Anyone who knows me will tell you that I absolutely love chillies, borderline addicted, I must confess. I cannot remember how I developed a tolerance for super-hot food. My grandmother used a lot of hot spices in her cooking; I guess this was passed down 3 generations of women.
I always laugh when my friends, all from different nationalities, challenge me to try their traditional chilli recipes. A friend of mine from India had to warn me the first time I tried his cooking, “Noma! These are Indian chillies, you cannot handle this level of ‘heat’. I strongly advise you to start with something mild”. The look on his face, priceless when I wiped the plate clean!
Being that I am Zimbabwean, it may come as a surprise to many that I have a palate that can take an incredible amount of ‘heat’. Zimbabwean traditional cooking is similar to British cooking in that it largely relies on the natural flavour of food, and very little on spices.
However, Zimbabwe has a large Indian community, estimated to date back to the 19th century. Given that Indian communities incorporate spices into their cooking a lot, their presence may account for a relatively more recent ‘warming up’ to spices in Zimbabwean cooking.
I cannot recall when my love for chilies was first ignited; my guess is I was probably weaned off breast milk with chillies. I cook with chillies in most of my savoury dishes, so much so that my greatest challenge has always been how to cook for people who cannot handle the ‘heat’.
My worst nightmare would be for people not to enjoy my food because it was too spicy, and this has happened to me on countless occasions when I was still learning how to cook. Usually on the day that family friends were invited over for a meal, and for some alien reason I would always decide to experiment on new spices and cook just 2 hrs before the guests arrive. By the time I would realise that the spice that had “MILD” written in Fire- Red bold letters on the packaging meant “MILD” for a baby dragon’s mouth, it would be too late to redeem myself and cook another dish.
If I do not put chillies in my cooking, I always compensate with big, bold flavours. When I was on BBC Masterchef in 2016, the very first words that came from Masterchef Judges, Greg Wallace and John Torode, as they ate my food were, “WOW Noma, your food has BAGS OF FLAVOUR!”
I made sure not to try too adventurous chilli experiments when I was on MasterChef.
I have, however, been trying adventurous chilly experiments in my laboratory (kitchen), and have reached a breakthrough. As a “professional and experienced” chilli eater, I discovered that chillies are not just HOT. They add sensational flavour and elevate the taste of food to a whole new dimension; unfortunately their beautiful flavour comes trapped in extreme ‘heat’.
Chillies come in a wide range of variates; Bird’s eye, Habanero and serrano just to name a few. My favourite chillies by far are Scotch Bonnet peppers – arguably the hottest in the world, next to Habanero chilli peppers.
The flavour that Scotch Bonnet peppers give to food, especially meat dishes is exceptional. Scotch bonnet peppers have a slightly fruity taste similar to that of tomatoes, with a subtle hint of a disguised smoky deep flavour that elegantly unfolds with each mouthful. The only problem is that the heat starts to intensify and your mouth gets so hot that you can almost breathe fire!
Separating the heat and flavour of a dragon-fire hot chilli is like trying to split an atom, and I think I have managed to do just that!
My adventurous chilli experiments have finally paid off with “Noma Creates Relish”.
I have been developing this chilli based relish over a long period of time, trying to tone down the heat and turn up the flavour. I felt like a mad scientist, trying to achieve what many accomplished Chefs will describe as impossible. For many, the solution is simply to dish the chilli!
With Nomalanga Creates Relish, I tasted the perfected final version and waited for the heat to kick in and dominate the flavours, but it didn’t! I could not believe it! So I did the crazy thing of squinting my eyes, staying very still and leaning my ear into the plate full of relish while gently smacking my lips as I swallowed another spoonful, as if to wake my taste buds to the HEAT of the Scotch Bonnet.
I honestly cannot tell you why I leaned my ear in. I guess it might have been to ‘hear the heat’, given that I could not taste it. Anyone watching me through my kitchen window would be excused for thinking I had lost my marbles.
I tasted it again and all I got was mostly flavour and a very delightful slow burn from the heat, but as I have stated in my introduction to this blog post, my tolerance for heat is super high, so I needed a second opinion.
I am a believer that the universe has a wonderful way of bringing to you exactly what you need right in the nick of time. The doorbell rang, and who could it be but the post man – my very first Guinea pig. It was not hard to convince him to try my relish because the aroma of the food filled the whole house, and greeted him from the door.
As soon as he agreed to have a taste; I quickly scribbled my signature to sign for the parcel and ran back at supersonic speed to the kitchen, returning to the door with a small sample. To my surprise, he absolutely loved the taste of the relish. He said he definitely could taste the heat, but it was mellow and not overwhelming.
Do not take my, the Postman’s or my family and friends’ words for it; I invite you to taste my African-infused flavour delight, Nomalanga Creates Relish at the Waddesdon Manor Chilli Festival in Buckinghamshire on the 2nd & 3rd of September 2017.
More details coming in my next post, and on my social media. Instagram @nomalangacreates, Twitter & Facebook @nomacreates. Click the social media icons at the bottom of this page.