Sticking to a recipe is all well and good but our culinary landscape owes more than you might expect to the taking of a few wrong turns. Christopher Columbus’s cross-Atlantic voyage to find new trade routes may seem a remote concern to chefs today but without his discoveries the Swiss wouldn’t have chocolate, China would be bereft of chillies and Ireland might never have had the humble spud.
The Columbian Exchange was a century or so of trade that began with the explorer’s first fateful 1492 voyage, a trip that bequeathed the Old World all manner of its best-loved foods. Just as the first pigs, chickens, cows, coffee beans and cane sugar set sail for the Americas, fail-safe fridge, fruit-bowl and pantry mainstays such as the avocado, quinoa grains, cranberries, corn, courgettes and much else returned to Europe (then beyond) in the holds of early transatlantic traffic.
Skipping over the unsavoury pestilence that this cross-cultural grub-muddling wreaked on the world, the explorer’s adventures reordered global menus, national dishes and tastes for centuries to come. One ingredient, however, seems to have spiced up more dishes than any other: the chilli. A distant cousin of the tomato and potato and member of the nightshade family, this hot crop hailed from the Mexican desert before being brought back to Europe as a botanical keepsake. It was eventually added to food, becoming beloved in Asia, India and throughout the Middle East for its agreeable heat.
The spiciness of chillies is quantified with its own unit that’s too complicated to unpick (and somewhat unrewarding to know): the scoville. Habaneros and scotch bonnets clock in at upward of 100,000 scovilles, while the nasty Naga varieties can reach heights of some 2.5 million, an unenjoyable extreme that is, thankfully, far from the quantities we’re advising.
As well as the piquant punch of green chilli in our sauce we’re also dishing out two hearty hunks of cornbread (another South American creation), plus a few fail-safe eggs for protein and ballast. So follow our recipe, or a version of it as your whim dictates, for a taste of how our culinary world hotted up thanks to an adventurous but fruitful misstep. Buen provecho.
4 fresh eggs
225g plain flour
200g fine polenta
3 tsps baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
Generous pinch of salt
120g butter, melted
1 small bunch coriander, finely chopped
2 fresh green chillies, seeds removed and finely diced
For chilli sauce
3 long green chillies, 2 roughly chopped and 1 finely sliced, seeds removed
3 spring onions (salad onions), roughly chopped
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsps rapeseed oil (plus extra to loosen the sauce)
1 tbsp sesame oil
Generous pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 180c. Grease and line a 8cm by 23cm loaf tin and set aside.
Start by making the cornbread. This can be done in advance; the cornbread will keep for several days in an airtight container and will also freeze well. Combine flour, polenta, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a large bowl. Add the buttermilk, eggs and melted butter and stir to combine.
Fold through the coriander and chillies and pour into prepared tin, smoothing out the top. Bake for 45 minutes until golden and firm. Leave to cool in tin.
For the sauce, place all ingredients (aside from the finely sliced chilli) in a food processor and pulse gently until combined but still chunky. Loosen the sauce with some extra rapeseed oil and set aside.
Cut eight chunky slices of the cornbread, spread with butter and toast on a griddle. Keep warm in a low oven. While the griddle is still very hot, fry the slices of green chilli until the sides start to catch. Set aside.
Poach your eggs, assembling a plate after each egg. Take two slices of cornbread and an egg, drizzle with the sauce then top with a smattering of fried chillies. Serve.