Ghost peppers don’t align themselves neatly with other vegetables. They are one of the few veggies that you can simply name and people respond with fear. I am not going to pretend that I am any different. You might wonder why I decided to grow them, and nurture them even. Why I would put so much love and energy into a plant whose fruits I was scared to even touch. Well, it has a lot to do with my brother, the chili aficionado. He lost most of his sense of taste due to an accident years ago, but like many others in similar situations, he can “taste” chili peppers. So chili peppers quickly became his thing.
It seems to be a family affair, because years ago as I trekked through the volcanic regions of Sumatra, I earned my nickname of Sambal, or chili sauce in English. I took the heat in more ways than one, as I insisted on eating local in every regard. I love food, and travel led me to more and more dishes around the world. Some of the Indonesian regional cuisine is so spiced that redness would appear as a creeping line that progressed up my neck until reaching my face. It didn’t help that though I only have a slight natural touch of red in my hair, to the dark haired Indonesians, my hair was a chili top of sorts. I was munching away on chili pepper sambal sauces, with tears running down my face, and my hair seemed to get redder in the process. One could say that I earned the respect of the community one chili pepper at a time.
On a subsequent trip to Indonesia, I climbed a remote volcano in pre-dawn darkness with a man who was traveling the globe in search of chili peppers. I will never forget his gregarious personality that lit up all that surrounded him. I should note that years later, I often took an hour and 20 min subway ride in NYC in order to get Brooklyn’s best Jerk chicken. I also once took a near daily schlep through dangerously off kilter Medan, Sumatra in order to eat the sambal sauce soaked eggs over rice that the bicycle taxi men ate for lunch. I called them “fire eggs” and that says it all. Over the years I have eaten a fair bit of cajun food, soul food, and the like, but rarely do I pick up a bottle of hot sauce. I am more inclined to use fresh chopped chili peppers in a dish, or make a fresh salsa verde on the spot. I like the handmade over the store bought. Over the years when I asked many a restaurant server to bring me “their” sambal sauce, glowing faces would return with tiny bowl of pastes in colors to terrifying to be food.
So it is with all these people in my heart that I put on my mechanic’s safety glasses and make a seasonal series of chili sauces that would make any Indonesian, and also a certain family member, or volcano climbing chili explorer very proud.