The last time I visited my paternal grandparents in Kansas, my grandfather told me a hilarious story that happened when they went to Fortaleza for my parents’ wedding. As they explored the town, they stopped by a local restaurant and ordered a duck tucupí, a Northern Brazilian dish in which the fowl is cooked in a yellow sauce extracted from the manioc (cassava) root.
As they served the food, the restaurant placed a small dish with round bean-like vegetables apparently covered in water. My grandfather – an American who had never set foot in Brazil before – assumed they were peas and took a spoonful. Bad mistake – those were regionally produced hot peppers, and he had the burn of a lifetime. He described having the sensation of being unable to breathe, and then he basically guzzled down a glass of cold beer in the hopes of finding some relief. I am not sure if he was into spicy foods at all, but I guess this was one he never got to forget, since he was telling this to me about 30 years after it had happened.
My mother remembers it well: “In the 1960s there was only tourism in Brazil to Rio or Sao Paulo, where they had really nice restaurantes. In other states the custom was to receive guests in your home or at social clubs. The hotel they stayed in had a good chef and was visited by many locals who wanted to dine out and who did not want to go to the social clubs – something rare at the time, since there were social venues for every social class. You were expected to lunch and dine at the hotel and go out after you had eaten. I didn’t even think about letting them know about those things, so I didn’t tell them anything. There were these little ‘biroskas’ (small, family-owned restaurants) that your grandparents naively went to. The only word your grandfather knew in Portuguese was “cerveja” (beer), which he pronounced ‘cerveza,’ and that was what he screamed in desperation: ‘Cerveza, Cerveza, Cerveza!,’ so the waiters helped him. Can you imagine Toddy and Ben at a straw-covered little hut, not knowing a word of Portuguese but cerveja, and Ben red as a pepper, yelling for dear life Cerveza. Cerveza, Cerveza?”
As for me, I am a huge fan of spicy food. From the street acarajé from Salvador, Bahia to Korean Kimchi, Cajun and Creole foods and Thai curry, I love it all, and I will add hot sauce to almost everything – an old acquaintance in Brazil often joked that I was fond of ‘setting the toilet paper on fire’ because of that. The last time Renata and I were in the Dominican Republic (where spicy food is not exactly a tradition save for a few recipes), whenever we’d sit to eat I’d ask our server for some ‘picante,’ which almost always turned out to be Louisiana’s own Tabasco brand. Renata has become accustomed to my adding hot pepper to my recipes, but when we have visitors it almost always catches them unaware: a few years back I hosted a birthday party and put a few jalapenos in the guacamole, and some of the guests were shocked when they felt the kick the peppers gave to the dip.
The first time I tried kimchi (spicy Korean pickled cabbage); I was told it was a salad, not a side dish. I helped myself to a large serving, and when I chewed on it I realized how hot it was – but it wasn’t really that bad – there are many other dishes from the peninsula that really bring tears to your eyes, like Tang Mei Un, a delicious seafood soup served in a boiling – yes, boiling – bowl with fire under it to keep it hot at all times – not something you might try on a summer day, like I did.
And then there was that Thai restaurant Renata and I visited in Hawaii, which served foods labeled “mild,” “spicy” and “Thai spicy”- even mild was a bit challenging…
At home, I have many kinds of hot sauces among my spice collection, including a bottle of ghost pepper, once considered to be the hottest in the world (it was introduced to me by a friend, and I did not miss the opportunity to get it). I hardly ever use it, but some brave souls have given it a try with hilarious results, when they feel the burn coming a few moments after the food goes through.
I have my own ghost pepper experience. A few years back during a trip to South Carolina, we were told about a place that carried something called suicide wings, which happened to be fried in ghost pepper sauce. When I heard that, I forgot that I was in the south and went ahead and ordered them along with a glass of beer. I bit through the first few wings with no issue – and then the heat hit me… and it did not relent. I tried everything I knew about losing the hurt. I drank milk, white wine, beer — and it did not go away. We returned to our resort and I went to sleep feeling the pain.
But that still did not make me quit spicy foods —- I just became a little more careful.
Recipe: Thai Red Curry with Tofu
• 1 cup jasmine rice
• 1 3/4 cups water
• 1 medium onion, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 1 large garlic clove, chopped
• 2 teaspoons bottled Asian red-curry paste such as Thai Kitchen brand
• 1 (14-oz) can unsweetened coconut milk (not low-fat)
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 (1-lb) package frozen mixed vegetables such as broccoli, corn, and red peppers
• 1 (14- to 16-oz) block firm tofu, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
• 1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
Rinse rice briefly in a sieve and drain, shaking sieve to remove excess water. Bring rice and 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan over high heat, then cover pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook rice over low heat until water is absorbed and rice is tender, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook onion in oil in a wide 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until pale golden, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to moderate, then add garlic and curry paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in coconut milk, salt, and remaining 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil. Stir in vegetables and return to a boil. Cover pot, then reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Gently stir in tofu and simmer curry, partially covered, until vegetables are tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove pot from heat and stir in fish sauce and salt to taste. Serve curry with rice