Early in the morning Eli Kremer puts a pot of black coffee on the stove. It’s a short day – he has to pick up his son from kindergarten at 1 P.M. – but the pleasures of the morning peace and quiet are not to be taken lightly. He drinks his first coffee along with fresh carambolas and bunches of longan fruit, a cousin of the lychee, which is also delicious.
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Adele, his black dog, sprawls on the dusty ground opposite the fields. She was a foundling, abandoned several times until the pepper man adopted her. In recent years Kremer, a professional cook, has specialized in the preparation of fermented spicy sauces, based mainly on the habanero chili pepper.
This morning he is preparing a sauce combining habanero, pineapple and lemongrass. He still produces the sauces by hand on a small scale. First he separates yellow-orange habanero peppers from the innumerable green and red ones. To the fresh peppers he adds chunks of pineapple, carrots, onions, garlic and stalks of lemongrass; cooks the fruits and vegetables for a short time; grinds; strains; and then puts the fresh sauce into sterilized blue barrels for some months of fermentation. The final sauce, free of any preservatives or other additives, has a strong yellow color and a complex spicy-sweetish taste.
The production of spicy chili sauces, in small amounts or industrially, is a hot business worldwide. Kalustyan’s – a famous New York spice store owned by an Indian family – has become a mecca for chefs and foodies from all over the world. Their huge selection of hot sauces stretches over a number of crowded aisles from floor to ceiling, featuring sauces with amusing names and colorful illustrated labels that both warn and boast of their piquant contents.
And chili lovers, representing a bustling subculture that includes cooks, growers, scientists and ordinary people with a taste for heat – can point out the sauces they prefer and the advantages of the various types of peppers from which they are produced.
There are sauces made from dried peppers (like harissa or pilpelchuma); there are sauces made from various types of fresh chili peppers – there are over 5,000 different species – which in turn are divided into different varieties. The first and simplest are fresh sauces; to make them you crush chili peppers and add dried spices or herbs, as in zhug (Yemenite hot sauce with cilantro and parsley). There are sauces whose preparation includes cooking the peppers before preserving them for the long term. The most complex and interesting sauces are those in which fresh or cooked peppers undergo long processes of fermentation that change their taste. (Among these are Tabasco and Sriracha, two sauces that also contain vinegar and have conquered the world.)
Kremer is something of an exception on the local scene. There are quite a few chili lovers who prepare spicy sauces by themselves, but not many have taken to producing them commercially, even in small quantities. And the regulatory difficulties with which the State of Israel blocks the path of small manufacturers discourage the development of shelves laden with all kinds of interesting chili sauces.
“I have absolutely no idea how it happened,” replies Kremer in embarrassment when asked how he, of all people, ended up in the spicy pepper business. There’s something clumsy and charming about him, like the TV character Cosmo Kramer from “Seinfeld.” Born in 1979, Kremer, began his career as a cook in Jerusalem cafes and restaurants. First he worked in bars in the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, then in the Te’enim restaurant; when he moved to Tel Aviv he worked in the kitchens of Café Puaa, Toto and Havat Tzuk, among others.
“During a three-month trip to Mexico I first tasted genuine spicy habanero sauces, the kind that leave a tingling spicy taste in your mouth, but also has its own flavor and presence. Zhug and the other kinds of spicy sauces common in Israel are made from Sudanese or shata peppers that are predominantly spicy, and get their flavor mainly from cilantro or other spices.”
The Habanero pepper is part of a subspecies that was mistakenly called capsicum chinense (Chinese pepper) in the 17th century, although its origin, like that of all the spicy peppers, is in Central and South America. It is shaped like an asymmetrical sack, with thin flesh and a pleasant fruity flavor. The taste, which is slightly citrusy, and the flowery aroma remain dominant despite the strong spiciness of the pepper.
“I began growing habanero on my own, from seeds that I brought [from Mexico], but I failed abysmally,” says Kremer. “I was living at the time in Moshav Bnei Zion in the Sharon area, and there I met Matan Feins, who has a lovely organic nursery of edible plants. I discovered that he grows all kinds of hot pepper saplings, including habanero, and then I began cultivating a plot of peppers and producing various sauces from them.”
Slowly but surely, with breaks for a vacation in Sinai or a rest under a tree, Kremer’s hobby became a business, and hopefully a stable and permanent source of income. “I realized people liked the sauces I prepare and I wanted to stop being a salaried worker in commercial kitchens. The next stage was to try to prolong the shelf life of the sauces without adding preservatives, and that’s how I plunged into the fascinating work of fermentation: It totally changes the taste of the original ingredient and adds complex and fascinating layers to it.”
When orders increased, along with quantity, Kremer began to buy peppers from farms in the Arava region that specialize in them. Today he produces four types of sauces: habanero-pineapple; spicy red sauce based on tomatoes and habanero; habanero and chipotle (dried, smoked jalapeno peppers); and an extra-spicy sauce, which in addition to habanero contains the Trinidad Scorpion pepper, which he continues to grow himself.
There’s also a secret sauce with a lovely orange color, based on habanero alone. Lovers of spicy flavors who maintain the entire collection in their kitchens will enjoy a rich variety of complex spicy flavors. Kremer recently received the coveted manufacturing license, thanks to cooperation with a small sauce factory in the south. Now he can increase quantities, while continuing to use fresh ingredients and slow traditional techniques.
Kremer’s Peppers. Available at Delicatessen, Zuk Farm and Shuk Hanamal (Port Market) in Tel Aviv; Farma Cultura (Bnei Zion); Meatshos (Ramat Hagolan) and Para Para (Gedera). For more information on sales points: 972-54-447-5875