Kingdom of Bhutan
There does not appear to be much in the way of technique as far as traditional Bhutanese food goes, but WOW do they like hot peppers and dairy products. Butter in their tea. Butter at their prayer shrines. Butter in their stews. Cheese in their stews. Holy mother of God.
One website I found that had a collection of Bhutanese recipes summed up the foundation of their culinary tradition as “water, butter, boil”. What kind of butter, you may ask?
And cow. But… mostly yak.
To celebrate this hairy beast’s contribution to the Bhutanese diet, I really wanted to make something that nearly every source I found described as Bhutan’s most well-known dish – a sort of casserole of hot chilis and yak cheese called ema datshi.
Now, by this point you folks know me pretty well. I don’t do anything halfway, and I can be a little bit… erm, obsessive. I made calls. I visited farmstands and green markets. I had a cheese-making friend-of-a-friend make calls. I even emailed a company in China. On my word, there is no yak butter or yak cheese – imported or domestic – to be found ANYWHERE in the Tri-State area. Sorry to ruin your week.
[Update, 7/2015 – I WAS WRONG. Dead wrong, it turns out. There are several tiny stores in the heavily-Himalayan Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens that sell packaged yak cheese, although it looks dried/aged rather than wet/fresh. Anyway, just so you know. – MR]
So, ema datshi was out. But there was still a chance at happiness. Luckily, with the help of Kalustyan’s, I was still able to cobble together a respectable and authentic Bhutanese meal – red rice, a chicken and chili stew, and some absolutely diabolical hot sauce.
You may be shocked to learn that most of the adventure in this entry actually came from the rice. Eue chum, or red rice, is native to Bhutan and represents a large part of the diet there. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the bag of red rice I initially bought from Kalustyan’s was packed in Bhutan. Also presumably packed in Bhutan was the army of terrifying critters that crawled out of the bag when I slit the top and poured some out on a plate. These guys were serious – they looked like ants but more military, with lots of sharp edges and spikes. After my initial gag reflex, I was earnestly afraid that I was possibly introducing some unknown predator into the fragile (ha!) New York ecosystem. I started stomping, but soon saw that I was outnumbered. Into a bowl of water went the entire bag and its denizens. I left no Noah to shepherd them. All were lost.
Another trip to Curry Hill, another ride home to Queens. The second bag of red rice I bought from Kalustyan’s was thankfully free of critters, so I threw some in the rice cooker, set it, and forgot it.
Next I made a batch of Bhutan’s multi-use hot sauce, called eze.
I feel silly even calling eze “hot” sauce – it’s so far beyond “hot” that it’s in a different sensorial realm altogether. It’s basically your garden variety salsa until you add in the fing, a beloved ingredient in Bhutan (and elsewhere) that is known to most of the West as Szechuan peppercorn.
I’ve had runs-in with Szechuan peppercorns before, and each encounter has left me with a psychological scar. This, my friends… this was the worst one yet.
Have you ever tasted pure yellow? Smelt blistering frustration or thorny wrath? It’s this kind of synaesthetic harrowing that a knife-tip of eze will introduce to you. Waves of numbness undulate over your taste buds, while the backing heat of the red chilis scorch your throat and lips. Through the eze, things you will see – other places; the future, the past; old friends long gone.
Knowing that this condiment is served with almost every dish in Bhutan, I am certain, now, that every single Bhutanese man, woman and child is born with a dazzling set of chrome cojones. I will never, ever fight someone from Bhutan.
Finally, the main course: jasha maroo tschoem, or minced chicken stew. It’s not very dissimilar from chicken soup, except for the pile of green chilis and the fact that everything is added together raw and then brought to a boil – sort of the opposite of most Western approaches to stew. The chilis can be anything from the capsicum annuum species – I found this out by checking websites of purveyors of vegetable seeds until I found a pepper that came from Bhutan. It was identified as capsicum annuum, which means that jalapenos/serranos or a related variety are essentially native and can be readily used in recreations of Bhutanese cuisine.
This is some good eats – the hot, liquid part of the stew drenches and lubricates the chewy, nutty red rice, and the searing dabs of eze that I was foolhardy enough to streak into my mouthfuls made the chilis in the stew itself seem sweet. All of this is studded with tender bits of comforting fowl. The perfect dish for a cold, mountainous climate. Or just a chilly fall day in NYC.
Unless you are a terrifying rice-bug. RIP.
(NB: Did you know that “Bhutani” actually refers to the members of an ethnic tribe in Pakistan? Not the same as Bhutanese! Huh.)
Now you go:
Jasha Maroo Tschoem
1 whole chicken, boned and minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2.5 cm (1 in) cube of ginger, sliced into matchsticks
1 onion, sliced thin
1 tomato, chopped
3 green Serrano chillies, diced (Capsicum annuum are native to Bhutan)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter (cow or yak, both are native to Bhutan)
Place minced chicken and tomato in a saucepan and add water to cover, 2 tbsp butter and bring to a boil. Add garlic, salt and ginger to taste. Lower heat and simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring intermittently. Add more water in small amounts if it gets too low – the dish should be fairly wet when served. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with eue chum.
1 cup Bhutanese red rice
1 ¾ cups water
Cook in rice cooker.
¼ cup red serranos
1 small onion
1 medium tomato
1 bunch cilantro
1-inch cube ginger
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
Roast the red chilis until slightly charred, then crush in a mortar. Mince a small onion, a medium tomato, half a bunch of cilantro, and a cubic inch of ginger. Briefly toast a tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in a hot pan and crush it to powder. Mash everything together until it’s a thick red paste, adding salt to taste.
Serve with everything and die.