Food

In praise of habenero and scotch bonnet chilis

I just made a batch of hot pepper sauce -- some to serve with dinner, the rest to freeze -- and when the aroma of freshly diced habeneros from the chopper hit me, I had to get on here and try to wax poetic. Capsicum Chinense are by far the most aromatic and flavorful chilis around. Like a field of flowers, spritzed with some exotic citrus fruit perfume. Oh yeah!

Every time I go through the checkout line at the store, though, it's the same. "I can't believe you can even eat those! Way too hot! Don't rub your eyes!" I'm no hot pepper masochist, but it's ridiculously easy to drop the heat level to a reasonable level so the flavor comes through: Wear latex gloves. Remove the seeds and the membranes. Dilute in a sauce with lemon juice or vinegar. Or stir fry for a few seconds. Then enjoy.

Down on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua a couple years back, I had my first experience with a pureed Scotch Bonnet sauce. A dab on your shrimp, a dab mixed in your rice bowl, a dab on a tortilla. I had never tried anything like it. An eye-opener in more ways than one, but no idea how to make it.

Then last year when I visited Dakar, Senegal, I tried the sauce they called pili-pili there. It was simply scotch bonnet peppers, garlic, onion, olive oil and lemon juice in a puree. One restaurant simmered it for a few minutes and then chilled it, the other used no heat at all. I SO wish I could get fresh scotch bonnets here, but I've never seen them at the market. Similar -- but different. And maybe even better! They just don't grow well here at home, otherwise I'd have a jungle of them.

If the recipe you are looking at calls for tomato paste, it's not what I'm talking about. That's more from the Ghana region of Africa I think, and you can buy it canned in the US under the brand name "Shitto" - I kid you not. It's good! But not the same sauce.

Don't make the mistake of dismissing habeneros or scotch bonnets as "too hot" -- you'll be rewarded if you experiment.

Don't rub your eyes!

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