This summer I am having the biggest adventure ever and going to Asia for the very first time. It’s my 40th birthday present to myself, and although I initially planned the trip as a running away affair, I eventually decided to take the little one with me. Only problem is, he doesn’t like chilli.
I can understand that. I wasn’t raised to eat chilli, being Tasmanian as well as growing up in the house of a 10 pound pom with serious issues with flavour. It wasn’t really a feature of cooking in the student houses I’d lived in and I remember arriving in Sydney and perusing Thai and Sichuan Chinese restaurant menus in desperation, because everything seemed to have more chilli in it than I could bear.
My awakening was a Thai beef salad that hurt so much to eat it made my face burn purple and caused fat oily tears to roll down my cheeks but, once the 90 seconds of agony passed the flavour was so exquisite that you were prepared to do it all again. I never looked back, although I remain bemused by friends, particularly blokes, who seem to have permanently destroyed their tastebuds by overdosing on chilli. Nor would I ever eat an entire dorset naga. This Aussie bloke reckons it destroyed his sense of taste for 36 hours. Why would you do that?
The other extreme is, of course no chilli at all, and it has been hard living with a boy who is determined to avoid spice. He did make a concerted effort when he was five (announcing ‘I’m going to change my life’). Like most New Year’s resolutions, it didn’t last. But now we have to get into serious training, otherwise he’ll be stuck with Chinese food in Thailand, and what a shame that would be.
Fortunately he is prepared to take on the chilli challenge. Last week I bought a green chilli, and chopped the end off it for him. He ate it, apprehensively, but survived and was prepared to go one step further. My fingers were laden with the juice from the seeds so I placed one finger lightly on his tongue, and watched while he went ‘phwoar!’ and realised, for the first time, that chilli is joyous, as well as painful. Now he sees chillis in the supermarket and wonders …
We’re so excited about the trip, and I know that nothing we make here will ever taste as good as it does over there. I also know we can’t really prepare for the blasts of chilli to come and there will be tears – mine as well as his. But we’ve enjoyed upping the chilli ante and there have been some cool experiments, including chilli chocolate. One of those experiments, which I was inspired to make following a discussion on this blog about caramelising onions, was this nice quick chilli sambal. It involves my favourite chilli sauce, sambal oelek, which I love for its saltiness, particularly when blended with things like tempeh and Vietnamese mint.
Quick chilli onion sambal
Take two onions and slice them very thinly. Warm a tablespoon of sesame or peanut oil in a heavy saucepan. Add the onions and cook, covered, on a slow-moderate heat for at least 10 minutes until they go transparent and are beginning to brown. Take the lid off the pot, step up the heat a bit and add a tablespoon of brown sugar (or palm sugar) and a tablespoon of sambal oelek. Sit with it and cook it off until it’s a nice rich sticky, orangey brown, gloopy mess (don’t let it catch and burn). You end up with this;
The sugar and salt counter each other perfectly. It makes a terrific sauce for fish, or alongside spuds – it would be very good with tofu or tempeh. I also ate it with Francis Xavier Holden’s beef curry and it was fine. Obviously, if you want it properly hot, doubling the sambal oelek doubles the heat, and the onion can take it. Not sure the seven year old can …