There are people who should really be called chile abusers--ask anybody who's ever been to a chili cook-off or watched a chile-eating contest. But people who actually like to taste their food usually like chiles too, and in countries where peppers are an integral part of the cuisine, they're nearly always in the majority.
These traditional cuisines show the many ways chiles can be used to create exciting dishes that are not mere endurance contests. It's all a matter of imagination and balance. These are some of our favorite hot dishes.
Tibs--pronounced like "tips" but with a sort of hiccup on the t--is the Ethiopian equivalent of an Indian dry curry, but with an earthier perfume. Chicken or beef could be substituted for the lamb.
YE-BEG TIBS (Ethiopian Lamb Hash)
1 pound lamb, boned, trimmed of excess fat
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 tablespoons minced ginger root
1 pound onions, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced serrano or jalapeno chiles
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice of 2 limes
Cut lamb in 1/2-inch cubes and pat dry.
Melt 6 tablespoons butter in small saucepan until butterfat separates. Skim and pour clear butterfat into large skillet. Heat over high heat until light haze forms over pan, about 3 minutes.
Add meat carefully to skillet so that pieces do not touch. (Fry in 2 batches if pan is small.) Stir and fry 5 to 7 minutes. Remove meat and reserve.
If there are blackened juices in bottom of pan, melt additional butter in clean skillet over medium heat. Add cumin, cardamom, ginger, onions, garlic, chiles and green pepper. Fry, stirring frequently, until onions are tender and lightly golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Add nutmeg, pepper, salt and lime juice. Stir thoroughly and cook another 3 minutes. Serve with dollop of yogurt. Makes 2 to 3 servings.
The name of this salad is literally "waterfall beef" because of the waterfall of flavors that it is said to contain. Either that or the waterfall of ice-cold Thai beer you may be tempted to drink with it.
NUEA NAM TOK (Thai Beef Salad)
12 leaves iceberg or romaine lettuce
1 cup diced onion
4 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound round steak, cut in thin strips
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
Arrange 3 lettuce leaves on each plate. Top with diced onion and chopped green onions.
Heat oil in pan and stir-fry beef until browned. Sprinkle beef slices liberally with pepper. Divide beef slices among plates and pour Hot Dressing on top. Garnish with cilantro and serve. Makes 4 servings.
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 jalapeno or 3 serrano chiles, minced
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup lime juice
1 tablespoon peanuts, finely minced
Combine garlic, chiles, sugar, lime juice and peanuts. Season to taste with salt.
In this dish, fish is flavored with an odd but delicious sauce of honey, browned onions and chiles. In effect, it's a candied fish, and it keeps so well that North African travelers sometimes carry it with them on journeys. Adapted from Alan Davidson's book "Mediterranean Seafood."
SHERMULA (Tunisian Spicy Fish With Honey and Raisins)
3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound firm-fleshed fish (such as shark, snapper or halibut), cut into steaks or fillets
2/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
6 tablespoons wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup raisins
Mix 1 teaspoon cayenne, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Rub fish with mixture and let stand in refrigerator 1 hour.
Dredge fish in flour. Heat olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Fry fish, turning halfway through, for total cooking time of 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remove from pan and set aside. Pour off all but 2 to 3 tablespoons oil.
Fry onion in remaining oil until golden, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 2 teaspoons cayenne, wine vinegar, water and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook 5 minutes at medium heat.
Add cinnamon, pepper, honey and raisins. Simmer until water has nearly evaporated and only oil and honey-onion paste remain in skillet, about 7 minutes. Add fish, warm briefly and serve. Makes 2 to 3 servings.