-day Tibetan Buddhist festival. After two days of music and dances, performed by monks resident at the hilltop dzong where it was held,
the festival culminated in a feverishly emotional mass blessing in which attendees were fed pieces of dough representing a demon who, on the festival's second day, had been vanquished and killed by the gods.
What we did not do in Bhutan, unfortunately, was find a whole lot of deliciousness. Most towns didn't have restaurants, so we were obliged to take meals in our hotel with other tourists. Always served buffet-style (a particular dislike of mine), lunches and dinners generally consisted of the sort of food Bhutanese tourism officials must have imagined foreigners preferred to eat: bland, overcooked, and often pseudo-Chinese.
There were a few bright spots. After pestering our guide (required for all tourists at the time, and probably still) for seven days straight we finally scored a breakfast not of fluffy, tasteless toast and greasy scrambled eggs, but of Bhutanese red rice porridge - thick and creamy like congee, but flavored with savory smoked pork hock, zippy dried red chilies, and numbing ground Sichuan peppercorn. In Bumthang, we found local, freshly made apple cider, a wonderfully hoppy and refreshing microbrew, and - thanks to the presence of a Swiss-owned dairy farm - richly milky tomato and cheese tarts.
On our third night we tried ema daji, a Bhutanese dish of plump green jalapeno-like chiles in a thin cheese sauce. Fantastically fiery chili heat balanced by creamy, mild-flavored cheese - just the sort of flavorful, highly spiced break we needed from gloppy hot and sour pork and stir-fried mystery meat with cashews. We spooned it up with nutty Bhutanese red rice that night, and the next, when it showed up again on the buffet table. And then the next several nights as well ... until we were so sick of the darned stuff just the sight of it could turn our stomachs.
By the time we left Bhutan ema daji was a bad dream, a black spot on our otherwise wonderful trip to Bhutan. I buried it deep in my subconscious where it slept soundly ... until Reid at Ono Kine Grindz and Alan at maona announced a Virtual Vacation one-off MeMe.
When I read the assignment - to share the recipe for a dish sampled on holiday - ema daji popped into my head. Wondering if eight years had cured me of my phobia I cooked up a batch, and found it to be - as scrumptious as the first time I tasted it. Many thanks to Reid and Alan for inspiring me to reinvestigate this altogether ambrosial dish. The single smear on my memories of Bhutan is wiped clean.
UPDATE, February 22: I won! I do believe it's the first time I've won anything in my life. My prize? A boxload of edible Hawaiian swag. I'll be blogging it.
Ema Daji (Bhutanese Chiles 'n Cheese)
This recipe is adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's "Mangoes & Curry Leaves" . They call it "Chile-Hot Bhutanese Cheese Curry" and include tomatoes, which I've omittted, because I never encountered them in the versions of the dish I sampled (or the ones I avoided) in Bhutan. Ema daji is all about fire (the chiles) and fire extinguisher (the dairy). I could swear the chiles used in Bhutan are jalapenos or a variation thereof, but you can use any kind you like. Go ahead and tone down the heat with a milder chile if you must, but do use a flavorful one (no plain green bell peppers!). If your fresh chiles aren't spicy enough, add cayenne with the cheese.
Outside of big towns where fresh, mild cheese can be bought at the market, Bhutanese cooks used Indian canned cheese. Alford and Duguid suggest feta and I found it to be an excellent substitute; the brining lends the finished product a sort of gamey aroma which seems right. Other possibilities are farmer's cheese, a Mexican cheese like queso fresco, or haloumi, if it's not too salty. Don't go the route of cheddar - the cheese should be mild enough that the taste of the chilies comes through.
The final result, which is soupy, is best served warm rather than hot, with Bhutanese red rice. Brown rice would work well too. A simple stir-fried green vegetable or a mound of golden oven-roasted carrots with cumin would round out the meal nicely. This is sublime comfort food that warms you up from the inside.
1 1/2 cups of water
heaped 3/4 cup of chiles that have been cut into 1 to 2-inch lengths (deseeded or not - its' up to you)
1 large onion, cut in half vertically and then sliced into then half circles
2 tsp. vegetable oil
5 plump cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped or mashed to a paste
250 grams feta or other mild, non-melting cheese
salt, if needed
a handful of fresh coriander leaves, torn into small pieces
Bring the water to a boil in a medium pan and add the chiles, onion, and oil. Cover, reduce heat to a strong simmer, and cook for about 15 mins.
Add the garlic and return to a boil, reduce heat again and simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the garlic and chiles are soft.
Stir in the cheese and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir once, then cover and set aside for 10 mins.
Taste and add salt if needed. Serve sprinkled with a few bits of coriander leaf.