Mar 7, 2011

HOTSAUCE RUNNER TO PEPPERCHEF: HOW GUYANA TAUGHT ME TO CHANNEL THE GENUS CAPSICUM

Bartica, GUYANA – South America upped my hot-sauce game. Oh, I was already a contender, knocking back blends of naga bih jolokia, which Guinness World Records salute as the world's third fiercest pepper (one million Scoville units to habanero's 350,000). But fresh never entered the equation until I touched down in Georgetown, Guyana's capital.

Fruit in the Bartica market.
South America's only officially English-speaking country squeezes between the Caribbean, Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. Thus its flavors weave in island spice, stutter steps of samba and the AmerIndians' incredible endurance – and enthusiasm – for chili.

Most Guyanese start with wiri wiri or tiger teeth peppers, which both weigh in at 150,000 Scoville units. "It's just hot in the bottle, no flavor," explains Kementon Joseph, a guide for Baganara Island Resort, a colonial-esque idyll near the rough-and-ready Bartica, where gold- and diamond-miners emerge from the bush. In his company, I explored the Gateway to the Interior's market, a wharfside warehouse honeycombed by stalls hawking cassareep, pineapples and choice meats like "face" and "boneless mince". For 1,600 Guyanese bucks (US$8), I scored four unlabelled bottles of peppersauce, which Customs kindly allowed into the States (what with being all busy searching the bags of my colleague with an unopened Trader Joe's chocolate bar).

  Sign painter outside the Bartica Market in Guyana. Photo: A. Castleman


Back home in Seattle, my raves inspired Venezuelan Photographer and Writer Valentina Vitols to host a hot sauce soiree. Ten of us gathered one Sunday to sample fiery flavors from Asia and the Americas. I busted out my Guyanese hoard and seasoned up three variations, including one rich with mustard and turmeric. The favorite by far:

  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Ginger
  • Lime
  • Carrot
  • Cucumber
  • Vegetable bouillon (Kementon and Baganara's chef insisted that "cube" – a sticky square of stock – brought the right richness to peppersauce. "Not bouillon. Bouillon is Japanese. Cube is Chinese," they insisted. As that advice didn't exactly jibe with offerings in a Seattle supermarket, I went ahead and threw in about a quarter cup of Better than Bouillon, which worked just fine.)
Blend the ingredients, then mature the mix at least two days in a glass jar, before decanting the mix into bottles for storage.

The simplicity of Hotsaucing 101 startled me. As did that first sniff, when I cracked open the blender lid and inhaled like a fool...

My chili larder will continue to expand, as I travel and fall for local flavors (a pepper in every port!). But thanks to Guyana – and a chit-chatty, dawn kayak jaunt on the Essequibo River with Kementon – I've stepped up to a new level.

Not just HotSauce Runner ... but Pepperchef!


Video snippets from the HotSauce Runner party, including Valentina explaining arepas and guasacaca.

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