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Incendiary devices

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fresh and bottled
My apartment is filled with smoke. My eyes are watering like crazy. I am frying some noodles for lunch and everything is going smoothly until I throw some chopped bird's eye chillies into the wok at the end. These, as we all know, can be little firebombs (although at times, they go phut from the start) so I put in only two chillies. As it turns out, they are the RDS-220 hydrogen bomb (that I know this scares me a little) – the Tsar Bomba or Ivan as the Russians called the world's most powerful nuclear weapon – of chillies. The mushroom cloud over my wok spreads quickly and in all directions, staying long after I finish my plate of noodles and keeping me in tears and with a runny nose.

Hot chillies are said to cause hallucinations and I wouldn't have minded a chilli-induced trip with a coyote with the voice of Johnny Cash offering me spiritual guidance as Homer experienced in an episode of The Simpsons (after Chef Wiggum feeds him "the merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum"). All I got was the sweats.

At meal times, the women in my family hold a raw bird's eye chilli by the stalk in the left hand and take bites from it as we scoop up rice with the right hand. In fact, there's an unspoken rivalry between us as to who can take the most bites from the hottest chillies. With these fellows though, I don't know if any of my sisters or cousins could take a second bite even for bragging rights. It certainly shut my mouth up and my insides down.

Since I couldn't eat them raw, I decided to pickle them. What follows is a recipe for a hot sambal or sauce tempered with sweet red pepper. It's always nice when peppers are roasting (to get the skin off) because they give off a wonderful aroma. These chillies were another matter. Even during and after boiling them in water to soften, there were still irritating fumes. They got up my nose, which got me sniffling again, but that was my own fault for putting my face directly above the cooking pot.

If you want less heat, remove the seeds from the bird's eye chillies but it's a fiddly job given their size. As you can see from the picture, I didn't bother. It may come back to bite me in the you-know-where.

Can you stand the heat?
Makes 250ml

180g red pepper
100g red bird's eye chillies
½ cup white vinegar
1-1½ cups white sugar, approximate
½ cup soft brown sugar
  • Cut the pepper in half and remove the seeds and membrane. Place on a baking tray and place under a hot grill, cut side down, until skin blackens and blisters. Remove and place in a bowl; cover with a tea towel until leave to cool, then peel off the skin.
  • Meanwhile, chop up the bird's eye chillies and place in a pan with 2 tablespoons water. Simmer for 6-7 minutes until soft.
  • Place chillies and pepper in a food processor with the half the vinegar and finely chop. Transfer to a large non-reactive pan and combine with the remaining vinegar. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add all the brown sugar and two-thirds of the white sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and taste. If the sauce is too hot, add some more white sugar. Boil for 10-15 minutes until sauce is thick and glossy, then remove from the heat and carefully pour into a clean jam jar. Put on the lid immediately and turn the jar over (remember to use oven gloves!) and then upright again (this helps seal the jar). Keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
  • As a dipping sauce
  • In stir-fries
  • In marinades
  • To eat with plain boiled rice. (Yum! The bland rice actually helps to balance out the heat from the chillies.)

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