Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

Cooking with Hurricane Irma, Part I: Tomatoes Breathing Fire: A Universal Sauce


I am of the unpopular opinion that no one owns cuisine. In spite of UNESCO decrees and loud cries from the lecture stand or pages of popular books, the fact remains: Food and ingredients travel with people. People share food. People love food. People want the recipes. Or at least the basic facts about how to recreate tastes that enticed them on the road, in a dive of a tavern in the middle of nowhere, or while dining at the pinnacle of the Tour d’Argent in Paris.

So the following story tells a tale of a tomato sauce that I’d known, loved, and cooked for years. The scene opens in West Africa … .

Michel placed the small white sauce boat next to my plate, the one with the chip on the spout. “Just a little, Madame, just a little,” he cautioned me in his Moré-accented French. I took a small coffee spoon and put a walnut-sized dab of the sauce next to the grilled guinea hen leg already cooling on the plate in front of me. All it took was one bite of that sauce and I thought, “Oh, this reminds me of something!”

There, in my dining room in Ouagdougou, Burkina Faso, I tasted hints of an Indian tomato sauce I’d been making for years. “Hot Hyderabad Tomato Relish,” from page 441 of Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, to be exact.


And then there’s the “Rougail of Tomatoes” [sic] in Louise Mayard’s Tropical Cooking (Cuisine des Pays Chauds), a small book I’d picked up while living in Haiti: almost the same concoction. Follow the trail to Mauritius, where the same rendition occurred, and others in East Africa. But before that, though, consider the chirmol of southern Mexico and the rest of Central America.

Chirmol resembles Pico de Gallo in some renditions, but it’s not. The name comes from a variation of chilmolli, a Nahuatl word, according to Maricel E. Presilla in Gran Cocina Latina (p. 119).

It seems to me that these tomato/chile sauces owe more to Native American cooks than not … .

Hot-Hot Tomato Condiment
Makes 2 ½-3 cups

4 T. peanut oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 habanero peppers, seeded, and finely chopped (leave seeds in for an even hotter taste)
8 large plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy-bottomed skillet. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until garlic turns slightly golden in color. Add peppers and fry for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Slip tomatoes carefully into the oil to avoid splattering, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook for 2 minutes and then lower the heat. Simmer uncovered until oil separates from the tomatoes. Store in a covered container for up to a week. Use as a condiment with any main dish.

(I’m awaiting the eye of Hurricane Irma. Cooking keeps me sane in the face of the coming insanity.)

© 2017 C. Bertelsen