Jamaican Hot Pepper Pickle

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Photo by: Eartha Lowe -@earthacooks.com

BY: EARTHA LOWE

The “pepper seed” is not just part of the anatomy of wild and domesticated species of peppers that grow into remarkably diverse shapes, resembling string beans or diminutive bananas, cherry tomatoes or miniature lanterns. “Pepper Seed” is also a reggae “riddim,” and, one of many popular Jamaican dance moves. In this dance, it’s all about shoulder movements. You rock your shoulders from right to left then double back, bring it down low and start again. Sounds like moves I make when happily eating but let’s move on. During the “pepper seed” dance your legs are moving right to left as well and what makes it even more complex is that during the movements, your arms and legs are not extended. On the pepper-loving island of Jamaica, the story goes that this particular dance was created to display a Jamaican’s “hotness,” and to highlight the fact that most Jamaican people, no matter what they look like, confidently “tink seh dem hot” (think they’re hot). In a poetic twist related to this dance, it is said that the hottest part of the pepper is the seed.

What Makes Peppers Hot

Though we eat peppers as vegetables or condiments, all are technically fruit, or more specifically, berries, with small seeds borne inside a fleshy outer structure called the pericarp. The pericarp, you will recognize as the only part of a bell pepper (and some other large peppers) that is eaten. In the book “Peppers of the Americas” it breaks it down like this. The most crucial contents of a pepper pod’s interior are the reproductive organs. Starting from the top end, the most conspicuous feature is a pulpy structure called the placenta, which supplies nourishment to the developing seeds. In some kinds, such as the familiar bell pepper, the placenta-seed complex may look like a whitish plug attached to the top; in other peppers, it runs the entire length of the pepper. The number of seeds carried on the placenta varies strikingly between different kinds of peppers, from about a dozen to more than two hundred per fruit.

In every wild species and almost all domesticated cultivars, tiny cells lying close under the surface of the placenta secrete a unique fiery substance produced only by Capsicums (pepper plants) and no other member of the plant kingdom. This fiery substance has often been labeled “capsaicin,” however, as with everything about peppers, the properties of heat are also complex.

Jamaican Hot Pepper Pickle

Anyone who learns to appreciate the spectrum of flavors that the many different hot peppers bring to cooking can also appreciate that their heat has many nuances. Jamaican “Hot Pepper Pickle” is an original vinegary preserve deeply infused with scotch bonnet pepper. The smell of this preserve alone has a recognizable connection to Jamaican cooking. We reach for this steeped pepper vinegar to use in main-dish cooking, as well as a condiment especially on fried fish – think Escovitch Fish. The recipe varies depending on whose making it but generally combines: 1 large carrot (sliced); 1 large onion (sliced); 1 bell pepper (sliced); 2 cups white vinegar; 6 scotch bonnet peppers (sliced) and a handful of pimento seeds (whole allspice).

To preserve, layer the vegetables in a mason jar. Warm the vinegar and pimento in a saucepan without bringing to a boil. Pour the warm vinegar in the mason jar and let cool. Cover with lid and refrigerate once cool. Like a fine wine, this preserve gets better with time.

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