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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March, 2005, 00:36 GMT
Bhutan's love affair with chillies

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Thimphu

Bhutan market
Chillies sell like hot cakes in Bhutan

Even the Indian palate, so fond of hot food, may find the idea of eating chilli cheese curry a spice too far.

But in Bhutan such fiery food is all the rage.

Unlike other parts of South Asia and the rest of the world, in this tiny Himalayan kingdom chillies are not used as a spice to flavour food.

Here chillies are used as a vegetable - and the national dish of Bhutan is the chilli cheese curry. It is called ema datshi. Ema means chilli and datshi is cheese.

So what is the origin of Bhutan's ongoing love affair with chillies?

Deep in culture

Dorji Ohm is writing a book on the subject and says that it probably stems from the fact that Bhutan is a very cold place and when people eat hot food, it gives them body heat.

Chilli cheese curry
Almost every Bhutanese dish comes with chillies

"Today of course, people have heaters to keep warm, but ema datshi is deep in our culture now," she says.

"If a Bhutanese family invites you for a meal, they have to serve you ema datshi. Otherwise the meal is incomplete."

So Ms Ohm invites me for lunch at a small canteen attached to the Department of Youth, Culture and Sports in the capital, Thimphu.

She is a regular here and all the lunchtime guests seem to know each other. Ms Ohm says the cook, Chencho, a woman in her early 50s, makes very good ema datshi.

In the kitchen, Chencho has chopped lots of deadly-looking green chillies. "Can you handle hot food?" I am asked.

"A little," I answer, with just the smallest tingle of worry reverberating around my taste buds.

Ms Ohm says the real ema datshi is made only with chillies and cheese.

Many admirers

But for my sake they decide to lower the temperature a bit - Chencho begins to chop tomatoes, onions and some cauliflower to add to the dish.

Ms Ohm says Bhutanese cuisine is all about chillies - almost every curry or dish has a heavy dose of the spice.

And children are introduced to chillies at a very young age.

We acquired a taste for chillies at a young age - we are not afraid of it
Dorji Ohm

"When we are babies, our mothers put a little chilli in our food. And they keep increasing it gradually."

Ms Ohm recalls her parents encouraging her to try chillies. "Every time I took some chillies, my parents would say: 'Oh you're such a brave girl!' "

Ema datshi has many admirers in Bhutan.

"It's a very special curry," says one diner at the canteen. "I love it. My grandmother makes the best ema datshi. I've grown up eating the food she cooks and I think it's unparalleled," she says.

Obsession for chillies

Gama is a young woman who owns a bar in Thimphu. She says that in addition to its fiery qualities, the dish is easy to make when you are in a hurry.

"Just chop the chillies, add cheese and.... voila! It's ready to eat in 10 minutes." Gama says.

Thimphu valley, Bhutan
Chillies may be so popular because they offset the cold

But the national culinary obsession for chillies is clearly not to everyone's taste.

Even for the die-hard admirers of ema datshi, the going can get tough sometimes.

While we are waiting for our meal to be served, a young woman sitting at the next table suddenly turns towards us. Tears streaming down her face, she shouts, "It's hot hot hot!"

And as she makes a grab for a glass of chilled water, Ms Ohm says if you drink anything hot while eating ema datshi, it makes it worse.

Perhaps it is the Bhutanese people's love for chillies that explains the rising cases of stomach ulcers.

Doctors blame the disease on the excessive use of chillies. As a result, Ms Ohm says, some educated parents are now trying to reduce chillies in their children's diet.

Once our lunch is ready, the table is laid - there is ema datshi, some parathas (fried Indian bread) and some red rice.

And just in case we want something hotter, there's a green chilli salad and a red chilli paste as another side dish.

Ms Ohm says most Bhutanese people find other cuisine quite bland. After ema datshi, I understand what she means.

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