After my arrival in Brazil, I enjoyed some weeks of mocking Brazilians for their pedestrian chillies (aka peppers for the Americans). When I first landed in, I was in Minas Gerais, and chillies aren’t big in the food there. Supermarkets don’t even carry chillies, and when they do, it is one or maybe two kinds. They have somewhat sharp variety called Malagueta, which I was warned falsely as having sting enough to kill a small monkey. While not completely writing Malaguetas off as lollipops, I was not entirely impressed by these chillies and longed for some hardcore Andhra Pradesh style noxious little bastards that scald every body part that comes within whiff range.
One afternoon, my local host Rodrigo took me to the “Mercado Central” the main market at Belo Horizonte that meets in the mornings. You can get a wide choice of fresh food, and local food and craft products. Rodrigo’s quest was to bring back his homeland’s pride and return me the favour of malice, by treating me to chillies that could aptly crush my macho mudslinging at the Brazilian capacity for spice.
The first spice shop we went to had a few bottles of chillies packed in brine (common in Brazil – homes and restaurants have bottles packed in with chillies, with Cachaca poured in them so the Cachaca gradually becomes a spicy sauce by pulling in the flavour of the chillies, usually Malaguetas). When asked if he had anything strong enough, the proprietor of the store said he did not, and directed us to a small shop somewhere further into the inner reaches of Mercado Central, and to ask for “The Prophet’s Shop”. As we left, he qualified that we may not leave the prophet’s joint alive, that it would not be surprising to die on the spot after sampling.
So we got to the shop. It was a small shop, but it was located perfectly, at the exact end of a long hallway of shops – such that you see it from a distance, then can approach it in slow, building melodrama. There are about 20-different varieties of chillies all arranged in boxes on a counter tilted 45 degrees down. Over the counter, stands the prophet, and over the prophet, a sign saying “Paraiso das Pimentas” – Paradise of Chillies. The Prophet of Pimente, as everyone knows him, stands stone faced and disinterested in you, as you approach him, and continues to show no emotion after your status as a potential customer has been made evident.
Rodrigo told him the whole story about loss of national pride, and asked that the most drastic Pimente available should be given to me for testing. The Prophet waited a moment, swiftly turned and picked out a small yellow pimente, and said “This is from the Amazonas (Para). Only the Native Americans (called Indios here) have the recipe to make this properly, and I grow it on a very special piece of land” and handed it to me. By mentioning Para and the Native Americans, Prophet had already raised the bar – these weren’t your average city dweebs, now we were in the Orientalist land of natural foods that were once designed and harvested to poison and torture captured enemies.
Immediately, all eyes were on me – the Prophet, his wiry assistant, Rodrigo, and by now a few neighboring shopkeepers and passers-by who were curious to see if the downfall of an unwitting tourist were in order for the afternoon. The little yellow chilly looked rather innocuous, something like a still-born capsicum. I sniffed I from afar, to check if it had the toxicity of the average Andhra pepper. It didn’t.
Not to be publicly undone at such a critical moment, I immediately rose to the task and chewed off a huge chunk of the yellow fruit. It went through well, rather painlessly, and felt something like a raw bell pepper stalk at first. It took a few chews for the seeds to start bursting.
Then I discovered parts of my tongue that I did not know existed. These were first tingled, to get them excited, then hammered by an acidic blast. This was rapidly followed by a spectacular feeling of a full-blown inferno around the throat area as it passed down the saliva which had by now been infected with the venomous micro-flakes of the prophet’s fruity scepter. My face, about to explode, kept remarkably straight, as everyone stared waiting for an expression. Never to be undone in public, I stated emphatically that the chilly was “Pretty Good.”
I maintained no eye contact with anyone for over a split second, in case veins in my eyes detonated in public. I was barely able to shadow my tears from all and sundry. A few passers-by looked with curiosity at this strange foreigner in the Prophet’s realm. Rodrigo was pleased at finally having come up with a chilly that was good enough for me (I bought five bottles).
And the last variable in the equation, the prophet, stood vindicated. Everyone else may have stood awed at my successful devouring of that one chilly, but the prophet knew what went on behind that face. Like a good tourist, I took a picture shaking hands with the prophet, not as equals, but as a man who humbly recognized the prophet’s right to that name.