When I was about five years old, there was this chili plant outside the lobby of our flat. (We were living in Hong Kong at the time, so apartments were called “flats,” not condos.) Thinking back on it now, that plant was a scrawny little thing. Barely reaching three feet, it had just enough leaves to avoid being called ”˜bald,’ most of which were a combination of green-brown. What was tantalizing to me however, were the shiny little peppers dangling from the branches. Almost the same length as my little finger was at the time, the peppers were cherry red, little beacons of temptation.
I remember my yaya (nanny) exhorting me to never touch those peppers lest I wanted a fire in my mouth. To my young yet already food-obsessed brain, I couldn’t imagine anything more delightful. But I heeded yaya’s words until one impulsive day when right in front of her, I picked a pepper hanging at eye’s length and I bit into it. Immediately, yaya’s face contorted into an expression of fright and disquiet. With eyes bulging like saucers, she looked like she was deciding whether to faint or shake me silly. As for me, one doesn’t bite into a chili pepper and come away unscathed, no matter how naÃ¯ve I am. With that one bite, an almost instantaneous inferno raced through my tongue, lighting up my mouth like Mardi Gras. A screamingly unbearable heat surged up my neck and made its way up my face. I felt myself getting redder and redder. Then my tongue was loosened and I started screaming bloody murder. Yaya, who by now had been shaken out of her stupor, started to shake me, urging me to spit out the offensive pepper, for the love of God, Lori! I don’t remember what happened next, but I’m sure it involved a lot of cold water and some admonishments from yaya.
Such trauma (for a five year old, at least) didn’t make me swear off the spice for life. Ironically, as I got older, I began to crave spicy food, appreciating the way it made my eyes water and my nose run, not to mention the boost in excitement and flavor that it gave to my food.
Manila has its own “Spice Girl”, and my apologies to her for any inferences to the pop group with the same name. Unlike the other people that I’ve featured on this website, Jennifer Tan deals not with sugar, but with spice. She’s come up with her own line of hot sauces based on the Philippine siling labuyo, also known as chili bird pepper and bird’s eye chili, so called because the peppers are as tiny and sharp as the eye of a bird.
Siling Labuyo, as seen in the photo above, is usually a green, inch-long pod that turns bright red when ripe. Because it’s incredibly, insatiably hot, it’s mostly used in dipping sauces. The other pepper that you see beside it is what’s known as siling haba or siling pang sigang (sili pang sinigang). Also called finger chilies, these longer peppers are definitely milder and are vital to dishes like Bicol Express. I’ve read these longer chilies are actually jalapeÃ±os. Whatever they are, I can eat them straight up.
Anyway, it was Jennifer’s dad, himself a chili ”“ or should I say, “sili” head, who helped her concoct a hot sauce that is pure sili sans preservatives, xanthan gum (for thickening), and artificial color. It’s 100% the real hot mama. Jen says, “I’ve made my sauces ”˜chunky’ with a salsa-like consistency and real hit of hot labuyo.” So happy was she with the hot sauce base that she’s used it as the springboard for incorporating other flavors. Her hot sauce is packaged under certain names categorizing it for specific foods such as the El Dorado for steaks and grilled food; Torrero for Spanish cuisine; Tso Choi is meant to complement Asian foods, and the Arriba Mexican spice is ideal for tacos. Oddly enough, Jennifer admits that she’s no sili-head, so she came up with the Mild sauce variant “…for people like me who really can’t take the heat but love the pepper flavor,” she finishes. “Think of it as a green Tabasco.”
I’m slowly working my way through Jennifer’s entire hot sauce line. As you can see, I’ve splashed it onto my sardines and drizzled it onto my homemade lamb burger. The heat is intense but quite tolerable (at least for sili-heads like me): an immediate hotness in the throat and behind the palate, while later on, a lingering heat takes over, simmering on the tongue and mid-palate. Sexy really, unless you, like me, need to make a run for the tissue when the nose begins to run.
I suggest that Jennifer’s sauces be stored in the refrigerator since the heat dissipates once the bottle is opened. It’s obvious from the photo that Jennifer uses no xanthan gum (aka: thickeners) in her sauces. Unless you shake the bottle beforehand, the sauce will appear runny and separated (as seen above).
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that chili heat is expressed in Scoville Heat Units. This scale, which goes back to 1912, refers to the number of times that extracts from chilies dissolved in alcohol can be diluted with sugar water before the capsaicin can no longer be tasted. Bell peppers score 0, jalapeÃ±os and cayenne rate 2,500-4,000, while our sili labuyo hovers somewhere up there at 100,000 Scoville Units. How appropriate that I’m also coming out with this post just two weeks after Guinness World Records confirms the world’s hottest pepper: it clocks in at an electrifying 1,001,304 Scoville heat units!
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