Hot peppers are a signature staple in most Belizean homes. Green to yellow to orange and red, they are used in a variety of ways in the kitchen. While habaneros are not the only peppers we eat, thanks to hot sauce maker Marie Sharp, they are pretty iconic. Thus, a bottle of Marie Sharp’s often graces our tables. More often than not however, some variation of homemade hot sauce takes center stage during family meals, and everyone partakes – young and old.
Growing up in the village of San Antonio, we grew pretty much everything we ate. I can remember my grandmother snapping off bunches of okra from the vine, plucking sun ripened tomatoes and prepping chaya leaves. My cousins and I would round up the eggs from the chicken coop and pretty soon, a delicious feast would be on the table to enjoy. Accompanying the meals would be some curtido (onions and chopped habaneros soaked in a briny vinegar base), or a favorite of my grandma’s, her fried peppers.
She would take a bunch of tiny red chiles, something we called bird peppers, and drop it in a pan with hot coconut oil and some thinly sliced shallots. After a nice sauté, she would take the cooked mixture and in her special wooden mortar and pestle, grind it all up. That tiny wizened woman then spread some of the spicy concoction on her corn tortillas, eating the rest of her meal with extra spice. Of course, having learned a hot lesson by sneaking a taste, we children were more than satisfied with a small sprinkle of curtido.
The older we get, the more our palate can handle and soon, habaneros, sometimes referred to as Maya Cherries, are a proper staple. Soup for lunch? Drop a couple habaneros in the pan before turning off the heat. Want to eat some tart green fruits? Smash up some habaneros with salt, add a little spice to the mix. Making Sunday dinner? Roast habaneros and make a delicious smoky mix to bring some heat to the dish. Ceviche time? Toss in some fresh slices of habanero – mind the seeds!
Growing up familiar with hot peppers as part of every meal often has us reaching for that something extra to take our dishes over the edge; it’s as Belizean as Rice and Beans!