by Kerry Tolson @kerrytolson.com.
thousand women and a nations worth is measured in happiness. It is the embodiment of the spirited flavour this country exudes.
The blast of chilli - ema - is not just flavour to a dish; it is the main ingredient, served at every meal, eaten with gusto, and for myself, comes with great wads of snot and tears running down my face. No dining experience is not without a tinge of red to the nose or lingering mouth burning sensation.
Extrinsic to almost every part of Bhutanese life, there is a saying that you haven’t visited Bhutan if you haven’t eaten the national dish – Ema Datshi – at least once and you’ve only glimpsed Bhutan if you haven’t heaped it upon your plate, three times a day, and gone back for seconds.
Our three-week ramble through the hidden kingdom culminated with a cooking lesson to ensure we took home its very essence and for the next two hours we embraced the long red strip of intensity as we delved into its spirit and learned to conjure it up.
Blue flames lick the side of a wok and Sonam, our host and cooking instructor pours into it a cup of water. It quickly boils and double handfuls of chilli, the onion and garlic are added. They bubble away for three minutes, the steamed fragrance hanging heavily and dampening the air.
We dollop a tablespoon of thick yellow unsalted butter into the mix and gently stir, every now and then delicately dipping the chillies beneath the surface and giving them a prod, testing for tenderness.
Sonam cautions about putting the lid onto the pan at this point, explaining it will trap in the moisture, causing the sauce to thin out. 'And it makes more fumes too, burn your eyes when you take lid off' he adds. I muse that perhaps we should all be wearing full face masks as I reach for a tissue.
When a pliable softness is detected (it takes almost fifteen minutes) two balls of cheese are roughly broken into chunks and dropped into the middle of the fusion. This particular cheese is unique to Bhutan, made from yak or mares milk, it is rarely found outside the country and so Sonam suggest we use Danish Feta as a substitute when we make this back at home. The cheese melts, blending and lightly coating the chillies, adding an extra gloss to their shine.
As it morphs into a thick sauce, we occasionally dab at it; it’s imperative that there be no stirring during this stage as to do so will have the cheese sticking to the pan and burning. And there's no way I want to be the one cleaning it!
After three minutes the diced tomato is added along with a liberal sprinkling of salt. It's explained to us that adding the tomato and salt towards the end will stop the cheese from setting, as well as reduce some of the punch of the chilli.
The pan is then covered for two minutes, bringing the cheese to a cauldron bubble and finishing the cooking process. We are assured that at this point the gaseous reaction of the ingredients is now defused and instead there is a promise of enticing mouth-watering aroma.
Extinguishing the flame, the dish stands for a moment before the lid is removed and the fusion is then gently folded into itself.
Sitting down to eat we tentatively scoop ema datshi onto red rice, fiddlehead ferns fried with chili and lashings of spiced potatoes, also coated with their own fusion of cheese and chilli. Our portions are barely teaspoon size compared to the liberally ladled wodges gracing our hosts plates. The centre dish is refilled for seconds. Chilli is not just a seasoning, it is the whole vegetable as well as the side salad; there is never too much.
And those tears, we tell ourselves, that stream down our cheeks as we laugh-cough, wipe runny noses and gulp for air in search for coolness are the heady endorphin rushes of a flavoursome gross national joy.
Hello! I'm Kerry
. . . a plan-nothing, have no idea where I'm going travelholic.
A daughter of the gypsies and the wife of a workaholic, I'm forever wondering 'What's over there?' and devising ways to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence of small-business ownership responsibilities and every-day life tangles to discover it.
and this is my book.
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