Last month, I was in Bhutan at the invitation of the Le Meridien, which has opened two new hotels in the country. The hotel in the capital, Thimphu, was opened in early 2014; the one in Paro, an hour away, is only about two months old.
Landlocked Bhutan on the eastern foothills of the Himalayas has a lot going for it. It’s a beautiful country: the mountain ranges are thick with pristine forests, crystal clear gushing springs and babbling brooks crisscross the land, and the people are polite and friendly. It’s even got one of the prettiest airports in the world – unlike other tarmacs where everyone rushes to get through immigration and collect their luggage, at Paro, everyone hung around to take pictures of the terminal. There’s a bonus. If you’re flying in from Delhi, you get a picture-perfect view of Mt Everest from the plane.
During my brief visit, I got to see a reasonable bit of the country, I made friends with some Bhutanese dogs who, unsurprisingly, are as friendly as the people, and I even tried out some very good Bhutanese whisky. What I didn’t get to do, unfortunately, is try out a lot of Bhutanese food.
I did get to eat Ema Datshi, which literally means chillies cooked with cheese. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s considered to be the national dish. I also tried some kewa datshi, potatoes cooked with cheese, at the hotel.
Made from cow or yak milk, the texture of fresh Bhutanese cheese is firm, like paneer. But on cooking, it melts into a smooth sauce. I didn’t find the chillies pungent by themselves, or too difficult to handle in one dish, but it’s the most commonly used flavouring and if you’re eating a couple of dishes, the heat builds up, leaving you gasping for water by the middle of the meal.
I found the popularity of the ingredients, all of which would have been alien to the region until a few centuries ago, to be quite interesting. Chillies and potatoes arrived only after colonisation; they were introduced much after they arrived in Europe in the late 16th century as a result of the Columbian Exchange. The process of splitting milk into chhena was known on the sub-continent, but it was not a favoured food until the arrival of the Portuguese, who used it as a base for their cheeses.
So how did ingredients, which were unknown a few hundred years ago, become so popular? In India, the chilli replaced black pepper, Did it do the same to Sichuan pepper, the only other spice that’s used in Bhutan? And what about the cheese, which is easier to transport and store? Did it become a more suitable substitute for thick cream or butter? I suppose the answer lies in the popularity of the vada pav in Mumbai, which is considered wholly indigenous even though the central ingredients potato, bread and chillies are not native to India. If the ingredients can find local resonance and are easily available, then they are absorbed into the cuisine so quickly that their foreign origins are quickly forgotten.
Potato and cheese soups are rather commonplace and I thought adapting the kewa datshi to this form was an interesting play on the original. The key ingredient is the banana chilli, which, I was told, is locally called fry chilli, since it’s usually stuffed, batter-coated and deep-fried. The chilli brings a very mild pungency to an otherwise simple soup.
300 gm potatoes
4 banana chillies (locally known as fry chillies)
2 Thai green chillies or 4 regular chillies
150 gm sharp cheddar, grated
100 gm Gouda, grated
50 gm parmesan, grated
1 small onion (100 gm), thinly sliced
6 pods garlic, peeled
500 ml milk
100 ml stock or ½ a veg/ chicken/ pork stock cube dissolved in 50 ml water
15 gm butter
salt to taste
Slice the onion finely.
Slit the banana chilies length-wise. Remove the pith and seeds. Chop roughly. Mince about 4 tsp separately and reserve for garnish.
Chop the garlic roughly.
Peel and cut the potatoes into chunks.
In a large saucepan melt the butter and fry the onions on a low-medium fry for about a minute and half stirring continuously. Add the garlic and fry for another minute.
Stir in the potatoes and the banana chillies.
Add the milk and stock. Cook on a low flame for about 12-15 minutes till the potatoes and soft (after about 6 minutes add the Thai chillies).
Keep aside to cool.
When the soup has sufficiently cooled, separate most of the solids from the broth. Process with a little of the stock till it has a smooth fluffy, consistency almost like pureed potatoes. This should take about 5 minutes on the highest speed. Add in the remaining broth and any remaining solids and process till smooth.
Return to the saucepan and heat on a low flame. Stir in the cheddar and Gouda. Cook till the cheese has melted, stirring continuously.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the Parmesan and mix well.
Serve hot garnished with grated cheddar, minced chilli and red pepper flakes.
Preparation Time: 45 minutes (excluding cooling time)