A dear friend visited from Singapore the other day bearing three gifts. For my wife, a bottle of Taittinger (in my opinion the best non-vintage champagne). For my little boy Jacob, training chopsticks. And for me, The Punisher.
The Punisher is the name given by his family to the handcrafted chili sauce which his wife manufactures in collaboration with their Indonesian maid. I sense that The Punisher’s presence in their home is similar to that of a minor family deity: an essential part of the fabric of life, but to be approached with caution due to its magical powers and potential for mischief.
The Punisher emerged from my friend’s suitcase looking like a bomb. Its small glass vessel was encased in a sarcophagus of newspaper, Tupperware, and layer upon layer of tape. When finally unbound, The Punisher sat malevolently on my table, daring me to approach.
What a brilliant gift, and not without risk. What if the jar has exploded in his suitcase? What if nervy customs officials at JFK had mistaken it (not unreasonably) for WMD and shot my friend on sight?
I’ll say it now: it is the greatest hot sauce I have ever tasted. Naturally I wouldn’t dare ask the recipe, because that’s just not the sort of thing one does. But there’s lots of garlic, an intriguing blend of exotic hot peppers, and spices which are hard to pin down but unmistakably redolent of the sweltering Orient.
The Punisher’s heat is nuanced. It isn’t one of those pointlessly aggressive hot sauces whose labels typically feature childish illustrations of, say, a thermonuclear mushroom cloud or a cartoon face screaming in agony. Those concoctions are stupid, and about as satisfying as slamming your penis in a car door.
No, the Punisher’s heat is of the paradoxical pleasure-meets-pain, ‘stop-it-I-like-it’ variety, like wiggling a loose tooth, or how some people enjoy having their hair pulled in bed. Its heat is a gradual approach, enriched by a tang of garlic, moderated by a shadow of background sweetness, segueing into a satisfying, sultry warmth on the back of the throat which gradually diffuses up the nostrils into a fruity lingering afterglow.
The Punisher goes marvelously with pretty much anything that benefits from a decisive jab of heat. Fried rice, naturally. Chicken satay, of course. A day-old slice of pizza skulking in your fridge? The perfect match.
But this weekend I paired The Punisher with Middle Eastern-ish Kofta alla Shish, aka minced lamb on skewers. Yes, yes, I know they look like little turds. But the abrasive punch of chili sauce cuts nicely through the fatty sweetness of grilled lamb (which enjoys a teaspoon each of cinnamon, paprika and cumin). Recipe for Kofta alla Shish follows (adapted from Claudia Roden). Recipe for The Punisher does not follow, because I don’t know it. But to my friend from Singapore… you know who you are. Thank you for the killer gift.
Minced Lamb Skewers. Serves six.
1kg (2 1/4 lb) lamb from the leg or shoulder with a good amount of fat
Bunch of parsley
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of paprika
1 teaspoon of cumin
Blend all the ingredients into a coarse paste in a food processor. Wet your hands, take portions of meat and wrap them around a skewers in sausage shapes. (If you have the skewers with flat sections, so much the better.) Grill over gas / charcoal, or under your broiler turning at least once. Serve immediately with parsley and lemon to garnish.
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