friend Tshewang is from Bhutan. The people of his tiny
Buddhist nation in the Himalayas are generally low key,
polite and soft spoken; they enjoy praying for universal
harmony and the happiness of all beings. Despite such
mild manners, there is nothing mild about the Bhutanese
diet. They eat hot chili peppers the way many Americans
eat French fries – in big piles.
By the time most Bhutanese kids are 5 years old, they
are heartily wolfing down flaming platefuls of ema datse,
a dish of chilis and cheese. When you eat ema datse,
your nose and eyes start to run, and the tears and snot
mingle on your chin. You stop eating, but your head only
gets hotter. It is painful and a little scary. At the
same time, it's exhilarating. Hot chili peppers trigger
an addictive release of endorphins in your brain.
On a recent visit, Tshewang taught me how to make ema
datse. We didn't know which kind of cheese to use (since
we couldn't find any Bhutanese cheese) so we made three
batches, identical except for the cheese, and invited
my friends over for a trial. We tried feta, mozzarella
and cheddar kurds. Tshewang selected feta as the best.
My friends – when they were finally able to speak and
think clearly – agreed. Here's the recipe:
Slice hot peppers, like jalapeF1o, serrano, artledge
or cayenne, lengthwise, and put them in a pan with canola
oil. If you want, you can add chopped onions and ginger,
though you may not be able to taste them. Turn the heat
to medium and cover. After cooking for a few minutes,
add a little water and put a lid on it. Stir occasionally
until the peppers are almost cooked, and then crumble
feta cheese into the pan. Stir it up and serve with rice.
This time of year, with so many peppers in season, I make ema datse all the
time. Another dish I like to make is phagshapa, which is basically fried bacon
with sliced radishes. The other day I was in the pantry, and I noticed a few
jars of pickled radishes that I had made earlier this summer, when radishes
were in season. As I fondled that pickle jar, I had a series of culinary epiphanies.
Epiphany #1: Make a combination of ema datse and phagshapa,
using my pickled radishes instead of fresh ones.
So I'm cooking some chopped bacon in the pan with a
bit of canola oil. I add some chopped hot peppers and
some chopped pickled radish. I add chopped ginger and
onion. It's cooking, smelling very good, and I'm about
to add the feta.
But all of a sudden, for some inexplicable reason, I'm
not in the mood for feta. I want coconut milk. This realization
comes alongside Epiphany #2, which reveals to me that
there's no reason I can't switch gears at this point
and make a coconut curry. So I leave Bhutan and head
south for an evening in Thailand. Once I stir in a tablespoon
of turmeric, I'm committed.
Then I add a can of coconut milk and a tablespoon of
fish sauce, and squeeze in the juice of one lime. At
this point, my housemates are gathered at the kitchen
doorway, begging with their eyes and drooling on the
floor. As a final touch, I harvest some small basil plants
from the garden and toss them in whole.
As we eat the curry, I realize that this is the first
time I have made a coconut curry that really, truly,
totally hits the spot. It's been good before, but always
not quite there. This time nobody can deny that I knocked
it out of the park.
Eventually, I did get around to making that phagsha-datse
I'd envisioned. I started the same way as above, and
when I got to where previously I added the turmeric,
I instead added a teaspoon of the Indian spice mixture
garam masala (available in many stores or online). After
mixing that together I added the feta. And 85 well, I
wouldn't be telling you all of this if, by gosh, it wasn't
Tshewang is back in Bhutan right now, eating ema datse
that makes mine seem about as spicy as cold oatmeal.
I don't know what he would think of my adding garam masala
to a mixture of phagshapa and ema datse. But seeing as
India lies smack between Bhutan and Thailand, I think
the geographic precedent is in place. I know the flavor
Now, dear reader, you know how to make ema datse, phagshapa,
phagsa-datse and an awesome coconut curry, which I call
curry-datse. And here we are, in fall, the second season
of radishes. Go get some, and some cider vinegar, and
make you some radish pickles!