Remember the Chili

I can’t remember when I decided that I wanted to grow my own chillis. The earliest memory I could think of was when I was still working in The Evil Corp. A few of my colleagues, as we did in Gamen Office were spending ages standing together over at the cubicles. Specifically my cubicle, which since I barely had any work anyway, I did not mind.

One of my colleagues suddenly asked, “Hey, you guys want chilli?”

I’m sure this was frankly bizarre that anyone could ask such a question when, as an organization we deal mostly in finance.

But, we are, Malaysians at heart and chilli is a very important part of our life. Except for me, of course, since despite being born Malay as my Malaysian friends mock, I can’t eat chilli without choking. Heck, I’ve been deceiving a very dear friend of mine for years about my ability to eat spicy food – I had to play up the I’m Asian card and everything, you know.

But I digress. This is not about my wimpiness on consuming chilli. This was about the chilli that my colleague was offering.

“Say what?” was everybody else’s response.

“No, seriously. A friend of mine came back from Bangladesh recently and she brought back chilli. Damn hot one! You want?”

It was an offer no one can refuse, really.

A bit of background to this story. As of late, chilli in Malaysia had become extremely inconsistent. Sometimes you could buy a bag of bright red chillis, chop them up and find that you could munch on them like snacks without a hint of a bite at all. And then the next week, you could buy the same bag and then spend about an hour sticking your tongue out under a running tap.

Again, it could just be me, I’m a big wimp that way.

But the overall consensus within my family and friends, using a highly unscientific polling technique, is that chillis in Malaysia in general have not become rather mild. Food is starting to taste rather bland and my dad has resorted to munching on green chilli like crackers for some sort of bite. Nowadays, he takes it like a salad since it’s that mild.

Perhaps that was when I started to be interested in growing my own chillis. That instead of relying on other people to grow my chilli for me, I could grow it myself. I thought about it as I stood by my colleague who continued to rave about the chillis from Bangladesh. And then I received an email from my boss who always want things done by yesterday, and promptly forgot about it.

The next time I thought about growing my own chillis was when I suddenly got a thing for nachos. It’s not just a thing. It’s an addiction. Still is.

The thing about Mexican cooking is that it uses jalapenos instead of bright red Thai chillis that we are used to. I made chilli once using Thai red chillis and it did not give me that wonderful earthiness chilli has in the States. And using Thai green chillis as a substitute for jalapenos is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Don’t believe me? Try whipping yourself a batch of salsa – one with Thai green chilli and the other with jalapenos which you can get at Jusco supermarket. Taste the difference as Sainsbury’s would say.

I once told my mum that I am going to open a chilli farm. “After I write my bestselling novel, of course,” I said to her. My mother cracked up so hard, she teared up. I would like to think she was mocking either the chilli farm or the bestselling novel idea. Not both. Because that would be well harsh.

Because around the same time I discovered jalapenos, I discovered that there were millions of varieties of chillis out there. There was the habanero, the naga chilli, the scotch bonnet which features predominantly in Jamaican cooking. And since keeping halal meant that I can’t just drop by restaurants worldwide, I wanted to find all these great ingredients so I can taste the flavours other cultures have created. I wanted these chillis, dammit.

All the while I’ve been dreaming about growing my own chilli farm, another country, my ahem, other motherland, had stopped dreaming and started doing. Which motherland? Why, the UK of course! Somehow, within the last ten, twenty years the British began craving chilli. The British? Craving chilli? Surely not, the purveyors of bland food cannot actually be wanting chilli!

Come on, I lived in the UK. I knew what their food was like. Bland. And rather boring.

Which was why when the Guardian published their very smug article about how Britain has some of the best food in the world, I cracked up. And forwarded the article around. We had a good laugh altogether. And then there was a segment on River Cottage where Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall went to a chilli farm and had some chillis. He choked. I laughed, thinking, ah Westerners. They can’t handle their chilli.

I went to the UK as a student in 2001. Ten years have passed since I got the shock of my life when the Resident Tutor told us that “If we wanted to have a fag, just step outside since this is a non-smoking resident hall” My poor, poor, virgin, politically correct ears. Fast forward to 2011, I was keen to see how much have changed in the UK.

Of course, some things have changed. But most of all, I was really surprised with the quality of food that you can get in the UK. There had been a campaign for all things fresh, and food is very fresh and very tasty. But most surprising of all, was the abundance of chilli. While 10 years ago, chilli was in tubes that you buy at the fresh produce section, today you can get a variety of chillis at the supermarket. Even in Scotland. In a tiny town called St. Andrews you can get birds-eye chilli from Britain. British birds-eye chilli. Would wonders never cease.

My dad was excited, I don’t know why he was so excited to see chilli but there he was like a small boy, having seen the chocolate aisle in Tesco for the first time (wait, that was my brother). He insisted my mum bought him some and then later that evening, he did what he used to do in Malaysia. He munched on them like snacks.

Which was a big mistake, because automatically, he teared up and he choked. He stopped talking because he could not handle the heat. It was only after he felt better did he say that it was spicy. Like a lot spicier than the chilli in Malaysia.

“But they’re British!”

My dad, who had always been a champion of British engineering said, “Whatever the British do, they do it very well. Even chillis.”

I joked to my friends later on that it’s all set. I can move to the UK now. There’s chilli in St Andrews, enough to make an Asian a happy bunny. But in another way, it’s terrifying to think that what used to be the purvue of Asia, the chilli has now started to become the staple of a Western palate. This is no means to be used to rile up xenophobic sentiments but it should give us pause for thought. In the last ten years, the country was changing itself – from eating bland, boring foods to growing some of the best chillis that I’ve ever tasted.

*Look away now, unless you can tolerate a bit of pontificating from my end*

There are so many things I admire about the British, which is probably why I keep going back there. While our former Prime Minister told us to look East in the 80s, I still look West. There are many things I admire about what the West had done, their own atrocities, stupidity and arrogance aside. I’ve always admired their innovation and most of all, their fierce independence. No one can tell them what to do, and if they want to do something, by God, they’ll just do it.

A bit like the chilli farms. I doubted the government told them “Go forth and make chilli farms!” Nor did they wait until the every factor was right. They just did it. I’m sure people mocked them, saying the Brits don’t eat chilli. But they did it anyway. And they’ve succeeded.

In Asia, especially in Malaysia, it is in our culture to wait, to get angry and to hope that things will change for the better. We can’t go into business, the government is corrupt. I can’t drive my car, oil prices is too high. I can’t do anything, unless someone else changes things for the better.

And by changing for the better, I mean, by not waiting until the conditions are right, you just do it. The conditions in the UK are all wrong for growing chilli. And they’ve done it fantastically well, even better than a country that could grow chilli, for a country whose staple IS the chilli.

I doubt it is because the government gave them the right incentive, or the sun shines a bit more over there (you know it doesn’t). It is because they have a will, they found a way and they did it in the best way possible. No excuses. And because of that, they have overtaken us.

The British are not better than us. They just worked harder. And they worked well.

Sometimes I get really frustrated living in Malaysia like everything seems to stand in the way of what I want to do. And then I think of the British chillis. They could do it and they’ve done better than us. Remember the Chillis guys, when you think all is lost. Whatever the circumstance, overcome it. And do it well.


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