Dear ema datsi,
I often sit on the verandah of my home, thinking about how much I love you. I yearn for you at least three times a day—in the morning when I unravel the day in my mind, in the afternoon when I calm down the foolishness of my being, and at night when I set my deep desires on fire. Please remember this: It’s you who must light the fire, always.
You have the admiration of a nation. All of Bhutan is your humble slave.
I often wonder about where you came from—why you taste the way you do, why you smell the way you do, and why the Bhutanese are so obsessed with you.
Unfortunately, like most of my countrymen, I don’t have a lot of answers. I do remember the fire you lit in me the first time my mother introduced me to you. I remember tears welling in my eyes, my nose sniffling, but it was delicious. Only you could make a plate of bland white rice so tasty. Since then, every time my mother has called me for a meal, I ask the same question: Is there ema datsi today?
Recently, a friend recounted something his mother had told him. In the old days all family members worked on the farm. The woman of the house woke up early to cook, and the family brought the leftovers to the field. As the sun set and bones grew weary, the woman would rush back home to make dinner.
One day she tried something different. She washed and chopped some chili. She placed a blackened pot on the mud-and-stone oven and tossed the chili in with other ingredients—butter, salt, spring onion, and garlic. She added water and sprinkled homemade cottage cheese atop. She left it to boil as she breastfed her baby. When she lifted the pan 10 minutes later, a miracle dish had materialized.
Your best companion is cheese, specifically the ones made from buttermilk. Your other sidekicks—onion, oil, salt, and garlic—all contribute to your awesomeness. Sometimes I am a little jealous of the cheese, that the two of you should gel so well, like a match made in heaven.
I have seen my countrymen admire you in different ways. I have heard them scream. I have heard them hiss. I have even heard them curse. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said the only thing constant is change. But the Bhutanese can soundly challenge that— because for us the only constant is you, our ema datsi.
We do have honorable variations. When we replace your chilies with potatoes, we have kewa datsi; when it’s mushroom, we have shamu datsi; with spinach, we have saag datsi; and with cauliflower, we have kopi datsi. But they are all children of the same parents. datsi is the surname.
Some of my friends try to make fun of you, mostly on account of the pain you inflict on the weak. They call you tshawa sum, “the three burns.” First you burn the mouth, then the tummy, and then at the very end, well, you know where I’m going with this.
I should say my farewell now. You have kitchens to travel to, pleasure—and pain—to inflict, and so on.