Love Letter to the Bhutanese Ema Datshi

My love,

Life is a string of things that end even before being finished. But nobody asks us.

Like today. According to the calendar, today is the twenty sixth of July, meaning it’s my last day in Bhutan. And according to my wrist watch, there are only two hours, ten minutes and ten seconds left before the dragon will take me on its wings and carry me far, far away. Oh, how much I resent calendars. They keep us on a leash. No questions asked.

But it’s not all gloomy. In fact, let me rephrase that. Today, only my body leaves Bhutan.

My heart decided to linger for a while longer. It fell in love with you.

When I first arrived here and the Bhutanese told me that making ema datshi is as good as making love, I laughed in disbelief. But now, I know it’s true.

I feel for you what French call amour fou, uncontrollable passion. It was a natural and spontaneous affair. In the couple of weeks we spent together, you set my deepest desires on fire and unleashed my insatiable appetite. You burned my tongue, but awoke my spirit.

When I am with you my eyes fill with tears, my nose sniffles, but a smile dances on my lips. And, no matter if we dine in fine restaurants or in modest home stays, I am always the helpless beggar who only knows how to ask for more, more, a little bit more of you.

And, the more I have you, the more I want you.

You see, I am a fierce and naughty lover and you stirred my imagination. I need to have you on the kitchen counter, on my dining table, on the hard wooden floor, day and night. Let you tease me, please me, make me scream while you satisfy me over and over again.

When I am done with you, I will pass you along to my friends. There is joy in sharing and I want to share you. Some might love you as much I do, some might try you only once, but I know that no one will ever forget you.

I wonder… what is it about you that makes you so unforgettable? Is it your dashing looks? Your lingering smell? Your fiery taste?

Have mercy, tell me, so I can break the spell.

How did you come into being? Which god or goddess created you?

Come on, now, don’t be shy. You, who are so daring, so powerful, so unique.

I heard a story once.

It said that first arrived the chilies. They came from South America. There, Montezuma, the famous Aztec ruler who kept more than four thousand concubines, had an unusual habit: he dropped hot chilies into his cocoa before paying a visit to the harem. In those far away lands, the chillies were known to release endorphins, naturally occurring opioids designed by the body to relieve stress and enhance pleasure.

But despite being loved so much by the Aztecs, the chillies were nomads at heart. So, in the 16th century they arrived in India and two centuries later the pilgrims and traders carried them to Bhutan. Before, to enhance the flavour of their food, Bhutanese used a herb known locally as namda. When boiled with food, this herb had a similar hot flavour, but it had none of the aroma or the healing properties the chillies would bring.

In Bhutan, the chilies fell in love with the fresh mountain air, the climate and the people. Luckily, the love was mutual. So, tired of being on the road for so long, they decided to stay, flourish and make themselves useful.

For centuries, the chilies kept the Bhutanese people energized and cool in the summer, healthy and warm in the winters. More, they even kept the people safe by chasing the bad spirits, the demons away. Even today, when brewing their local liquor, ara, people still add three chilies for good luck.

Red Chillies in Bumthang
Red Chillies in Bumthang

Then, the story goes, one day, the chilies finally met their perfect match. It happened in the most inconspicuous place, a blackened pot on the mud-and-stone oven.

It was in the wee hours of the morning that a Bhutanese woman, after washing and chopping some fresh chilies decided to mix them with butter, salt, garlic, onion, a bit of water, and to sprinkle some leftover homemade cheese into the mix, leaving it to boil as she breastfed her baby. Ten minutes later, a miracle dish materialized. You, my love, were born. At least, this is what people say.

You were named ema datshi from ema meaning chilies and datshi meaning cheese.

Ema Datshi
Ema Datshi


And you brought joy to everyone.

Next to you anyone became someone. Even a plate of bland, boring rice, when accompanied by you, became a feast for the senses.

Since those old times, like any other Bhutanese, you have gone through many honorable reincarnations. There was kewa datshi, the Bhutanese potatoes and cheese curry, then shamu datshi, the mushroom and cheese curry, kopi datshi, cauliflower and cheese, saag datshi, the spinach and cheese curry.

Each new combination brought with it new sensations, new colors of pleasure and carried your name with pride across the country. Soon, you became the national dish of Bhutan.

I tried all those variations, but I remain faithful to your original version. I remain faithful to my ema datshi.

As I travel farther and father and embark on more culinary adventures, many other aromas will come between us, many new dishes will be brought to my table. Perhaps they will be more colorful or more elaborate than you. And perhaps, I will fall in love with them too. Because, there are many kinds of love and many ways to love, but one love will always be for you, for my ema datshi, the one dish that proudly places Bhutan on the worldwide culinary map.

I know I shall miss you every breakfast, lunch and dinner. Forever, again and again. I guess I am becoming Bhutanese now… And, as your faithful servant, I swear to cherish you in my thoughts and carry your name forward wherever I go.

For now, farewell my dear ema datshi. Thank you for spicing up my time in Bhutan.

Do you want to try ema datshi? Why not Visit Bhutan?