I don’t know what it is about eating that brings out my macho, competitive side – the side that leads to irrational one-upmanship. I’m generally a facials and sky high stilettos kind of girl, but when it comes to food, I revel in the eating, cooking and loving of that which others shrink from. I embrace the grotesque and the inappropriate; I’m just waiting on the sidelines until someone deep fries a panda. Endangered? Whatever. Let’s talk about the real issue: tenderizing. This personality trait surges forward most often when matters of spice come into the picture. Put a bowl of chilli sauce in front of me and suddenly I’m challenging the waiter to a game of who loses feeling in their mouth first. No one insults my manhood by insinuating that I’ve met a pepper I couldn’t handle.
Until of course, the day I did. Actually, it was more of a gradual process. One fateful Chongqing hot pot season (November through March), my stomach lining, after years of abuse, packed up and went home, leaving intestinal carnage in its wake. I was no longer biologically equipped to process the kind of heat I once reveled in. I flamed out early in my eating career. I had to stop goading unsuspecting dinner companions into spice-related life and death situations. I mourned.
As a consolation prize, however, I began to focus on the flavors of chilli peppers. Instead of pain or no pain, I began working with grassy, citrusy fresh chilli peppers and smoky, caramelized roasted peppers, and nutty fried dried chilli seeds. Chilli related sauces are simple and versatile. Make a few and they keep well in your fridge. The dearth of non-Chinese ready-made chilli sauces in Beijing is lamentable, so since ’tis the season, steep some flavored pepper oil, put them in a few pretty bottles with ribbons, and you can Martha Stewart your way out of buying real presents for people. Health magazines even tell me that the spicy element of chilli peppers prevents belly fat, which, like all scientifically minded people, I choose to believe is true since it’s convenient. Plus, I found my macho-ness coming back by stewing my own pot of hot sauce. The cooking process comes with its own warning: Don’t put your face over the pot and breathe the vapors! Trust me.
Simple Chilli Paste
Great for: thickening soups and pasta sauces, spreading onto sandwiches, marinating meats.
¼ cup olive oil, plus a bit more
20 long red chilli peppers, leave the seeds according to the level of spice you want
3 garlic cloves
Pour the oil into a blender. Roughly chop the chilli peppers, shallots, and garlic and place them all into the blender. Blend until the mixture becomes a smooth paste, adding more oil if necessary. Empty the mixture into a frying pan. Add salt and pepper to taste. Fry the paste until fragrant (about five to ten minutes), stirring constantly to prevent it from sticking. Leave the paste to cool then place it into little jars or pots. Cover with a layer of oil and refrigerate. Keeps for a month.
Spicy Fragrant Olive Oil
Great for: drizzling over pizza and pasta, dressing salads, marinating meats. Use any combination of the following herbs and spices, or add your own.
4 dried red peppers
4 Sichuan peppers
1 branch of rosemary
1 garlic clove
Olive oil, however much your bottle holds
Place all the ingredients except the oil in a heat-proof jar or bottle. Heat the oil in a pan until it feels slightly warm when you hold your hand over it. Pour the oil into the bottle. Screw the top on and leave for two days before using.
Roasted Green Pepper Hot Sauce
Great for: everything!
500g tiger or Thai chilli peppers
1 cup vinegar
A pinch each of ground cumin, coriander and cinnamon
Roast chilli peppers whole, directly over the flame on your stovetop, until they are a little blackened on one side. Put on some gloves to avoid getting chili on your hands. Using a knife, scrape off the blackened skin and cut off the tops of the chilies. You won’t get all the blackened skin off, but that’s fine. Place chilli peppers, vinegar, salt and spices into a saucepot. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for 20 minutes. Do not put your face over the pot. Transfer the mixture into a blender. Blend, adding water until the paste comes to the consistency of hot sauce. Place the sauce in a jar. Keeps for a week and a half refrigerated. Freezes well.