Yes, that’s right I ate my first chilli when I was 8 and I credit, or blame, depending on your point of view, my Grandfather and my Uncles.
My grandparents lived in suburban Hurstville in Sydney and my grandfather maintained a large home vegetable garden in his backyard supplying vegetables to the extended family. He mainly grew pumpkin and potatoes but he also had figs, zucchini, peas, mint, parsley, broad beans, eggplant and hiding by itself in the top corner was a chilli plant.
I don’t remember exactly why we were gathered at my grandparents place that day, we were there most Sunday’s when I was growing up, but we were in the backyard after lunch enjoying the sunshine and I was mucking around with my younger brothers and cousins.
The chilli plant was ripe with bright red fruit and I asked my grandfather and uncles, who were sitting close by, what they were.
"Just pick and eat, it’s just fruit"
They explained convincingly that it was fruit and I should pick one and try it. I really didn’t hesitate, I had spent lots of time with my Grandfather in his garden and we ate a lot of things straight out of the garden, so I picked the biggest one on the bush and bit into it.
My mouth exploded! My eyes started watering and I dropped the rest of the chilli on the floor and started scratching at my tongue, I then ran inside screaming and crying asking for water. I explained to my mother between screams and sobs what had happened and the next thing I know she is tearing out the back door to rip her brothers a new one!
As an 8-year-old you can appreciate that the rest of my afternoon was spent cradled very close to my mother feeling sorry for myself and also lapping up the sympathy from my grandmother and aunts, of whom there were many. I have to admit it was a good practical joke, good enough that I repeated it on my younger cousins over the years.
Eat the chilli, get the girl!
I really didn’t touch chillis again until I was in my early twenties…this time to impress a girl. We had just started dating and we were at a mutual friend’s house for dinner, our friend who was Fijian Indian, was cooking us an Indian feast, and she had a jar of pickled chillis in the kitchen that she was using in the curries and after asking a few questions about the chillis she offered me one to try. The afternoon at my Grandfather’s house was very vivid in my mind but I was out to impress the girl; I can take on the world…one chilli is not going to hurt…right?
After the first bite I knew I had made a mistake…these were bloody hot chillis, even today with my strong tolerance for chilli, these were f**king hot and the vinegar and salt of the pickling process only served to make them hotter. I did not start screaming and running around in panic like my eight-year-old self had done but I sure wanted too.
“It’s hot, but I’m OK”
My face and mouth were on fire and my eyes would not stop watering. I started choking and spluttering but worked very hard to return to an outward state of calm to maintain some dignity and when I was asked by the assembled group, who were all holding back laughter, if I was OK, I started nodding and smiling saying “It’s hot, but I’m OK” but I don’t think it would have been very convincing as I was a running river of sweat and as red as an English tourist on Bondi Beach. The worst part of it was I did not taste the beautiful meal that had been put together because I could not feel my tongue or mouth for the rest of the night and any time I put anything that had the slightest bit of heat in my mouth it would start burning all over again…like I said it was a f**king hot chilli.
This second baptism of fire was the real start of my chilli journey and I have not looked back, it took a few months to build up a good tolerance to get past the burning heat and appreciate the flavour, but I took it as a personal challenge and today I enjoy chilli and peppers in all their shapes and sizes…especially in that little red bottle of hot sauce and ChilliBOM just makes sense.
And yes I know you’re wondering, did it impress the girl, I will leave it up to you to decide…I ended up marrying her and she is as much of a chilli freak as I am!
When did you lose your chilli virginity?
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