A few helpful tips on using chilli with your ingredients
Having travelled and lived in countries whose people swear by spicy dishes and who eat chillies for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I had become quite partial to feasting on fiery foods. But these delicious culinary adventures were always prepared by friends or were purchased from the plethora of restaurants, stalls and carts that are found along most pedestrian routes in Asia and that cater to every price and taste range.
Similar to the sensation of biting into a strong chilli, it slowly began to register and then take hold that, while I was always very appreciative of the food served, I had made no effort to learn nor had I shown any interest in how these extraordinary meals were made . . . and the shame of this disregard indeed burned.
Soon, I took every opportunity to politely plod around after friends, while they prepared Thai and Indian curries, spicy soups and other family favourites in order to learn their cooking methods. Once confident that I had absorbed the basics, it was time for a test run. However, embarrassing myself or my cooking coaches was not going to be on the menu, so my first attempt at a spicy dish would only have one chef and one critic. My specialist chosen subject would be a Thai green curry with chicken and the intention was to make it hot!
It is a relatively straightforward recipe that requires the blending of green curry paste with coconut cream in a heated pan. Once the paste is dissolved into the cream, chicken pieces, eggplants and chopped chillies are added (of course other vegetables can be added such as cauliflower and carrots). The mixture simmers until the chicken is cooked and is later served with steamed rice topped with a fried egg.
A straightforward process it maybe, but I had overlooked one important element . . . washing my hands after I had chopped and added the chillies.
While the curry simmered, I decided to reward my efforts with a glass of wine; pleased with my progress thus far. The kitchen was hot and after decanting my Rioja, I casually wiped perspiration from beneath my eyes, my forehead and the back of my neck with my fingers.
At first, the creeping burning sensation was confusing; why was I suddenly experiencing this stinging heat and what had I come in contact with to cause this sudden explosion of pain upon my skin? Theories of spider bites, caustic chemicals and pesticides all raced through my thoughts as I also racked my flaming brain for an antidote! Water! It was the natural solution so I dashed to the shower and doused myself! Immediate relief was accompanied by an epiphany – chillies! The pain matched that of the uncomfortable heat suffered around your mouth when indulging in a chilli laden meal. Lesson learned.
Later, I also learned that ancient tribes in South America used to burn piles of chillies and allow prevailing winds to sweep the spicy smoke towards their enemies, which would cause agonising confusion in the opposing ranks before an assault – the original chemical warfare!
From one who knows, use chillies wisely. Try not to use too many – you can always add more once the dish is served. Finally, for all that is sacred in your life, wash any implements that come in contact with chillies and never, please, ever forget to wash your hands!