This is the mother of all hot sauces. Period. We nicknamed it wagamama sauce for no apparent reason except that it was perhaps the first word that I uttered when I had it for the very first time at my friend Sophie’s place…made by her mother-in-law ( we call her Grandma) with the same love and passion with which she cooked everything else. Sophie and I met through work almost 15 years ago and since then I have been part of the family celebrations right from her wedding to birthdays and anniversaries. Apart from the fantastic spread of West Indian delicacies at every party, the best part for me about being at Sophie’s home was being part of their celebrations and joy, the energy and excitement, the soulful prayers and grace said before every meal, the warmth and friendly hugs …it was infectious.
On my recent visit to London, apart from looking forward to meet the family and the new-born baby at her dedication ceremony, the other thing that was surely on my mind was the food and did they not disappoint me!! There it was, laid beautifully on the table, the most delicious Jellof rice, shrimp and vegetable noodles, penne arrabiata, steamed white rice, the chicken and lamb stews, salads, cheeses and on my request, two versions of the very special chilli sauce – the hot and the super hot.
The best thing about the sauce is that once you have tasted it is really hard to forget the taste. Like the literal translation of wagamama (by the way I just figured that), which is Japanese for a mischievous wilful child, the sauce is determined to get under your skin and permeate through your palate. Despite the simplicity of the four ingredients of which three are as staple as can be and the method itself, which essentially involves blitzing all the ingredients in a blender and cooking out the raw flavours, the result is obnoxiously delicious. This really is the only hot pepper sauce that you will ever need – as a condiment for your roast meats, pastas, noodles, barbeques or as a dip on its own or mixed with a little yoghurt or sour cream for your fried chicken or crudités or just a dollop in your favourite gravies to satisfy that ‘missing something’ feeling. Having said that, this isn’t one of those just blazingly ‘hot’ sauces that burn your tongue and make you sweat but is a deep and complex sauce that is so full of flavour with just the right amount of kick to add a zing to any dish that it is served with.
The original recipe contains Scotch Bonnet peppers which are one of the hottest chilli peppers but because I couldn’t find it in India, I have replaced it with different kinds of chillies to reproduce the same balance of flavours as in the original recipe. Dried bird’s eye chillies for the deep fiery heat, the Kashmiri chillies for the vibrant red colour with a smoky aroma and the fresh red peppers for their tangy and fruity notes. The three collaborate and join forces with the boisterous onions and acidic sweet tomatoes to create this deeply aromatic sauce. When you first taste the concoction, the heat will not strike you immediately but as you have more of the same, it will begin to gradually ‘activate’ the back of your throat and knock your socks off in a good way!! If the number of chillies doesn’t feel appropriate according to your taste, feel free to reduce or increase the quantity of chillies but do ensure you keep the balance with proportionate reduction of onions and tomatoes as well. What I have mentioned in the ingredients gives just the right level of heat to not burn your ears and yet bold enough to leave a tingling sensation. This is after all meant to be a hot chilli sauce, so do be a little brave and go with the proportions mentioned, you won’t be disappointed!
The recipe contains what appears to be a generous quantity of oil but fear not as it is critical to the overall texture, consistency and taste. While it may be seem like a lot to begin with, most of it will get absorbed during the cooking process and what you will be left with is a little layer floating on the top which acts as a preservative. I have used a fairly neutral rice bran oil but you may choose to use any other vegetable or sunflower oil except perhaps avoid strongly flavoured oils such as olive or mustard. Before we get on to actual recipe, I must add that while I have tried to recreate the original recipe, I have to acknowledge the fact that it probably doesn’t and never will taste the same as the original one even if I managed to find scotch bonnet peppers. And that is the magic of food! The exact same recipe with the same ingredients and proportions, faithfully created by two different cooks will taste very different and this is especially true of age-old traditional recipes that have been handed down generations. My mother’s recipes that I try to replicate never, ever, taste the same…in India, we call it ‘every hand’s magic’ and there is probably an equivalent phrase in every other country. A big thank you to Sophie and Grandma for sharing the recipe and for all the wonderful memories created along the way…
- Red onions – 6, medium-sized
- Tomatoes – 6
- Chillies – Fresh red chillies – 8-10 – Dried bird’s eye chillies – 7-8 – Dried Kashmiri chillies – 6-7
- Garlic cloves – 4-5 ( optional)
- Vegetable / sunflower oil – 250 ml
- Salt to season
- Boil a kettle of water and soak the dried chillies in a small bowl of hot water for 5-6 minutes. Strain the water and squeeze out any excess water from the chillies;
- Blanch the tomatoes in a large bowl of very hot water, cover with a lid and leave it for 3-4 minutes. Skin and chop into quarters with seeds intact;
- Peel and chop the onions into quarters, crush the garlic cloves and slice the fresh red chillies with the seeds. Place all the chopped ingredients along with the soaked chillies and a teaspoon of salt in a mixer and blend to a fine-coarse consistency. Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly. You might find the spice levels too hot at this stage but it is meant to be so. Moreover, as the sauce cooks, the flavours will mingle and mellow down;
- Heat the oil in a wide heavy bottomed non-stick pan till fairly hot but not smoking. Lower the heat and carefully pour the sauce in to the pan and bring it up to a gentle simmer. The mixture may bubble and splash a bit initially, so do be careful. Stir the sauce at regular intervals to ensure it cooks evenly and doesn’t catch at the bottom. Keeping the heat at a low flame ensures that the sauce slow cooks and develops the piquant flavours from the chillies together with the sharp onions and sweet tomatoes. You can tell the sauce is ready when it has thickened (drops of the spoon), turned a beautiful crimson and has a little oil floating on the top with all the raw flavoured evaporated to create this wonderful rich sauce;
- Turn off the heat, allow to cool to room temperature and store in sterilised glass jars either in a cool dark place or in the refrigerator. This should keep for 1-2 weeks if at all it lasts that long…
- For the record, this wagamama has nothing to do with the Japanese restaurant chain UK – although that is one my favourite places to eat out;
- If you are lucky enough to get Scotch Bonnet peppers, I would recommend replacing the chillies with about 4-5 peppers;
- The quantities mentioned here are enough to make about 400 grams of sauce;