That's So Hot 

The dangerous appeal of pepper dishes.

My 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. 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 jalapeno, 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.

(Note: While making this dish, please beware that hands that have handled hot peppers are dangerous.)

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. 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 well, I wouldn't be telling you all of this if it wasn't spectacular.

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 was. •

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