At the edge of camp grew a hot-pepper bush, brought in by some sainted soul. The chilis were tiny, red and hot, like bird’s-eye peppers. I learned that if I stuck one in my cheek as I left in the morning, it would keep my mouth entertained and the hunger at bay for a long while. I grew to love them, and the dried red chilis that are the ubiquitous table condiment in Central Africa. As we ate an awful lot of beans and rice, spice was our salvation. When I left the forest, I wanted to make sure I had a good supply of those special dark-red chili flakes, and I decided they’d make a good present for my loved ones. (People expect arts and crafts when you come back from Africa, but the forest I lived in wasn’t the crafty part. It was the thick, leafy, uncivilized part. I suppose I could have brought raw teak logs, except for the 35-pound weight limit.)
I emerged from the forest and found my way to Bangui. The morning of my flight back to New York, I hired a local guy to go find me a big bag of dried pili-pili flakes at the market.
He came back with a bag full of fresh peppers. Something like a Scotch bonnet, but hotter, if possible. How was I supposed to get this into the U.S., I asked him? He shrugged. I paid him. I took the bag. I figured I might as well carry it until someone took it away.
At some point, I became aware that crushed-pepper juice was leaking through my skirt and onto my thigh. And it was becoming uncomfortable. This is how hot the peppers were: By the time I got onto the plane, an hour or two later, I had to get burn dressings from the flight attendant.
I was prepared to surrender the peppers on reentry, but I suspect the customs dogs are more interested in cocaine than hot peppers. I landed in a tiny apartment in Midtown with peppers still in grimy market bag, and thanked my hosts by smoking them out of their home with enough capsaicin to kill a Texan.
If you dare, you may recreate the sauce …
Recipe: Pili-pili, Central African style
Really more of an onion-pepper confit, this is an addictive condiment to be treated with genuine respect. At first you find the taste sweet, but soon the fire creeps up. Excellent on fresh bread, all by itself:
Mince a panful of half onions, half Scotch bonnets or habaneros. Fry in a mild oil (canola, e.g.,), on the lowest temperature that will do anything to them. The onions should be deeply caramelized when you’re done. Near the end, add some cumin seeds or other spice if you like.
I generally make plenty and can it, because the kitchen becomes a difficult place to breathe.
That said, I went for a different style last night to avoid a hot-sauce rut. Most recipes seem to call for boiling the peppers or simply blending them fresh, but I charred them to bring out the sugars.
Recipe: Roasted-pepper hot sauce
Makes about a quart
6 cloves garlic
1.5 t cumin seeds
1.5 t coriander seeds
1 T salt
Fresh peppers, enough to crowd a baking sheet. (I used a mix of volcano, jalapeño, bird’s-eyes, cayenne, some experimental variety that hasn’t been named yet, and some that I poached from a Madison roadside yard.)
Broil all the peppers until black, flipping when necessary. Also broil the onion, though it will hardly blacken in that time. Meanwhile, roast the spices. Grind them in a mortar. Put everything, including the garlic and salt, in the blender, and blend carefully. Process jars 15 minutes in boiling water, or store in the fridge.