Indian culture

A hotbed of hot pepper flowers for the West Indian culture of Schenectady


SCHENECTADY – He doesn’t have an official title in the Quarter, but you might want to call him the King of Pepper.

Meet Ramesh Doodnauth, the man perhaps responsible more than any other for the countless chili plants that are beginning to bloom around the Mont Pleasant neighborhood of Schenectady, a core of the city’s West Indian community.

“The Caribbean loves to grow their own food, their own seasoning,” Doodnauth said. “It’s something special for them. They prefer to cultivate themselves rather than buy.

In the West Indian community of Schenectady, hot peppers are a staple in the kitchen, and growing the spicy pods is akin to a “religious” experience, he said.

Most of the plants, which come from a single wholesaler, are grown up to 700 meters in the city alone, he estimated.

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Doodnath goes to Brooklyn Terminal Market at least twice a week and returns with apartments containing 40 plants, which he sells to Ramesh West Indian American Grocery, his grocery chain on State and Albany streets.

He picks up at least 100 flats each season of single peppers, which are then purchased by gardening enthusiasts across the area, from Latham to Saratoga Springs, but especially Schenectady.

From the habanero workaholic to the little-known “wiri wiri”, backyard gardens are starting to explode.

The Robert family are among the local families who consider hot peppers to be serious business. Matriarch Stella Robert tended to her garden earlier this week on Forest Road across from Mont Pleasant Middle School.

As hot peppers have become a phenomenon across the country – global consumption of hot peppers has increased 55% since 2012 and in the United States, hot sauces are booming, with $ 2.3 billion in sales. in 2018 – it’s business as usual for the Caribbean diaspora in Schenectady, where residents come from or trace their ancestry to the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago and the South American countries of the Guyana and Suriname.

Stella Robert, one of 10 children, has been cultivating the wiri wiri strain for 50 years, since she was a child in Cromarty, Guyana.

“It was a culture that really happened for itself,” said Justin Robert, her grandson. “Each family had a plantation and they were forced to take care of themselves. ”

Peppers thrive in the sun.

“The rain held them back,” said Stella Robert, citing the heavy rains this summer.

But she is convinced that the plants will soon produce up to 50 peppers per tree, which the family will then harvest, much like picking apples.

The wiri wiri, according to the Chili Madness website, are “hot peppers in the shape of Guyana berries appreciated for their tangy flavor and high heat level”.

Stella calls them “fireballs”.

They’re popular because people like the balance of heat and flavor, Doodnauth said.

Many gardeners grow peppers to flavor their own home-cooked meals.

Chicken curry is a staple, said Justin Robert. And while the peppers are incorporated into the dish, aficionados also love to garnish their plates with even more peppers – or hot sauce.

“When it’s red, we crush them with vinegar and salt, put it in a jar and put it on top,” Stella said.

Her son, Chandradat “Gewan” Robert, is the pastor of the nearby Faith Deliverance Tabernacle, where plants are grown at the church rectory on Ostrander Place.

“Last year we had a really good harvest,” he said, which is about 12 to 15 pints.

“A tree brings in a lot,” he says.

He also acknowledged that this year’s season has started slowly due to the rain. The peppers, which remain green, were already ripening around this time last year, he said.

Planting seedlings in May is typical, but a cold snap will kill them and force replanting, delaying harvest.

In Niskayuna, Chandra Seetalall’s garden is doing well, with peppers growing alongside okra and eggplant.

“The little blisters are already coming,” said Seetalall, who brings them to the Faith Deliverance Tabernacle and shares them with the congregation.

Seetalall also makes hot sauce, usually a dozen bottles a year.

“You have to use a tiny teaspoon with the food,” she says.

What is the exact temperature of wiri wiri?

The heat level is somewhere between a habanero and a ghost pepper, said Justin Robert. And no amount of water will help soothe the burn – just milk or ice cream.

“We’ll take care of the heat afterwards,” said Gewan Robert with a laugh.

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