The first time I heard of Bhutan was ten years ago. I was watching a Taiwanese drama called Meteor Garden with a predictable set of characters. A rich, evil mother tried to separate her headstrong son from a poor, but worthy girl. The implacable mother did everything in her power to set her son up with “appropriate” girls, and failed every time. The poor girl didn’t even like the rich guy, but of course he won her over. After the hero and heroine finally got together, the hero lost his memory in a car crash in Spain. His mother saw this as the perfect opportunity to set her son up with a princess from Bhutan.
This plot seems to be popular in Asia, as the Taiwanese drama came from a Japanese drama, and recently a Korean drama employed the same story line—rich boy fails for poor girl who hates him. Rich guy finally wins poor girl over, then loses his memory in a car crash. Conniving mother tries her hardest to break them apart and set her son up with a rich princess, although this time not from Bhutan.
Bhutan, whilst famous for its royal family, is not renowned for its food. The only Bhutanese export to America is red rice. There are no Bhutanese imports to Korea. In spite of this lack of fame and imports here in Seoul, I remained undaunted.
One quote from a BBC article is almost always used in relation to Bhutanese food: “[I]n this tiny Himalayan kingdom chillies are not used as a spice to flavour food. Here Chilies are used as a vegetable.” There were chilies in every dish, and also Datse, or cheese. Chilies are abundant in Korea. Bhutanese cheese, however, is not. And since Datse is made from yak milk, and Korea has neither yaks, nor Bhutanese imports, this meant no Datse. Still determined, I looked on blogs and found that Bhutanese people abroad substitute a mixture of blue cheese, feta, and soft cheese for Datse, all of which are available in Korea.
The final dishes were Nakey Datse, Shuma (mushroom) Datse, and Kewa (potato) Datse. The base was roughly the same: chilies and a mix of the three cheese. The Nakey, or fiddlehead ferns, were the most difficult to prepare and the least tasty to eat. Ferns were not in season in Korea, and we could only find dried ones. They required soaking for hours, then boiling. After which I cooked them gently with a mix of chilies, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and the three cheeses. The mushroom and potato datse dishes, although cooked in the same way, were much tastier. The next day, I also made the leftover potato datse into a potato gratin. Although Kewa Datse Gratin probably won’t be replacing Pommes Dauphinoise on menus in Paris, it had its own uniquely delicious flavour all the same.