x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Spring has me indoors making condiments

Our columnist got into the mood of making condiments, and just couldn't stop, despite a chilli mishap.

I have this theory that strong winds can make people act insane. The same goes for hay fever. Lately, though, I’ve wondered if some of my half-baked “theories” are just a cover for unjustifiable personal resentments. Spring in Santa Fe is a tragic pairing of pollen and wind storms – and I hate both. I stay sane by staying indoors. The kitchen is my nexus of masterpieces and catastrophes; my place of happy accidents and resolutely non-happy ones, too.

If you’d seen me leave the house this morning you might have laughed, or pitied me, or tried to stage an intervention. On the kitchen floor, with watery eyes and an ice pack pressed again my face, I looked like I belonged backstage at The Jerry Springer Show. By the cooker was a stack of supremely hot Thai bird’s eye chillies I’d just been roasting over the burner. Usually I’m very careful around chillies but, today, I had hovered over them. So when one of the chillies burst like a juicy firecracker, it sent a fine mist of hellfire directly into my face. The pain came on fast and hard: a thrumming, silent scream locked in my nasal passages. Blinded, I groped my way to the sink. My face sent red flags to my brain. My brain waved a white flag back.

The capsaicin that makes chillies hot binds to neurons that essentially trick our brains into thinking we’re on fire, when in fact no actual physical damage is taking place. Somehow, this little piece of trivia made me feel better. The burn of chillies – whether in our mouths or in our eyes – is really only in our heads.

Afterwards, I peeled the charred skin from the roasted chillies and bottled them in a jar of olive oil with some sliced garlic. Then I sliced another pile of red and green chillies, raw this time, for making prik nam pla – chilli fish sauce, a fantastic condiment that improves with age in the fridge and is as easy to make as it is useful: just fill a glass jar with sliced chillies, add fish sauce until the chillies are covered and refrigerate indefinitely. I love to whisk it into salad dressings with garlic, coriander, lime juice, spring onions and mint, and it’s incredibly good in marinades. I’ll sometimes use it in place of Worcestershire sauce in Caesar salad or Welsh (Thai?) rarebit. Even if you don’t get excited about the taste or smell of fish sauce, which is made from fermented anchovies and salt, it adds an expansive savoury element to food. I like the Vietnamese Red Boat fish sauce the best.

Because I get into moods where I can’t stop making condiments, this morning I also simmered dried Aleppo pepper flakes in oil and a tangle of caramelised shallots to make a tangy, sweet and spicy red pepper jam. Pepper jam is the flavour of the week, a common element to weekday lunches and a cohesive one between slices of toasted bread. Knowing me, the jam will show up in every meal until it runs out or until I never want to look at it again – whichever comes first.

History reveals itself in these efforts – and I mentally catalogue the results with an ardour that perhaps would be better applied to labelling those results. I rarely take the time to write recipes down so that I can reproduce them later. Instead, they end up like snowflakes: fleeting, ephemeral and infinite in variation.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

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