“Peppers are not spicy,” my dad declared at dinner one night. I had mentioned that the vegetables we were eating were spicier than usual. However, they had been cooked with bright red Cayenne peppers, and this had caused my father to issue the clarification.
At the time, I thought he was implying that he was invincible.
“Are you sure, because remember – ,” I began, referring to our recent habanero challenge, but he cut me off.
“No, listen! Something that’s spicy is a combination of seasonings. A pepper is just hot,” he said and I tried not to smirk. My dad’s from India. He doesn’t understand the connotations associated with anything “hot.” But I considered his logic and nodded my head thoughtfully. What exactly is the proper description for the sensation of eating a pepper?
“Good talk, dad” I said, still stifling a smirk, and we both continued eating our very spicy and hot Indian dinner, our taste buds and nasal passages adjusting to the onslaught of onions and the concoction of red chili powder, turmeric, and other traditional Indian spices. We were used to it by now.
Since red, green, and black chilies are staples in traditional Indian cooking, they’ve been ubiquitous in my kitchen for years. A common misconception is that the spices, the masala, make the meal hot, but peppers are actually the kick that make you reach desperately for the water. Humans have a natural tendency to avoid peppers and consume sugary foods instead. But Indians have consumed both equally for thousands of years, ignoring the basic biological instinct that tells us to run away from the little devils.
When taken in moderation, peppers are medicinal for the body. The black pepper was discovered in India as early 2000 BC and it has been used in the country’s cuisine ever since. It helps digestion, strengthens the immune system, and expels body heat. In India’s sweltering heat and disease-ridden rainforests, peppers are the persisting natural ingredient of relief.
My mother told me about the farmers in her father’s sugarcane fields. After a long day of work in the heat, they would eat a meal of raw onion, green pepper, and bakhri, one the thicker and sweeter of Indian flatbreads. The acidic properties of the onions and peppers kept their bodies from overheating and the bakhri kept them full and energized.
The chili pepper is a symbol of protection, of strength. As it protects the immune system of farmers working in unbelievable heat, it also symbolically protects the family. In my trips to India, I remember seeing strings of green peppers tied to my relatives’ front doors. This was said to keep out evil and corrupt forces, such as greed and insolence.
While I don’t need the health benefits as the farmers do, I need pepper in my diet simply out of habit. The “kick” was part of my daily meals for years, ever-present but something that my tastebuds took for granted. My tolerance for such heat grew and, as the only Indian kid in my classes for a very long time, I considered this tolerance a talent. I’d pop jalapeños like candy at lunch, much to my friends’ amazement. It was an ability that I loved showing off. I felt strong and daring, almost invincible.
But there were times when even I couldn’t handle the kick – sometimes because my mom had put too much in the vegetables that day, or sometimes if I had decided to suffer through a pepper competition with my dad.
These competitions involved long green Serrano peppers. We’d each sit down with a little plate of salt, which is said to neutralize the acidic seeds, and two peppers. The process was simple. Take a bite, chew, dip in salt, then take another bite. My dad couldn’t eat more than two and I usually got through one. He’d tell me stories about the competitions that he would have with his father. Peppers and small, white onions were their specialties. From these stories, I learned that my grandfather was a fierce man who most likely popped chili peppers far hotter than jalapeños like jellybeans.
The chili pepper characterizes a daring and strong culture with fire-breathing gods that are powerful enough to destroy and create at will. I feel like I’m far away from home without the kick in my diet, far from the culture of my mother and of generations before her. I remember seeing grandmothers in India laying hundreds of red peppers out to dry in the intense Indian sun. The dried chilies were crushed, the seeds releasing toxins that burned their eyes and turned their hands to tough leather. Despite the pain it caused them, they persisted for the sake of protecting their families, of giving them the strength to face the scorching sun and all the evils that threatened them and the generations to come.
“I used to be a lot more tolerant and daring as a kid. But now I’m an old man!” my dad would say after we had recovered from the acidic attack.
When I came to college, my dinners no longer had the heat. We never truly appreciate what we have until it’s gone. My nonexistent cooking skills led me to settle for boring pasta, sandwiches, and salads. I needed Sriracha to keep me satisfied. Of every part of me that missed home, my appetite missed it the most, and I realized that peppers were always the ingredient that kept me satisfied after every meal. I once took a bite of a sandwich full of once-harmless jalapeños and promptly started tearing up. It had been a while since I had felt the same surprise, the same heat, the same thrill after the tears had stopped and my nose no longer ran. But I still reached for the water, and it was upsetting that my tolerance had decreased.
I faced the same problem with bland dinners when I spent four months in Madrid, the land of carbs and meat. Since I’m a vegetarian, I survived on tortilla español and salads, sick of Caesar and Ranch and such dressings that claimed to make salads more interesting. I wasn’t satisfied. The food not only lacked spices, but it also lacked the kick that I needed. I asked for Tabasco sauce regularly, with my tortilla, my sandwiches, and even with my pizza. When I asked for red chili flakes for pizza, I received blank stares.
“We don’t put that on our pizza here,” said the waiter. I considered the meal a waste and decided that Spain needed a little education in peppers – and more interesting food, for that matter. I was thankful that I had packed a bottle of Sriracha, without which my tastebuds would have been tortured. In those four months, I felt more distant from my family, from its culture and traditions, than ever before.
Once, my dad and I decided to use habaneros instead of the standard green Serranos for our competition. We had big egos and false confidence. I distinctly remember standing near the basket of habaneros at the grocery store, picking the ones that didn’t have dark spots on them.
“You think this is enough?” I asked my dad, holding up the bag with about fifteen inside.
“Yes,” he said confidently, “we’ll eat them!” Of course, he didn’t mean that we would eat them in one sitting – we weren’t that confident. But we thought that they wouldn’t go to waste; surely, my mother could find some way to incorporate them into our cooking.
We sat down, cross-legged, with our little plates of salt. With the little red devils in our hands, we each took generous bites. I chewed slowly. Thoughtfully. I braced myself for the pain. I looked at my dad and he looked at me. Our faces contorted in agony as the powerful seeds hit and we ran to the kitchen for a tall glass of milk. My mother laughed as we threw cold water on our faces to stop the sweating. I kept screaming “Oh my God!” and my dad just shook his head, closed his eyes like a man who had given up, and sniffled for a good ten minutes. This kick was a little too excruciating.
Photos and collage elements by photosteve101 via Flickr (Creative Commons), Jeff King via Flickr (Creative Commons), Phil Roeder via Flickr (Creative Commons) Emily Barney via Flickr (Creative Commons), Stefan Ruche via Flickr (Creative Commons)