Thursday, April 06, 2006

The wrath of the habanero

A couple of years back as I was browsing along the aisles of a certain frequented supermarket, I came across this section where I would classify as Mexican. Jars of refried beans, salsa, tortillas and taco sets lined up in various bright red and yellow color coordinated packaging. I had always liked tacos, probably one day I'd want to cross the border from US to Mexico, have a taco or burrito from one of the many mobile stalls and then drink tequila the whole day. At that time, I never really knew what the fuss was about, at that time tortilla wraps weren't as popular as they are now so availability was scarce. I decided to get a bag of tortilla chips, and a jar of Hot Habanero Dip to go with it.

Of course these things came with a meter on the jar, ranging from mild, hot to extra flaming hot, or something to that extent. Being a Malaysian, I had to take the extra extra hot one, but of course. But when I tried it after I got back almost immediately I wondered what all the fuss was about. Yes it was tasty, it was different. I was never born with the culture of dipping chips in anything so the whole idea was quite refreshing. Then of course it became second nature to check the label out and see what its made of. Its mostly run of the mill stuff, tomatoes, peppers, onions, that kinda thing, but one thing made it hot, Habanero.

Habaneros are believed to have originated from Cuba, and this tiny little pepper is pretty small at about an inch long, and its usually in orange or red in color. Now, when I set out to make my own salsa sauce at that time there weren't any habaneros available, simply because they don't grow them here, nor do they import them either. So I substituted my salsa with red chillies and of course our cili padi. I ended up with a great tasting salsa, it was spicy, it was flavorful, and honestly, a lot more delicious than the one I bought in the jar. But for some reason I couldn't achieve that level of spiciness no matter how many cili padis I put in.

Fast forward to the present, I recently found habaneros in the supermarket. The little orange things were being promoted. I think they're found a way to cultivate them here, alas boxes upon boxes of it sit on top of each other. I think they aren't or can't really get very popular here because it doesn't exactly sit very well with our cuisine. The habaneros have a very thin outer layer, almost like a red chilly, put them in your mouth and bite, and you'd first taste a burst of fresh, fruity, citrusy sweetness, but what follows is an intense heat that radiates from within, leaving you gasping for air in shock. That's quite unlike the cili padi, where you immediately feel the burst of spiciness and it ends there, simply because its less complex.

So yesterday I started to make my salsa again, but this time discarding the cili padi from the recipe, replacing it with a LOT of habaneros. I didn't know how much, so I figured I'd put in as many as I can. I spent the whole evening slicing and dicing, and I thought, hmm, my hands aren't burning like it should, because for cili padis you'd feel the burn during preparation. I figured I'd just wash my hands later and get back to my work.

I created a whole pot of salsa dip that seriously kicks ass.

Then I did the laundry, and took a shower. Now, about half an hour after that did I start to feel an intense burn on my hands. This is the most insane pain you can ever feel. Considering I have a pretty high tolerance of pain, this pain, just like the flavor, radiates from within. My hands started glowing red, and I tell you I couldn't tell hot water from cold. The intensity just got worse. I ran my hands thru running water, I dipped it in hot water (bad pain), dipped it in warm water, put it on an ice pack, wrapped it in a towel, put it in front of the air-con, rubbed it with aloe vera gel, rubbed it with herbs (andrographis paniculata), rubbed it with basil, rubbed it with toothpaste, and wore my winter gloves. Nothing really worked. I tried meditation (you are not feeling the pain, your hands are fine, you are at peace with yourself, you are at peace with your body), but you really can feel the heat emanating from your hands. Is it real? I wrapped a moist towel over my hands to find out, then moved it closer to my face. I could feel the heat on my face, meaning that I am not really imagining that my hands are burning, they *are*!

In the end I really gave up, and went to sleep from the pain and exhaustion.

I woke up the next morning, a lot better, but still feeling the tingling sensation of numbness in my fingers. At least I've regained the use of my fingers to type this blog today. But I really think they ought to place warning labels on those things before they sell them commercially to innocent people like me. But the next time you think of making your own salsa make sure you wear gloves or be prepared for a 6 hour burning sensation.