Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Chili Pepper From Heck

By way of cliff-hanging teaser in the last post, I promised to tell you about my shock and awe experience with the mighty African Bird. We are not talking about our fine feathered friends, here. We are talking about a specific kind of chili pepper that grows both wild and domesticated in Africa.

A little background might be good. Chili peppers originated in Central and South America way back "once upon a time." Along with corn and squash and chocolate, they were a basic component of the diet, as well as being used in medicinal, spiritual and disciplinary ways. Chili peppers made their way to the other continents via assorted explorers and quickly made themselves an important component of many other cuisines. The African Bird is one of the Birdseye peppers, of which there are many variations.

Here's an interesting thing -- the characteristics of a given pepper depend heavily on climate and soil. If you take, for instance, a Birdseye from South America and start growing it in Africa, the resulting peppers will be different than the parent peppers. Move those peppers to, say, Thailand, and you will soon have yet another variation. And so on.

Another interesting factoid: birds don't feel the heat from peppers so they can munch away with impunity and then spread the seeds with wild abandon and generosity. Which is, apparently, how the assorted Bird peppers acquired that name.

There's a little thing called the Scoville rating which measures the heat units of a given pepper. Allow for a certain amount of variance simply because crops vary. Also, I understand dried peppers measure hotter than fresh peppers. In any case, the actual Scoville number can fluctuate quite a bit from one source to the next. Loosely speaking, I figure the African Bird is way hotter than the ubiquitous jalapeno and matches or ranges well beyond cayenne but is not as blistery as a habanero or a Scotch Bonnet.

Youngest dotter Patti and her hubby, Roger, turned me on to the African Bird. "If you can see it, you've used too much," Roger assured me. But they loved it and hadn't been able to find any in the local stores. I was delighted to score a couple of bottles from the Great American Spice Company -- one for Patti and Roger and one for me. Heh!

Of course I had to check it out as soon as it emerged from the shipping peanuts. You know that foil cap that's sealed on top of spices to keep them fresh? When I peeled it off of the African Bird bottle, I noticed the oils of the spice had laid a film on the foil. Didn't think twice. Laid my tongue right smack on it, then tossed the seal in the garbage. As I began screwing the lid back on the bottle, my taste buds began to wake up from their collective nap and start to pay attention.

"Hmmm," I said to myself, "that is nice and warm, isn't it?" My taste buds shivered and shook themselves like a dog coming out of the water. My tongue began to sweat. No. Wait. That was me beginning to sweat. The spot on my tongue -- the part that had come in contact with the pepper oil -- began to emit more heat waves than a Nevada highway in August. For a brief moment, I even saw the mirage of an oasis shimmering in the air in front of me. I would have to say a most excellent illustration of that initial taste experience would be the graphic photo below, culled from the wonderful Worth1000 site.

Okay. Gee. I'm just joshin' with ya. I'm not going to claim African Bird can be used to strip paint or dissolve rust. That's just silly. What you do is, you make a paste that, when brushed on, will clean your oven. Heck, if you insert a blasting cap, you can blow up the whole stove.

Actually, in the few days since its arrival, I'm starting to get a handle on the Bird. Perhaps I'm being a bit too cautious, though. When I sprinkle it into whatever ingredients I'm mixing up, the resulting thermal level has been very mild. Earlier this evening I poached a couple of chicken thighs in a mixture of broth and wine, seasoned with onion and garlic powders and sprinkled daringly -- I thought -- with some Bird. Then I slow-roasted the thighs with mixed veggies in the oven and made a sauce with some of the poaching liquid. It was all super-delicious -- but there was no pepper heat at all.

Back to the drawing board. Note to myself: upgrade your wimpy "daring" status. It's one thing to respect the awesome power of the Bird. It's another thing entirely to be cowed by it. The problem is, that's a very wobbly tightrope over the chasm of Overdose by Bird. But, oh my, how very satisfying it is to attain that superb balance of flavor and warmth and happily billowing endorphins. Woohoo! I'm in favor of billowing endorphins. Yes indeedy.