Behind the Sauce..
Way before SOKA sauce became the full-bodied, fine flavour hot pepper sauce it is today, my dear Aunt Cynthia was humming away in her Moruga kitchen, conjuring up her next batch. Her sauces are the best kept secret in Trinidad and Tobago; even though here, at least on the countryside, every household makes their own pepper. It may also sound crazy that anyone would even think of hounding anyone else for a taste — add in the fact that Trini’s are a wildly competitive bunch. But people do go crazy over this lady’s hand*. Everybody wants it. It being always in short supply, word of mouth or by knowing my grand Uncle Starrick, will ravers even get the chance to find out when and where to get that spicy niceness before its gone.
Thirty generations ago, my ancestors were either systematically eliminated or enslaved. Those that survived worked tortuously in the hot sun and had little resources to shelter or support them. They were regularly issued the ‘undesirable’ cuts of meat — such as the feet, head, ribs, cartilage and internal organs. But these people wanted to live, not just survive. So, to hide the poor taste of scraps and to overcome the monotony of their rations, my ancestors drew inspiration from what they could collectively remember of their West African culinary heritage. With help from the remaining indigenous people enslaved with them, they began incognito, collecting and testing wild chili peppers.
Day and night, they mashed and collided their pepper with ingredients pulled from palate and memory, eventually forming their own powerful mixture — hot pepper sauce — to invigorate their plates. These creations were then reinterpreted over time through collaborative exchange with surviving Kalinago and arriving East Indians following the official end of slavery.
Over the last few years, I had the honor of building on this heritage by being my Auntie’s pepper sauce pupil; thereby, becoming the only other person in the world, besides my uncle and father, who knew her method. I helped her pick peppers, watched closely over her shoulder as she combined ingredients. She never used a scale, never measured. “Steups! Ah jus average!” I hung on to every word, accumulating enough ancestral wisdom to begin my own journey into that special hotness.
Seasons would pass, and I’d practice and practice, all under her supervision. I made many mistakes, spoiled batches, poured too much of this, too little of that. She always laughed, but was patient. I was a mess, but persistent. And not long after, I concocted my very own version of hers and was ready to present it to her. I did so in a shapely 100ml glass bottle. I placed it on the table before her — one should pass pepper from hand to hand. She popped open the cork and tasted it with a piece of bake. Silence. I was on edge, bracing myself for another roar of laughter. A swift “Steups — !” interrupted the treatment. “Yuh know d’ting, boi!” She muffled walking away. She turned the corner and I caught a glimpse of her smiling, her gold tooth, shining for days.
Today, hot pepper sauce is synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago’s spirited cuisine. We enjoy it in our breakfast: saltfish and sada, smoked herring, plantains, baigan choka and dasheen bush. It’s great in snacks like pholourie, pineapple chow and tamarind balls. For lunch, we want the hot stuff on a roti with curry mango. At a beach lime, it’s magic on bake and shark. Sunday’s, we need a little heat to flavour the pot, the pelau, callaloo, stew fish, creole rice and provisions. And late nights after the fete, we’ll queue up behind dozens of other revelers for some doubles with slight pepper.
Every time I leave Trini, I’m filled with a deep longing for home and family and vibes and sunshade. One of the first things I do when I get to Europe is make some tomato choka and cassava dumplings. To top it off, I splash on some pepper sauce and the breeze is back, blowing, the palms are swaying, someone’s playing pan in the next room, cocks are crowing, kiskadees, cocricoes and my Auntie cussing my little niece and nephews. So, it’s no surprise, that upon receiving Aunt Cynthia’s blessing, I took my saucy updates back to Cologne, where you can find me, on occasion, in the kitchen infusing Moruga Scorpion and Chocolate 7-pot peppers — nourished in their native soil, raised and sun-dried by the Caribbean sun — with Scotch bonnet peppers creating a contemporary edition of my Auntie’s classic. One day, I too, will pass on my recipe to a young apprentice, just as she did, and as those did for her and before them. For now, I believe in embracing the taste I love and sharing the fruit’s fruit of a long line of spicy Caribbean kitcheners. They say that charity begins at home; I believe that too, but I also believe that heritage begins in the kitchen. And yuh mus pass d’peppa🔥