THIS GARDEN EARTH
As far back as I can remember, pepper was "the" spice. From kitchen to kitchen and garden to garden, peppers were always in abundance, especially in the marketplaces.
Pepper sauce went on just about everything. I remember, so well, me and the boys in our early teens sharing a mango salad called "chow." Using a couple of banana leaves, one upon the other as a bowl, we put together 6 half-ripe mangoes, one orange and a cucumber. Most of the time it would be just mangoes. We used a special variety of mango called Long or Veer for this dish. On St. John it is known as the kidney mango. The fruits were all peeled and washed and cut into small slices. We then added to the chow, or salad: salt, black pepper, peppers (chiltepin) well crushed. These ingredients were added to the dish. A lime was then squeezed over it as a grand finale. This dish created a rush of heat beyond belief, and left us walking around in circles when finished, as if in a trance, mouth watering and eyes burning, looking and smiling in approval of the heat.
Much later I found out that pepper causes the brain to trigger the release of endorphins, a natural painkiller that also stimulates the body and releases a sense of euphoria. The source of this physiological reaction is capsaicine (pronounced cap-say-i-sin.)
Arriving on St. John in 1968, I carried with me an assortment of pepper sauces prepared by my Gran. I distinctly remember lime pepper sauce (my favorite), also mango kutchela, mango amchar, and tamarind chutney. I was not sure I would be getting any of these condiments on St. John. I was right.
Wild bird peppers were scattered around the island, and Miss Alma had a couple of yellow habanero trees behind her grocery, where La Tapa is now, that I would help myself to. St. Johnians really never saw anyone eat a hot raw pepper the way I did. I also recall a lot of funny stories about turning on Statesiders to my pepper sauce and watching with delight the expressions and reactions, for they had never had anything that hot.
Hot sauce is a dramatic culinary gesture, blissful, soulful and jazzy, and could be addictive. It will definitely bring out some creativity and loosen your cooking style. It will also add zip and flavour to a wide range of foods. When used mildly it is difficult to discover the source of the magical fruity flavor brought to the dish. Hot sauce can also be used as a cross-dresser, as a condiment - like I said, on anything, almost - sandwich spreads, pizza toppings, barbecue sauces, marinades, or even used straight as dips.
Most hot sauces consist of chiles in a liquid base of vinegar or water. They can also differ and include a wide range of ingredients from tropical fruits and vegetables to Indian curries. Sometimes hot sauces are cooked, but not always.
There are many differences between hot sauces. Definitions tend to become vague as salsas (Spanish for "sauce") get thinner and hot sauces thicker. Salsas are uncooked condiments with chopped tomatoes or fruit, other ingredients and chiles. Picante sauces are smooth blends that have tomatoes as the main ingredient in a smooth, pourable sauce. Hot sauces, unlike other sauces, have peppers as the main ingredient, pureed with other ingredients into a pourable sauce.
Chiles provide the piquancy of hot sauce and are essential for texture, colour and flavour. The brown habanero from Jamaica is the hottest I have tasted, along with the congo pepper from Trinidad. The West Indies has a vast variety of these peppers.
"Habanero" refers to a specific pod type from the Yucatan, with its origin in central Bolivia along the Rio Grande. The wild chiles and their family, the Chiltepin, my favourite for my own hot sauce, are very pungent. The red, erect fruits are attractive to certain birds that eat the whole pod; the seeds pass through their digestive tracts and then are deposited in the ground, encased in a perfect fertilizer.
In 1492 Columbus mistook chiles for black peppercorns and called them peppers, thus beginning a naming confusion that continues today.
The pepper was used for seasoning in pre-Columbian times; the Mexicans have used it in their diets for centuries. Columbus, along with Spanish and Portuguese colonizers, in the 1500's introduced the chile plant to the Old World and it spread along trade routes to West Africa, India and the Far East.
Chiles are good for intensifying the flavour of food and as Gran said, they also have an added advantage because they aid digestion and circulation, reduce heart problems, and are also a great source of potassium and vitamins.
These days it seems like everyone is into hot sauces, "De Hotta De Betta."