Chili Peppers. One Dollar.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

-Chilly chilies.-

I love Thai chilies. They're cute. They're colorful. They're incredibly hot, bordering on incendiary. These bad boys will LIGHT. YOU. UP.

I have a warm spot in my heart for these chilies in my cooking (or it might be due to these, either way). Since these blazing peppers are so crazy hot I only need a few each week. When I go shopping at the farmer's market, I only pick up a few for various curries and stir fries I'll make for the next seven days' worth of meals.

Now I like to take heat, but like any average white boy I burn easily in every regard. When it comes to heat from the sun sun I don't tan, but rather turn as red as a crawdad in gumbo. This is followed by lots of peeling and freckling. I then bitch about this to anyone in hearing distance.

When it comes to heat in my food I like to think I learned rather well from my mom, the Tabasco Queen. She can put peppers away like no one's business; it's a trait I've strived to pick up. Still these Thai chilies are something else and more than four or five (seeds included) is too much for me.

When I first started going to the farmers' market I always did a bulk of my shopping at the Hmong produce stall. After picking out everything I needed I would toss a few (read: six, tops) chilies into a bag and ask how much. Whoever was behind the stall would just look at me, smile, and shake their head.


While I would normally be thrilled with free produce, the way I was waved off was upsetting. I wasn't getting enough chilies to even bother being charged. There was such pity in their eyes, their voices belied sarcasm and humor. They thought I was a wuss. When it came to taking the heat both in my kitchen and food I was a failure to them. My paltry sum of peppers wasn't even worth charging.

These were pity peppers.

However, since I loved these chilies' fire and flavor I would put up with it. Soon they recognized me and my pattern. Eventually whenever I came to their stall they'd just throw in a few peppers with my bag of lemongrass and opal basil. A prize at the bottom. No charge. I was cute, I suppose. The guy who likes to cook with only a few chili peppers was to be indulged. They'd laugh as they handed me the bag and gave me my change. I'd laugh with them, a bit irked by the encounter and at the same time amused. Free chilies are free chilies, after all.

It was only recently that I picked up a good tip to remedy my embarrassment. When I was shopping with cookbook author and friend Sheng Yang, an expert in Hmong cooking, she suggested I just buy a bunch and freeze them. "It's what most people do," she said.

By god, it was so simple! I could actually pay for the peppers and maintain a bit of dignity. No more, "Free." This wasn't about saving money, this was about saving face.

The next weekend I marched right up to the Hmong produce booth. After I filled a few bags with herbs and eggplants I handed them over to be weighed. The ancient lady behind the booth smiled at me showing the smile lines in her face, a lithograph of her life's laughter. She said hello and asked how I was. "Very well," I said. Her smile widened and she reached to grab a smattering of chilies. I raised my hand and stopped her.

She cheered as I plunged my hand into the produce box of colorful capsicums. I emptied two handfuls into a plastic bag and handed it to her. Her grin widened to match the one I was giving her.

"One dollar."
-Buy in bulk, then freeze for later.-


  1. Let your chile freak out this time of year! Frozen chiles keep for a good 6 months and they're about 85% of their original selves. No more pity peppers for you.

    Try all the different kinds. Sometimes they're still on branches looking like Christmas lights. Longish green ones are fabulous for Indian food. You're lucky to have access to a wealth of Hmong farmers in Sacto!

  2. Thanks for the tip. I would much rather eat locally grown chilies than chilies imported from elseware, now I can when they are off season.

  3. Ummm...your sunburn story reminds me of sundried perreprs. My mom has been making these forever - Take a cup of yougurt, add some salt to it. take a couple of handfuls of whole chillies and put them in the yogurt. Then spread the yogurt covered chillies in a tray and put them out to dry in teh sun for a week or till the are completely browned and dry. You ofcourse have to take the tray inside if you have damp weather during the nights.
    Fry in a few drops of oil or butter before serving.

  4. Thai chilies work just wonderfully in pepper vinegar, too - which you probably don't need me to tell you.

    I keep a jar of organic rice wine vinegar stuffed full of the things and use it on everything from soups to beans and rice. The great thing is that once the vinegar is used up, you can refill it a couple times before the peppers lose their heat.

    Well, that's great in one way. I suppose it won't help you to buy more peppers though!

  5. Nicely written story, Garrett! I like the "lithograph of life's laughter" line. Well said.

    As for the chiles, dunno why anyone would bother freezing Thai chiles. They dry perfectly on their own and kept in a jar, will be just as good 18 months later. I do this every year.

    Chile vinegar is excellent, if limited, and another option is to buy a shitpile of those chiles, add some vinegar, salt and garlic, and buzz it to death in a food processor. Instant hot sauce. Mine keeps in the fridge for a year, although it will separate and you'll need to shake it before using. Easy-peasy.



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