Ema Datshi: A fiery Bhutanese dish loved by Tibetans

Ema datshi is one of the more exotic Himalayan dishes beloved by Tibetans, who sometimes call it churu, or “rotten cheese” soup. The name ema datshi itself is Bhutanese, where it is considered the national dish, and refers to “chili” and “cheese.” This recipe packs a powerful flavor and is not for the faint of heart, combining mega-hot spiciness with a strong stinkiness from the molded cheese. Tibetans joke that if you cook churu, your neighbors all know what’s for dinner 🙂

Some of the ingredients for Ema Datshi (Tibetan: Churu).
Some of the ingredients for Ema Datshi (Tibetan: Churu).

Our version of the recipe comes to us from our friend Loden Jigme, whose ema datshi is famous among his friends. Loden la’s recipe originates in the town of Bomdilla in the Arunachal Pradesh region of India, which borders Tibet, Bhutan and Burma. In this version of the soup, we use beef and potato, though it is also common in the Tibetan borderlands to use a pork and labu (Asian radish) combination. You can also make a vegetarian version of the ema datshi recipe by using wood ear mushrooms (or almost any kind of mushroom) and ping (crystal noodles) instead of the beef. Just throw the ping in near the end so that they won’t melt down too much in the soup.

Video: See how to make Ema Datshi and Senkong

Ema datshi can be eaten with rice, or scooped up with pieces of a very unusual traditional Tibetan dish called senkong, a mound of steamed and boiled millet flour (Tibetan: kongtsam, like Kongbo tsampa) used to scoop up the ema datshi. Eating the soup this way is common among the Doeba people of Western Tibet and the Moemba people of Arunachal Pradesh in India. Although few Tibetans in the West know how to make senkong, we are fortunate to know someone who does, our friend Dorje Lobsang, who is from Moem. He kindly got together last year (in March 2013) with Loden la to prepare an ema datshi and senkong feast 🙂

Ema Datshi Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/3 pound of Blue cheese (We used English Stilton and Italian Gorgonzola cheeses) In Bomdilla, this cheese would be cow or dri (female yak) cheese bought from nomads who sell it either fresh or dried. Back in the day, the cheese would actually be rotten, but folks would not get sick from it.
  • 6 medium red potatoes (Irish potatoes fall apart too easily when we cook the soup)
  • 2.5 pounds of beef (We used beef top round. You can use any kind of beef basically except ground)*
  • 10 spicy chilis (We used jalapeno, but would use maybe 6 for a hotter Mexican chili.)
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 3 medium tomatoes (We used Roma)
  • 10 green onions (green part only)
  • 2-3 TBS salt
  • Optional, but tasty: 1 TSP emma or yerma (Sichuan pepper)
  • Optional, for color: 4 slices of a yellow-orange cheese, like a cheddar, or as Loden la used, American cheese.
  • Optional, butter.**
Preparing a beef version of Ema Datshi (Tibetan: Churu).
Preparing a beef version of Ema Datshi (Tibetan: Churu).

Preparation

  • Wash the potatoes and slice into fairly thin rounds, set aside. (Don’t put in pot yet)
  • Do all the following and put into one big pot:
    • Wash chili peppers. Slice off the stems and slice once, lengthwise
    • Wash tomatoes and slice lengthwise
    • Peel garlics and smash the cloves with the side of a large knife blade
    • Slice beef into bite-sized pieces
    • Wash green onions, remove the white part, cut greens into long pieces
    • Leave the emma whole, and rub all of it together between your palms
    • Crumble all the cheese into the pot
    • Cover all the ingredients in the pot with water, just covered.
Final result: ema datshi (churu).
Final result: ema datshi (churu).

Cooking

  • Heat the pot on high, stirring everything  together.
  • Stir occasionally, and after about 20 minutes, turn the heat down to medium
  • About five minutes later, add your sliced potatoes. (You can turn the heat up a few minutes, then revert to medium)
  • Add salt to taste at this point
  • The ema datshi will be done cooking after 30-35 minutes total. Just before it’s done, you can optionally add some slices of a colored-cheese, like cheddar, on top, to deepen the color of the soup.
  • You’re done!

Serve with either rice or senkong (see recipe below). If you serve with rice, the ema datshi and rice are traditionally served separately. Note that this soup is correctly quite thin. That’s how Tibetans love it!

Senkong Recipe

Recipe by Dorje Lobsang 
To be used with the ema datshi recipe above, for about 6 people.

Finding the flour for this recipe can be a little challenging, though you have a few options. The basic ingredient Dorje la used is a gray-colored, millet flour, which in India is called ragi flour (also called finger millet, red millet or red teff) or bajri flour (pearl millet). These are all apparently gluten free 🙂 Dorje la bought some Santos brand ragi flour.  You might try plain millet flour, but the ones we’ve seen are not the right color for a traditional version of this recipe.

Boiling the millet flour for Senkong.
Boiling the millet flour for Senkong.

Ingredients

  • Ragi or Bajri flour (types of millet flour)
  • Water
  • That’s it!
The Finished Senkong. See video for how to eat.
The Finished Senkong. See video for how to eat.

Preparation and Cooking

  • In a large pan or cast-iron skillet, bring 1.5 to 2 inches of water to a boil.
  • Slowly drizzle in the millet flour into heaps, creating 4 piles around the pan.
  • At first don’t stir the senkong, just let it boil for 4-5 minutes.
  • After 4-5 minutes, separate the parts into large chunks while still boiling. (Dorje la used a wooden spatula)
  • The senkong will be floating on the surface of the water at this point.
  • About 3 minutes later, start splitting up the larger pieces further, and begin to gently stir and turn the mixture, and then turn down the heat to very low.
  • After a minute on very low heat, turn off the heat, and keep gently stirring. Your goal is to mix in the flour totally. At this point, you have no piles left.
  • Finally, divide your senkong into 4-5 large pieces.

Serve with ema datshi/churu. Serve the large pieces on the table. People will take a fistful of senkong in their hands, then pinch off a small piece, and flatten it with their thumbs to form a little scoop for the ema datshi soup. (See the end of the video for this process.)

Enjoy! How many people do you know who have had the courage to cook a Tibetan recipe of a Bhutanese national dish, with a side of boiled millet? You rock!

  • If you are using pork and labu instead of beef and potatoes, use the same amount of fatty squares of pork (pagsha) with skin, and Asian radish in about the same amount as the potatoes, maybe one or two medium labus.

** You can add a little butter if you want even more flavor. If Tibetans see soup without some oil on top, they feel it doesn’t look good, like it’s too much like water (chu lag lag). This is changing in exile, but the older Tibetans from Tibet ate tons of butter. The bhatsa marku, for example, of some old monks in Arunachal Pradesh was like drinking butter from a bowl, says Loden la. He remembers also a dish called thukpa tamja, a monk porridge with rice, dates, butter and salt.

Updated on August 6, 2020. First published on August 25, 2014.

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Comments

  1. Megha says

    Hi,

    I had ema datshi while I was in Nepal and they made it with Dalle chilli, I am trying to make it here in US and dont have Dalle and dislike Jalapenos what other type of chilli could I use to get the authentic taste?

    • yowangdu says

      Yes, it’s ema datsi Tibetan style 🙂 More specifically, it’s ema datsi in the style of a particular group of Tibetans who are from the town of Bomdilla in the Arunachal Pradesh region of India, which borders Tibet, Bhutan and Burma. Let us know what you think when you cook it.

    • Anna says

      I agree. Feta would be far closer to the real taste, as would Poblano chillies, and there is abosolutely no way that any meat would be used in Bhutan, a strictly Buddhist country

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