14 September 2010

Passe-moi le piment, s'il te plaît!

It goes without saying that being from India and having grown up in Texas, chili peppers have always been a part of my life! In Indian cuisine, chilies show up in all forms. There are the fresh, green chilies (generally called Anaheim chilies in the States), the dry red chilies that are toasted and ground into fresh spice powders, the red-hot chili powder that flavors just about everything. In South India, the famous mulagapodi (a special, made-from-scratch chili powder using dried red chilies, various dried lentils, poppy and sesame seeds) is mixed with oil and used as a condiment for idlis (fermented rice cakes typically eaten for breakfast) and many other dishes. In Texas, where the influence of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine is ubiquitous, chili peppers show up in many preparations, including salsas, guacamole, hot pepper sauce (Texas Pete, Cholula and El Yucateco were always my favorite brands), chili rellenos, you name it!

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I started working in Africa back in 2001 and found that chilies, in many different forms, are much loved on that continent as well! In Malawi, I used to lap up the Nali brand hot sauce with just about everything! Travels in South Africa and other countries in the southern part of the continent exposed me to the much beloved Nando’s fast-food chain, which is known as much for its peri-peri chicken (based on a Portuguese/ Mozambican recipe) as it is for its famous hot sauces! I buy a bottle of Nando’s sauce (my favorite is the garlic peri-peri) whenever I’m in that part of the world and always keep a bottle of it in my desk at work, where the cafeteria food is disgusting and bland.

But it was in West Africa that I discovered the fantastic preparation known as piment, which is basically a fresh chili paste/sauce made with the extremely hot little red/orange peppers known as habanero peppers in English/Spanish and as the piment antillais in French. Each family and each chef has her own recipe for piment, but it generally involves grinding the chili with water or vinegar, ginger, garlic and salt (give or take a couple of ingredients). To this day, I fondly reminisce about meals shared with friends and colleagues in Senegal and Guinea spiced up with piment. Near the Senegal-Gambia border, I remember sitting on the floor of a hut in the village of Nemanding and adding it to my share of a communal plate of tchebou jen (rice and fish). In Conakry, there was the hidden little maquis (simple, open-air eatery) behind the Hotel Camayenne that always had the latest Ivoirian music on the radio and served the best attieke (a starch that resembles couscous but is made out of manioc/cassava) with yassa (onion, lemon and mustard) sauce, to which I always added spoons and spoons of the delicious, homemade piment.

Why is piment so beloved in so much of our world? Beyond adding spice and taste, chilies are known for their medicinal value. Most chili peppers, and notably their active ingredient known as capsaicin, contain high amounts of vitamin C, carotene, B vitamins, potassium and iron. Capsaicin is often used in ointments and topical creams for skin conditions. Lab testing with rats suggests that there may be a correlation between capsaicin/chili pepper consumption and a decreased risk of cancer and Type 1 diabetes. Eating chili peppers may also combat against obesity and bad cholesterol. Where refrigeration is limited or not possible, chili peppers and spices more generally can act to preserve food and keep it from going bad, thus preventing food poisoning and other stomach ailments. It’s no wonder then that chili peppers have been a part of the human diet since 7500 BCE in some parts of the world!

Luckily for me, I happen to have married a man who has the same quotient for chilies that I do and who loves his food to be hot, hot, hot! And even better, this man happens to make what I consider the world’s best piment, African-style. He regularly mixes up batches of what he has termed his “Hot as Hell Sauce” that we keep in bottles in our fridge. They never seem to last long though, as we use it as a condiment or ingredient with eggs, pasta, beans, vinaigrettes and just about everything else under the sun!

While he refuses to divulge his exact recipe, I caught him in action making a fresh batch this past weekend. For the actual chili peppers, he uses the Indian-style green chili (Anaheim) as well as the piment antillais just like in Africa. To this  he adds ginger, garlic, juice from a couple of freshly squeezed limes, salt, a couple of “secret ingredients” which he will not reveal and whizzes it all up in our food processor. The result is out of this world!

My suggestion is simply to play around with different ingredients (those mentioned above plus other potential ones such as vinegar, brown sugar/agave syrup, lemongrass, a smidgeon of rum or tequila, the possibilities are endless!) until you get a blend that works for you. Then if you’re like us, be prepared for your guests to regularly say “passe-moi le piment, s’il te plait!” (pass me the chili pepper sauce, please!) whenever you have them over for dinner!!!



  1. I would love to buy a bottle of the Hot as Hell sauce. I just looooove hot sauce!!!

  2. This hot sauce looks gorgeous!

  3. I love chili sauce in all its incarnations! You have such a diverse culinary history, I look forward to following you here on Foodbuzz!!

  4. Passe-moi le piment tout de suite! Over the years I have begun craving spiciness in my foods. I love your story.

  5. Deborah and The Constant Hunger, vive le piment! I hope to convince my hubby to start making big batches and bottling. If that ever happens, I would be happy to send you some!

  6. Another great post! I love learning about new foods and spices, especially hot peppers and sauces!

  7. Me too, Tiffany. I think I need to start collecting hot sauces!