Last Sunday, the University Center on campus provided the kind of scene that makes you love Missoula. Here in our little valley in the middle of “nowhere,” people were bustling about in sarongs, saris, capoeira pants, and all sorts of exotic garb. Underneath these colorful robes lay an equally colorful spectrum of skin color, representing many corners of most continents. Best of all, the folks in this buzzing melting pot were carrying large trays of food.
Chef Boy Ari walked among them, having infiltrated the ranks wearing his Bhutanese goh, a robe/dress garment worn in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. He too was bearing food, his signature Bhutanese dish: ama-datse.
It was the University of Montana’s International Food Day. For five hours, the University Center was transformed into a cross between Berkeley at lunch hour and the New York Stock Exchange trading pit. Thousands of Missoulians packed the UC, scrambling to buy samples of exotic flavor.
Earlier that day, the UC catering kitchen was an emporium of micro-adventure corners, little parallel stories weaving together as the momentum grew towards lunchtime. People rushed about with ingredients and equipment, pulling trays of sweet and savory items from ovens and steamers, shouting across the wide kitchen in mutually unintelligible languages, while In-Charge Lady from catering services tried to be as helpful as possible while preventing us from trashing the kitchen. Spanakopita, sushi, curried skewers, egg rolls, pad thai, etc., etc., etc. It was a symphony of multicultural oral-stimulatory overload, and I just wanted to cruise, snag, and munch. But you have to be careful—you don’t know the local custom for how they view and deal with munchie-snaggers. Yi-Yaa!
Oh how I envied Salstrisss that day. As the organizer of the food preparation, she had been in close contact with members of each of the 22 groups for many weeks, doing a stellar job making sure everything came together cleanly and safely, while giving each group the resources and flexibility to prepare the real thing, in all of its yummaliscious splendor.
Yes, Salstrisss had worked hard to get to this point, and she continued to work, constantly surrounded by an ethnically diverse flock of multi-lingual questioners. Meanwhile, as she cruised the kitchen, Salstrisss was able to snag and munch with total impunity. I kept hearing her voice ring from all corners of the kitchen: “Hmm, that’s really good” or “Excuse me, I have many sushis to eat,” or simply “OK OK OK, one more.”
Scrambling around in a fit of extreme multi-tasking, Chef Boy Ari and Hippy Pants were slicing and dicing like the Karate Cooks. Ama-datse is a stew of mustard oil, onions, hot peppers, and cheese. And not just any cheese: curd cheese from Lifeline Farms in the Bitterroot. In addition to being tasty and organic, these little chunks have the added bonus of not melting when heated. They retain their form in the ama-datse, softened to the point of ecstasy, while floating in the spicy broth.
The national dish of Bhutan, ama-datse is so hot that rivers of tears and snot usually converge around your chin and run down your neck. But out of sensitivity to the diverse and often white-bred palates we catered to, Hippy Pants removed the seeds from the hot peppers, rendering them less caustic.
Still, it had some kick, so we prepared the “Antidote,” a smoothie of milk, banana, and sugar that has been scientifically proven to put out any mouth fire, except maybe a habanero fire. While all three of those ingredients help dowse the heat, the active ingredient is actually the sugar. Remember this, dear reader: the next time you are pummeled by some chili pepper, reach for the sugar.
Neither I nor Hippy Pants are from Bhutan. We represent the radical overseas wing of PEAS (the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society), a hands-on UM course in organic farming. The classroom is the Garden City Harvest Community Farm in the Rattlesnake. PEAS overseas took PEAS students to Brazil and Bhutan last year, exposing them to exotic and intriguing agro-ecological concepts—as well as some pretty good eats.
Amid the feeding frenzy, I brought some ama-datse to the Burkina Faso and African Student Association tables, returning laden with East African injera bread topped with all kinds of veggie goodness, and a peanut-based chicken dish called dovi. My my my. And, from the Burkina Faso table, comes today’s featured recipe that you can make at home! It’s a sweet and heavenly hibiscus-based drink called Bissa. Fabrice Yago explained to me how it is made.
Boil some dried hibiscus flowers (available at Butterfly Herbs), letting the liquid boil down and reduce. Strain the flowers out. Add lemon juice, pineapple juice and sugar, until you have a very sweet concentrate. Then, dilute it with water, adding juice and sugar as necessary, to taste.
I’ll tell you what, dear reader: I’m going to be drinking Bissa all summer long.
E-Mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org