Habañero heat wave

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6th October 2015

As I write this, September is drawing to a close. I’m bleary eyed having woken up in the middle of the night to watch the super moon lunar eclipse. These events always make you think about your place in the universe. I watched the shadow move across the moon surprisingly quickly; shivering in my PJ’s in the garden I certainly didn’t feel as though I was moving through space at 1000 mph, and yet the evidence was before my eyes. I realised yet again that smartphones and cameras have nothing on the human eye, as my blurry photos of the dusty-red moon will attest. I’m glad I made the effort, on such a clear night it was definitely something worth seeing. And the children were no doubt delighted to be woken up to share in the experience.

I was fairly surprised that I managed to wake up at all given how tired I was after a weekend of cooking and serving food to the thousands of visitors to Hyde Hall, just outside Chelmsford in the glorious Essex countryside. This weekend with its surprisingly warm weather saw the annual chilli festival take place within the Royal Horticultural Society gardens, and once again they invited to me to do live cooking demonstrations for the visitors throughout the weekend, all with a chilli theme.

And there was an added bonus. During a meeting with Lara, the event organiser, she advised me that the Indian food stall from last year had unexpectedly withdrawn from the event. I’ve been thinking about breaking into festival food myself and it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a go. So with three days notice, and mainly via the power of online ordering, Saira’s Bengali street food stall was up and running by 10 am Saturday morning!

The menu of Chotpoti (my signature tamarind and chilli chick-pea dish), Chicken Jalfrezi and samosas was simple enough, but the logistics of transporting and then serving hot food in essentially a tent in a field is something else. It was a family affair in terms of service, Jim and Tommy were there and also my chef friend Jon, and between them we cooked and served over 400 samosas, and several hundred portions of the curries too. The boys were awesome, and exhausted after 2 days of service, as well as the mountain of prep that happens beforehand, but we left happy and with some incredibly good feedback on the food which is of course, all that matters.

I couldn’t help with service very much, as I was busy with six cooking demos over the 2-day event to really great crowds in the marquee. I shared 3 recipes during the demos, all inspired by the amazing chilli fruits on display grown by the RHS gardeners and from the garden centre at Battlebridge Mills which specialises in chilli seeds and plants (tag line – the hottest gardeners in Essex!), along with the other chilli-inspired products being showcased at the festival. There were chilli sauces and jams by producers such as Glyn Kirpalani who owns Norfolk Heatwave featured on BBC’s Countryfile, and who in a bizarre twist of fate used to work with Jim and me years ago in Heathrow Immigration. It’s amazing where former officers end up! There were also spice kits and curry sauces for sale, chilli beers, chilli-inspired art, jewellery and pottery which was all flying off the shelves in the late summer sunshine.

My role as festival chef was to showcase chillies and also to give people new and fresh ideas for cooking with this amazing ingredient. I am a huge fan of chillies, and will munch away on raw green chillies alongside my curries and put hot sauce on cheese on toast. I cook with them in so many different dishes, not only Indian food. It’s not all about heat, it is absolutely about the flavour and aroma cooking with fresh chillies introduces into your repertoire. I spoke to the audience about how to deal with the range and versatility of chillies in cooking, so much depends on the chilli itself, the way you prepare them and when you introduce them into the cooking process.

This year, Alan Lodge from Battlebridge Mills had selected another fabulous range of chillies for me to cook with. I had the gloriously named Pink Habañero (more on that later), the Super, the Santa Fe Grande, the really hot Datil and one of my personal favourites the Hot Lemon. There’s nothing like a cocktail with samples to get a cooking demo going, and for this year’s choice I wanted to channel my summer holiday experiences of Cuba and came up with a chilli Mojito. For obvious reasons the Pink Habañero was the chilli of choice; Habañero is of course not just a type of chilli pepper but also the word to describe a native or resident of Havana; or Habana as it is properly known in Cuba.

Having consumed rather a lot of mojitos in Cuba and payed close attention to the methods used by the bar staff, I have now developed the ultimate Mojito recipe. My favourite rum was the 7 year old Santiago de Cuba, but if you can’t get this, an aged Havana Club golden rum is really good in this cocktail too. But if an old bottle of Bacardi is all that there is in the back of your cupboard – that’ll work too! Feel free to try it, get out there while the sun’s still shining and make Mojitos!

Saira’s Pink Habañero Mojito

Ingredients (2 servings)

Two measures (60 mls) Havana Club aged dark rum

1 lime, cut into eights (halves then quarters)

1 chilli, a habañero or jalapeño, sliced lengthways through the stalk

4 stalks of fresh mint and leaves

2 tsps caster sugar (or 20 mls of sugar syrup)

Ice cubes

Splash of sparkling water to top up


  1. Split the chilli lengthways. Bruise the mint stalks and leaves in your hands but don’t chop them or the leaves will discolour.
  1. Place the chilli and mint in a jug, or straight in the glasses. Cut the limes and squeeze some juice in to the jug before throwing the pieces in afterwards too. Add the sugar or sugar syrup and muddle together well.
  1. Add in the rum and ice and mix well with a long spoon until the sugar has dissolved.
  1. Top up with sparkling water then strain into a glass. Garnish with a slice of chilli.

Don’t forget the longer you leave the chilli in, the hotter your cocktail will get! Fiery chilli and warming rum combined with the freshness of lime and mint. Doesn’t get much better than this…