Scotch Bonnets are some of the world’s hottest peppers. They rank anywhere from 100000-350000 on the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale. This is a measure of how hot a chili pepper is (or for that matter, anything derived from a chili pepper). The scale is named after Wilbur Scoville who developed the test in 1912. Your average red chili pepper scores in at about a 1000 SHUs.
Scotch Bonnets are mostly found in the Caribbean islands and West Africa. Second cousins to the Habenero, they are waxy, have taut flesh, and range in color from green through an avocado-yellow to a deep orange, and they are literally shaped like bonnets (minus the tie). Ten years ago, the Guinness Book of World Records ranked them as the hottest pepper, but they’ve since been de-throned, replaced by the Maruga. They are generally used in most stews, sauces, salsas, and sometimes as marinade in most of the Caribbean and certainly in many West African countries.
Growing up in Ghana, West Africa, I learnt to cook with them in every dish we prepared, from soups to salsa. In Accra, the capital, they are called Ojengma, which is a Ga (one of the languages) name that translates literally to: “you are smelling good.” My first introduction to them is not a happy memory: I had a cooking lesson planned with our house-help, Aunty Mercy who lived with us to help my grandmother take care of my sister and me in exchange for room and board and learning a trade. I wanted to do everything myself from scratch so she let me remove the stems of the pepper after they had been soaking in water for a while. Apparently, the seeds and the oil off the skin are the deadliest as far as the heat goes. Ignorant of this detail, I took my sweet time. I then put the peppers on the grinding-stone and began, twenty minutes later, I was crying because I had spread the juices all over my palms and they were burning. I proceeded to swipe a tear away and that’s when the whole neighborhood knew I was cooking. I had to have my hands wrapped in leaves of a cooling herb that had to be plucked from our next-door neighbor’s garden. Needless to say I skipped supper that night. I have since learned to prepare that dish and nurture a relationship with the Scotch Bonnet.
All history and research aside, I am in love with them. I have found that no other pepper can replace the Scotch Bonnet when cooking. Most peppers on the market are not strong (spicy) enough for my taste buds nor do they have the light citrusy flavor that is unique to the Scotch Bonnet. They have that quality of being strong enough yet flavorful to enhance the food without completely ruining the contribution of the other ingredients as some other peppers are wont to do. If I have to cook without them, I feel inadequate, incomplete, almost as though I have failed as a chef. I guess there is something to be said for bonding with a particular ingredient. However, as a caterer I have to consider the palates of my clients so I often control the heat: Maybe I’ll use a third of a quarter-sized bonnet as opposed to about 1-3 whole ones I use when I give myself free rein with the heat. But I’ve found a way to compromise this need to use Scotch Bonnets in all my cooking by including my special brand of hot sauce to every order I deliver. This satisfies my need to share this amazing vegetable with the world and allows the customer to regulate the heat to her taste. Often my customers thank me for giving them a new experience.
I begin with about ten fresh scotch bonnets from my local farmers market, although most
grocery stores should also carry them. Sometimes, it might take a few trips to find them. When I do, I stock up. I wash, de-stem, and half them carefully because I have to think of life after cooking, especially given our shared history. Next, I drop the peppers into a food processor and clean the skin off three large ginger roots and add these as well. To this, I add 2 large tomatoes I have quartered, three large yellow onions, and 2 medium-sized purple onions, also quartered. Finally, I peel and half ten cloves of garlic. Sometimes when I want a bit more flavor, I’ll throw in about ten fingers of Serrano peppers. I pour in a quarter cup of water.
Then I start grinding. I grind on “Chop” until most of the ingredients are broken down. I pause and add about a tablespoon of coarse Sea salt and a couple cubes of Maggi cubes (a version of bouillon cubes) to the mix. I “chop” for a about 2 more minutes and stop. The mix should look like a tomato sauce out of a can. The mix goes into a sauté pan and onto a high ring or medium-low flame. The mix should bubble-simmer in the pan for about 15-20 minutes to make sure all the excess liquid is dried off. (Often, the tomatoes deposit way too much water in the mix). Once this is done, I do a taste and “fire” test.
It should smell sweet with slight hints of the ginger. Of course no two pots I make are alike but the general idea is that, it wakes up your sinuses. It must not be so hot that I cannot feel my tongue. There must be enough salt so it brings out the flavors of all the ingredients. If the heat level is too high, I add a about 2-4 table spoonfuls of tomato paste to the mix while it’s still on the fire. When I’m satisfied, I pour in a quarter cup of olive oil and stir slowly as the mixture absorbs the oil. I lower the heat and let the sauce simmer for about 30 minutes stirring every so often. If I want a loose consistency for a sauce, I remove the pan from the fire at this point. If I want a paste texture, I let the sauce simmer for about another 15 minutes. When the mixture has reached the appropriate consistency, I let it cool for about an hour before bottling it for delivery with my signature warning label: “Not for the faint of heart!”