Dr. Pepper

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1997

Dr. Pepper

For the seasoned traveler, the world is but a backdrop in the quest for the perfect chili
By Randy Wayne White

Perfection is a goofball pursuit, one that's not only subjective but ultimately self-defeating: To find what you're looking for means the search has ended. Which is a shame, really, because roaming around looking for something is nearly always more fun than finding it. That's true of perfect waves and perfect countryside, and it's also true — God help me — of perfect hot sauce.

And yet I may have fouled my own premise here, because I think I've found a hot sauce that's uncomfortably close to perfection. I discovered it at its place of origin, a large, open-air building of tin and wood near the suburb of Mamonel, southeast of Cartagena, Colombia, on the road to San Jacinto, where out-of-work cartel guerrillas have lately turned their skills to the profitable business of kidnapping travelers or popping drivers in the head for quick cash.

But that comes later in the story. First you need to understand a few things about my interest in pepper plants and my search for the perfect hot sauce. In 1987, on my way to Australia, I spent a little time in Fiji. One day around noon, I put on running shoes and went for a jog through the steamy streets of Suva, the capital city.

Halfway through my run a tiny Indian man pulled his car off the road, hopped out, and called to me, "Sir — are you an American?" The insinuation was obvious: Only an American would be foolish enough to run at noon.

I nodded that I was and then listened dumbly as the man approached me and, without offering the slightest introduction or briefest preamble, said, "Oh, thank God I've met you. I've just been married, and an American will know. Please tell me, sir, what can a man do to cure premature satisfaction?"

This poor man was convinced that his discomfiture was a symptom of being oversexed and that he was oversexed because of a cultural dependence on spicy food. Hot peppers, he told me, were well-known aphrodisiacs. He'd been eating them in one form or another since infancy: "It was in my mother's milk, I tell you!"

His family grew its own peppers — a variety of Capsicum annuum peppers, similar to jalape±os, that he called by his own name, Bombay something-or-anothers — and he was addicted to the things.

"I eat them all day, and it has warped my thinking," the man told me. "It is difficult to concentrate at my work. I can think of nothing but sex! I am like a machine!" He paused for a moment and then made a small amendment: "A very, very fast machine. It is driving me mad. I love my wife very much, and we are both desperate. Isn't there some pill that you use in America?"

No, I said, but it seemed to me he was ignoring the obvious solution. "Why don't you stop eating all those hot peppers?" I asked.

It was at that instant, standing beneath a shade tree along the streets of Suva, that for the first time I received the peculiar dopester's stare of what in these faddish times is known as a chilihead. It was a frenzied look, as if I'd yanked a feeding heron up by the neck and held it eye-to-eye.

"Give up hot food?" he said. "For what, a woman?"

Yes, he may have been a crazed and offensive man, but I humored him — and for a very practical reason: I wanted some of those family peppers. I later persuaded him to give me a couple of them to take back to the States. After I got home I planted the seeds in the garden behind my house just to see if they would grow.

They did. They were pretty plants, too, producing a banana-shaped fruit that turned green, then yellow, then red. Looking at those plants made me think of running in Fiji and of the troubled man with his new wife, and it also caused me to project the long path those seeds had traveled: all the way from some little village near Bombay, probably across the Indian Ocean, past Australia to the South Pacific, and then around the rest of the world to my garden on the west coast of Florida.

That was the beginning of my search for the perfect hot sauce and the perfect pepper. It was not a difficult thing to collect seeds as I traveled to the far reaches of the world, and whenever I returned from a trip I would plant them.

A couple of summers ago, I walked a pepper fancier through my little garden. He was an Alcoa-lipped brand of chilihead, which is to say that the hotter the peppers, the better he pretended to like them. He came to the little red chili peque±os I'd pilfered from a bush in the Bahamas.

"These are nice," he said. "I've always liked these. Crush them up, they're good in beer." He was tossing the things down like M&M's.

Then we came to the two short rows that contain what I now know are the C. chinense varieties. I keep them separate from the peppers I actually use, because they don't have much taste and they're way too hot. Among them were several chunky black peppers from Southeast Asia that I myself had never had the courage to try.

"You won't believe the heat in these peppers!" said the farmer from Jalapa, Mexico, possible birthplace of the jalapeño. "A wild and ancient heat that touches the soul!"

The chilihead nonchalantly picked one of the black peppers and popped it into his mouth, and then his face began to change. It is said that the human eye does not convey emotion. Whoever said that hasn't watched a man recklessly eat a variety of C. chinense. The ocular lens cannot wrinkle, but it can bulge as if registering some hellish internal pressure, and that's exactly what I saw in the eyes of this chilihead.

"Mother of God!" he whispered when he could finally form words. "Man...áthat's good!"

I've never participated in these silly machismo ceremonies, which require the hot pepper eater to pretend he isn't in severe pain. Nor have I ever been interested in hot sauces that require users to dole out portions with an eye-dropper. But collecting pepper seeds and bottles of hot sauce has become an obsessive hobby of mine. I've grown to like the way certain chilies taste and smell, and I'm deeply fascinated by their long and oddly convoluted history. I've come to greatly enjoy the slow glow that originates at the mouth and spreads north and south (which may be why some believe they're an aphrodisiac).

Now, whenever I'm cooking, or whenever I'm standing out in my garden, I can relive all kinds of trips: Cuba, Australia, Jamaica, Indonesia, Thailand, and lots of other places where people grow and use the little darlings — and that includes just about every region on earth.

A lesson in travel is what hot peppers are. Ask a schoolchild what Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492, and he or she will say the Americas. Ask a chilihead, and the response will be "capsicums."

Capsicum is a genus of waxy fruits — all containing the potent alkaloid capsaicin — that are indigenous to a large tropical swath of the New World ranging from Amazonia all the way to Mesoamerica. These plants were called chil by the Aztecs, and they have been on the move ever since.

According to some archaeologists, the indigenous peoples of the New World have been cultivating and eating hot peppers for 6,500 years. When Columbus landed, capsicums were vital to the diet of many of the Native Americans he met. In a log from his second voyage, Columbus wrote of chilies that the "Caribs and Indians eat that fruit as we eat apples."

In 1492 there were fewer than a half-dozen species of Capsicum being cultivated in the Americas. In subsequent years, European explorers collected two principal species of peppers — C. annuum and C. chinense — from what is now the West Indies and Central and South America and steadily distributed them around the world.

Seeds from those original peppers probably followed the ancient trade routes, sailing from the Americas to Europe and Africa, on to India, China, and Thailand, where they were sold or traded by merchants who did not know they were revolutionizing the cuisines of the world for all time.

What was once a spice has nowadays become a way of life. There are hundreds of hot pepper societies around the world and hundreds of thousands of die-hard chiliheads who network on chili home pages on the World Wide Web. The present boom in the United States got started sometime back in the eighties, and it's proven to be one of those exceedingly durable trends, like fly-fishing and single-malt scotch, that won't let up. Not that I've paid much attention. My own interest in the subject continues to be random and solitary, though increasingly informed.

Recently, for instance, I learned that my Indian friend in Fiji wasn't the first person to believe that hot peppers are aphrodisiacs. According to Jean Andrews's excellent book Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums (University of Texas Press) this myth got started sometime in the late 1500s, when Father Jos‰ de Acosta, a missionary, warned that their use "is prejudiciall to the health of young folkes, chiefely to the soule, for that it provokes to lust."

Chilies may be lust-provoking (we chili-eaters certainly hope so), but the missionary was sadly mistaken in calling them "prejudiciall to the health." We now know that one medium-size green chili pepper contains 130 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C — a higher concentration than citrus fruit. It's also known that capsicums can help prevent dangerous blood clots. There's increasing evidence that hot peppers can reduce inflammatory responses, including those in burns, some nerve disorders, and arthritis. Researchers at the National University of Singapore have even made claims that certain chilies can protect stomach cells against damage caused by alcohol and that they may also help prevent ulcers.

Not only that, but medical research has confirmed something dedicated chili-eaters have known all along: that we, in fact, enjoy an emotional "high." The burning sensation caused by peppers triggers the manufacture of endorphins, the body's own painkillers. The euphoria is similar to that enjoyed by long-distance runners and other endurance athletes who have yet to learn that they could feel just as good by curling up with a cold six-pack and a couple of habaneros.

There is no country on earth, I have discovered, that is too poor to cultivate chilies, and there is no citizenry so downtrodden that it will not cheerfully discuss and exaggerate the merits of its own local stock.

In the mountain city of Jalapa, Mexico — where it is widely believed that jalape±os originated — I obtained from a local man a small bag of what he said were seeds from the "original and authentic" jalape±o plant that only his family now possessed.

"My family has treasured and protected these pepper plants for at least 200 years," he told me. "Maybe more. You will not believe the heat in these peppers. It is a wild and ancient heat that touches the soul!"

Chilies may indeed touch the soul, but they contribute little to the intellect, as I once discovered during a trip to Vietnam. In the Central Highlands, I hired a car and driver to take me from Pleyku to Saigon. The Vietnamese are a great people, but their driving skills were handed down by a consortium of drunken French colonialists and former MiG fighter pilots, the net result being that the country's mountain roads are death traps.

My own driver was typical — a speed demon blithely unimpressed by the prospect of road carnage. Then I noticed a tiny bag of purplish black chilies on the seat beside me.

I suddenly imagined that I had a kinship with this lead-footed man: We shared the same obsession. If I could turn our journey into a collegial hunt for pepper seeds, I thought, perhaps my driver would back off the accelerator just a little.

I let him know what I wanted. His reaction was enthusiastic. Yes, he knew just where I could find some seeds from an incredibly hot black Vietnamese pepper — and then he mashed the gas pedal to the floor.

I knew only a couple of useful phrases in Vietnamese (for instance, Toi khong phai nguoi nga — "I am not a Russian"), but I knew enough about the country's drivers to ask a Vietnamese-American friend back in Hanoi what to say when I wanted to go slower.

Now I spoke the word: "Nhanh...áNhanh!"

My driver chuckled and we skidded through the next curve, going just as fast as we could go.

I tried again, yelling, "NHANH! NHANH!"

No response. We flew over hills and through villages, scattering curly-tailed dogs and cyclists and idiotic chickens.

Getting the man to slow down was hopeless, so I finally crawled over the seat and lay on the floor, resigned to the inevitable crash.

Yet we didn't crash. We found some pepper seeds, we made it to Saigon, and it wasn't until days later that I learned that my evil friend — thinking it was funny — had intentionally given me the wrong word for "slow."

"You dolt," my friend explained, "nhanh means 'faster.'"

"Great joke," I told him. "Hey — try one of these black peppers. They're mild as Nebraska squash."

I've planted and grown many chilies over the years, but in my travels I've taste-tested only several dozen of the hundreds of pepper sauces that are available around the world. Here are some hot sauces that I liked a lot, or at least that I found especially memorable: Red Extracto from Nicaragua, Majestica Hot Sauce from Singapore, Twin Elephants from Thailand, Tamarindo Pepper Sauce from Costa Rica, Congo Picante from Panama, Salsa Verde Picante from Cuba.

But recently, traveling through Colombia, I came across a local concoction that I believe was the best hot sauce I've ever tried. It was a pungent green, quite hot but not too hot. It had the fragrance of rich vinegar and crushed pepper blooms. It was simple. It was pure. Its name was Aji Amazona.

For me, successful travel requires serendipitous intersectings, and that's just what happened in Colombia. I was staying on the island of Manga, just off Cartagena, at a great little marina called Club Nautico. When I remarked upon the sauce, the marina's owner, an expatriate Aussie, replied, "Yeah — pretty good stuff, isn't it? I happen to know the guy who makes it."

Their little factory, Comexa, was a short taxi ride away from the marina, so I went to buy a case. I also met the proprietor, Jorge Araujo. "If you want to learn about peppers," Araujo told me, "I will show you."

Araujo took me out to the lush farming region where locals raised the chili peppers from which the hot sauce was made. As he drove, he remarked on the serious problems the area had been having with guerrilla kidnappers and bandits. Earlier that week, two German tourists had been robbed and murdered. I'd also heard that Colombian guerrillas were kidnapping as many as a thousand people a year, holding them for ransom.

Araujo said he knew nothing about this, though he did note that we weren't far from an area that "is not so safe." But all I saw were bright green fields and quiet villages and grinning children. Locals were selling buckets of wild honey, mangoes, and boxes of tamarind pods. Farmers were loading peppers, which would be packed with vinegar in tight wooden kegs and left to age for a year before processing.

Araujo told me that he had been in the wholesale pepper business, supplying produce to larger companies, when a "miracle" happened: an accidental cross-pollination.

"In the fields," he said, "our growers had cayenne peppers, but they also had a local variety called pipon, a big, red, stomachy variety that no manufacturer really wanted."

The pepper that resulted from this fortuitous cross-pollination was a rare specimen indeed. "It had a wonderful smell to it and a very bright color like no other I'd ever seen," said Araujo. "We called it the Accidental Pepper. But what could we do with it? We decided to try to make our own sauces."

Eventually Jorge christened this accidental hybrid "the Amazona." Named for the region where all chilies probably originated, it now follows its pre-Columbian ancestors on newer trade routes.

"Have you tried it?" Jorge asked.

I'd sampled the sauce back in Cartagena, I said, but I hadn't yet taken a bite of the actual pepper. And truth be told, I wasn't sure I wanted to. For all I knew, it could be perfect.

Illustration by Elwood Smith

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