Obsessions of a fire-eater

I love all the different forms and flavours that impart heat and spice to savoury food…don’t really seem to enjoy food that hasn’t got a fiery bite to it, one way or another. Our household goes through loads of freshly ground pepper, fresh garlic, onions, and hot English mustard, and a small bowl of hot soba noodles tossed with wakame bits, a teaspoon of miso paste, and a big squeeze of wasabi, is a comforting dish I make for my lunch when Kris is away. But I am devotedly addicted to chillies…and the hotter they are, the better.

Commercial hot sauces are something I fall back on in emergencies, although they are never as “extra hot” as their advertising and labels would suggest. And I don’t like that the chillies are diluted in vinegary liquids, as in Tabasco Pepper Sauce, or bulked up with garlic, onion, milder peppers, and thickened with xanthan gum and propylene glycol alginate, as Nando’s Extra Hot Peri-peri Sauce is.a bottle of Nando's Extra Hot Peri-Peri Sauce

I have a bottle of each of these sauces…the Tabasco I keep in my handbag, for when I go out, because it doesn’t matter how hot the Thai, Indian, Indonesian or Malaysian places in Darwin say their food is, it’s never hot enough. And often it’s sickly sweet and salty, as though the heat were something embarrassing that sugar and salt had to apologize for, and disguise.

The other problem with bottled sauces is that they get pretty expensive. I bought a new bottle of the Nando’s sauce on Saturday. Today, Sunday, there is half a bottle left. Yes, I put chili in and on everything: sandwiches, pasta, pizza, salad dressing, crackers, noodles, tofu, fish, meat, soups…everything. Lots of it. I need a lot of it, because the sauce isn’t hot enough.

A display of hot peppers and a board explaining the Scoville scale at the HEB Central Market location in Houston, Texas

The Scoville scale is a measurement of the spicy heat (or piquance) of a chili pepper. The number of Scoville heat units (S.U.) indicates the amount of capsaicin present. Sweet bell peppers are rated zero Scoville Units (S.U.), while Jalapenos (and bottled Tabasco sauce) measure 2,500-8,000. The Asian Bird’s Eye chili is between 50,000 to 100,000, the Habanero and Scotch Bonnet, as well as the Piri-piri or African Bird’s Eye, are between 100,000 and 350,000…and so on up the scale.

The hottest edible chillies, which include the Naga Viper, the Trinidad Scorpion from Australia, and the Naga or Bhut Jolokia, are between 850,000 and 1,463,700 S.U. The next step of capsaicin up from that, rating an incredible 5,000,000 units, is probably just a concentrated extract…instead of the name of a plant or fruit, it is listed on the Scoville table as “Law enforcement grade pepper spray”,  and “FN 303 irritant ammunition”.

Back when we were living in a fisherman’s hut on the beach in El Nido, Palawan, I had a couple of birds-eye chilli plants—the most common culinary chilli in the country—and, eaten fresh, they were pretty hot, though boring. But I also had three or four precious Habanero chili plants…the Spice King of my garden. The seeds had been given me by a yachtsman who’d just come from the West Indies, and I planted and cared for these chillies as though their fruits had been walnuts of gold. I had never come across them for sale in Manila, and was pretty sure I was the only one who had them in the town of El Nido. I was so in love with my Habaneros. They were gracious in return, growing chest-high and large-leaved, each plant bearing as many as 60 fruits at a time. They ripened to a fire-engine red, and besides being very, very hot (S.U. 300,000+), had a beautiful perfume locked in their flesh, as well. Just half of one of these chillies was enough to turn a quart-pot of curry into molten lava, with the aroma of flowers warmed by sunlight.

When there were too many of the fruits at one time I dried them and made harissa, a spice paste or condiment from Tunisia and North Africa. It was beautiful, and only the littlest dab was needed on a slice of bread to kick your taste buds to the moon. While I used the spice paste extremely often, I just as often would open the little jar just to breathe in the heavenly smell of the stuff. Even friends who didn’t like any heat whatsoever joked that they would love to wear a very small vial of it around their necks, so they could just smell it once in a while. It was beautiful. That Habanero perfume, combined with lightly dry-roasted caraway seeds, combined to make a third entity, a synergetic aroma that made people swoon.

Last week I tried to make harissa again, using a bag of dried long red chillis from the supermarket. It didn’t come out anywhere near as nice as the stuff I used to make. The chillis had no perfume of their own, but smelled like burnt paper and dust. They didn’t soften much in the hot water I soaked them in. And I realized that I have been really careless about equipping my kitchen since we got to Australia, as there is no mortar and pestle to be found in my home!—something I am determined to set straight, next week if I can find the time to visit the Asian Grocery on the other side of town—so I could only mash the coarse mixture about with the flat of a spoon, and couldn’t make a paste out of it.

Still, I ate it in two days. Because. Chilli. Is chilli. Is chilli.

Harissa

1 cup dried hot red chillies—nice ones!—stems removed
1 teaspoon coriander seed (dry roasted)
2 or 3 teaspoons caraway seed (dry roasted)
1 teaspoon cumin seed (dry roasted)
all the cloves of 1 head of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
salt, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil

Soak the chillies in warm water to cover for an hour, or until they are soft. Drain and finely chop, discarding tough bits.
In a mortar, pound the spices to a powder, then add the garlic and salt and pound to a paste. Add the chillies, and pound until a coarse paste. Add olive oil, a bit at a time, while pounding, until you have a smooth paste.

Store, covered with a thin layer of olive oil, in a glass jar in the fridge.

After that very sad and mediocre harissa, I was so lovesick for my old Habaneros that I determined to grow them again, here on the boat…after all, I reasoned, they’d grown rather well in that garden by the sea, so they were probably tough enough to withstand salt air. I went hunting on the internet for a seed supplier, in Australia, who sold them, and found, oh joy!, The Chilli Seed Bank. Some wonderful Capsicum chinense angel, called, eh, “Chilli Man” (*pause* Fair enough, he seems passionate about his chillies, he’s obviously male, keep it simple…I like him already!) has got them all. I had my rapture this week, all right. Bhut Jolokias, Trinidad Scorpions (an Australian local), Red Savinas, Dorset Nagas

I couldn’t spend much money that night (though the seed packs are very reasonably priced) so I have ordered just one packet…the Naga Morich (S.U. 1,000,000) to start with, and see if they can survive life on the MV SonOfAGun.

You can expect another chilli rave (well, I hope so!) on this blog, in 4 or 5 month’s time. Are you a chillihead? What’s your favorite recipe for these little parcels of ecstasy?

Naga morich or snake chilli

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