For the Love of Peppers
I caught myself correcting my children for the umpteenth time;
“There is no such word as ‘Pepperish!’”
Then I got smart, turned and corrected myself: There “is” such a word as “Pepperish”. It rhymes with “Feverish” and works efficiently in describing the “temperament” of the food and its effect on the senses. If it is not in the Oxford Dictionary, it ought to be because the word works better than“Hot”
The context is Nigerian and our food is ideally always pepperish.
The Yoruba have some disdainful words for those who don’t eat pepper, those who can’t eat it, and there is a categorical declaration of where the pepper goes when it is eaten, all the spheres that it touches especially the spirit.
“Emi to o je ata, emi yepere ni.”
The spirit that doesn’t eat pepper is a feeble one.
Pepper educates the spirit. It intoxicates the sweat glands and the emotions, it sharpens the senses.
The disparagement of the pepperless personality extends to the Oyinbo and there is a timeless ditty that every Nigerian child knows and sings. Oyinbo cannot eat pepper, neither can he conceal the fact:
“Oyinbo pepper, if e eatee pepper, e go yellow more more!”
The ditty is old and wise and reminds me of my life now in South Africa. I walk and stalk the aisles of Woolworths and Spar supermarkets looking for “chillies”, “hot peppers” and “ata rodo”. I found some fine, photogenic green Chillies. As you turned up the numbers on these chillies they lost all finesse and started to overwhelm my soup with a kind of strange antiseptic aroma. I was pretty annoyed.
On my way back from the Hunger Conference in Stuttgart, at Heathrow Airport, I sat down to a meal of chicken ramen at Wagamamas. A few minutes after the waitress put the beautiful bowl in front of me, she came back to ask how my meal was. I said (…well maybe not in those particular words…)
“Please abeg give me some pepper”
She showed me a pretty wooden container on the table in front of me. The pepper in it looked like this:
But it was not “Pepperish”. Not in any respectable manner.
“The pepper no catch.”
After shaking that container so many times over my bowl, and drawing much unwanted attention from other diners, I left the matter alone. There’s nothing one can really do to redeem Oyinbo Pepper. When I talk about finesse, I mean a sophisticated balance of heat and aroma.
I feel completely justified in smuggling my catalogue of peppers into Cape Town. If I’m cooking soup, I need my cameroonians.
These are peppers that one must treat with the utmost respect. They are no respecter of persons. They are so hot, they are lethal, yet they are beautifully aromatic. They smell like peppers from nowhere else in the world.
I have brought my uziza with me. I cannot cook peppersoup without the zing of uziza. There is something about the way that an Uziza peppercorn behaves that makes it irreplaceable with “black peppercorns” The former swells in soup until it is twice its size. It has a hint of ginger, a quick zing of heat. It must be a different genre. More importantly the soil in which peppers grow determine their aroma. Just as cameroonian peppers smell different from Nigerian ones, the uziza is a different personality from some Capetonian peppercorn. The black peppercorn is truculent and doesn’t grow an inch in boiling soup. It just stays at the bottom of the pot and sulks. If you dig in a pot of soup left to cool overnight on the hob, at the bottom you will find swollen Uziza that you can fish out and chew on. For a diminutive peppercorn, it outclasses the blackpepper by more than a continent.
I brought my alligators (ata-re, ose-oji, grains of paradise) with me: I love to see them in the room but it isn’t only about aesthetics. I want my pot of chicken nsala asap and you can’t cook Nsala without alligator peppers. You can’t make a peppery cup of coffee without them. Who doesn’t love a story to accompany the wielding of a condiment? There is the story of the King who wanted a son and placed just one alligator pepper in all the food served to his wives seated around the table. The wife who eats that one grain of paradise becomes pregnant with a son.
Of course I have brought my uda with me: They have become indispensable in every pot of soup, in slow cooking stock with chicken and dawadawa. But first, you must dry roast them in a hot pan then pound them to shards in a mortar to get maximum aroma. The flavour just isn’t cohesive without all these peppers releasing their qualities slowly. In a country where tatase and bawa are scarce commodities, sweet peppers will have to do as the body of the stew. The blend is rescued with the redness of cayenne and palm oil. Or some of these not-too-hot beauties that I forgot in the freezer since Calabar; found just before my move to the Western Cape. They are not aromatically impressive but a handful will more than make a good point of “Pepperishness”. These are what the Yoruba grind up to give something that looks like cayenne but is nothing like it. Cayenne pepper mellows with time and loses its power. These peppers do no such thing.
I’m not complaining about the mellowing of cayenne. Drinking chocolate, cinnamon, honey and almond milk can be laced with some mellowed cayenne to chase every ghost of flu away. I also sprinkle mellowed cayenne on the face of stew left out on the hob — ageing the aromatics without losing one iota of freshness.
Today, I’m cooking broccoli and cauliflower soup and can’t bear the thought of bland faced, politely spiced soup. In the end it looks like any other broccoli and cauliflower soup but it is everything but…with spoonfuls of ground hot peppers.