Grow chilies in the garden, my grandmother used to say. Green chilies are fine. Red ones are better. Chili eaten fresh, or combined with other elements, makes everything taste better. Chili is spicy, zingy, and fiery. It is hot and addictive; it makes you want for more food. Chili is the crucial ingredient for the best side dishes. If possible, grow tomatoes next to the chili plants. Grind chilies, tomatoes, garlic, and shallot. Add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. I might add more tomatoes slices to make a nice sambal tomat—tomato relish.
The next step is to cook rice. Add a pinch of salt to a plate of white rice. Salted fish of course would make it perfect. Blanch a bunch of vegetables of any sort that have been lurking in the kitchen. Hot white rice, with salty things, boiled vegetables, and sambal on the side, is considered a full meal. I grew up with this kind of food wisdom. When things seem to get tough, chilies and tomatoes plants form simple self-sustainability system at home.
One day Cahaya, our daughter, tasted Andy’s sparkling mineral water. After a sip, she frowned and said, “It’s pedas!” Pedas is an Indonesian word for hot and spicy. In Cahaya’s case, pedas represents a specific situation that she chose to articulate in Indonesian, instead of English—her almost-mother tongue. Fizziness can feel surprising and unexpected. Likewise, one would never able to guess the hotness level that chili could bring; each chili is a surprise. It challenges the gut.
One silly thing, among other silly things that my oldest sister and I did when we were younger, was eating chili competition. We cut fresh fruits—unripe mangoes, pineapples, and papaya. I think we also added up cucumber to it. Fresh fruit put aside. We prepared a thick red sweet-sour-hot sauce made from ground palm sugar, fresh tamarind paste, chilies, and warm water. We made rujak manis. The challenge was how much chilies we could put into the sauce. My sister won the competition—15 chilies went into her rujak sauce. I only put 7 or 8 chilies into my sauce. We did not really set the prize for the winner as far as I can remember. Perhaps to take up the challenge is already a courageous thing.