Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Hotness and the witchdoctor

So I guess I had to come to Cambodia in order to make my first batch of salsa. And learn about the caustic-ness of chili oil and what that can do to the skin. And meet a “witchdoctor”.

This past weekend all of the Peace Corps Svay Rieng volunteers met in the provincial town to do our own Thanksgiving dinner. Not being your typical place to celebrate an American holiday – the food was far from typical. It was "Mexican" – tortillas, fried beef in taco seasoning, beans (galore! .. even with some rocks in them!), CHEESE!, and salsa. I was in charge of the salsa making along with some other volunteers. We had all the necessary ingredients; tomatoes, onions, garlic, limes, salt, black pepper, and chili peppers. As I never really encountered these chilies growing up (I’m German/Irish – we eat potatoes and sausage and sometimes pasta) and having lived in a sorority with a cook nearly the entirety of my college career – I never considered those silly little spicy red plants dangerous. But, oh, they really really are. My painful experience can only be described as “the hotness” now.

Did you know they contrive the main ingredient of pepper spray from chili peppers (hence the name – pepper spray)? The horrible burning sensation on the skin and what causes all of your mucus membranes to go into overdrive is from something called “capsaicin” and it is some pretty nasty stuff. I had known a little bit about it – I mean everyone has heard of that friend, family member, or acquaintance who was dared to do this or that with some Tabasco sauce (aka my brother) – and so I knew to at least avoid my eyes. Hindsight is 20/20 and having not known the dangers to my skin I went ahead and handled the peppers liberally (I was told to make sure there were not too many seeds in the salsa -as that would make it too spicy- and proceeded to handle every single one of the peppers - carefully squeezing those little seeds from the red casings they came in).

It took about 20 minutes before I was seriously considering chopping my hands off. I tried everything … putting my hands on ice, in a bucket of water, rubbing them with soap, vegetable oil, salt, and lime juice. I would’ve tried milk if there was any - but that isn’t something Cambodian people have laying around the house. The only thing that worked was putting my hands in a bucket of uncooked rice (what they call angkah here) for about 30 minutes. And BAM – most of the burning went away. It wasn’t until evening the following day that underneath my fingernails finally stopped tingling though.

Info on Capsaicin --- (taken from
A Science Daily article states that capsaicin is "an extremely powerful and stable alkaloid." It's produced in the glands located between the pepper's placenta and pod walls. When capsaicin comes into contact with your skin, it stimulates circulation and invokes a response in your pain receptors. Used in pepper spray and various insect repellents, capsaicin also deters human predators, as well as the pests that threaten your garden.

How to avoid Pepper Burn
Avoid the dreaded "pepper burn" in your kitchen by wearing rubber gloves whenever you handle chili peppers or measure out hot pepper oil. If you're peeling or chopping peppers, remember not to touch your lips or eyes, advises PBS' Scientific American Frontiers. Want to get rid of some of the heat in that hot pepper you're slicing? Carefully remove the pepper's placenta, or "midrib," advises the Chile Pepper Institute.

"First Aid" for Pepper Burn
If your skin accidentally gets exposed to capsaicin, first rub it with alcohol, advises the Chile Pepper Institute, then soak it in milk. According to Science Daily, capsaicin is neutralized by fats. Another option suggested by the Jalepeno Madness website by way of Poison Control is to wash the affected area with soap and water. Apply olive oil or vegetable oil. Rinse after one minute. If you get hot pepper in your eyes, the Chile Pepper Institute indicates that the only way to treat it is to flush your eyes with water.

The moral of the story? Use gloves. Or don’t use chili peppers. Or use chili prepared in one of those nice little shakers.

The dinner was fabulous in the end. Delicious tortillas filled with delicious things. And we were even able to score an hour in a local bread oven -which looked like it may have been from the middle ages – for some awesome brownies and pecan pie ala Kristin and Alan.

Ok enough about chili peppers…

Having just spent the weekend in lovely Svay Rieng town - I was told I must share the story of my experience with a "Kru Khmer" or a traditional Cambodian healer. As I may or may not have mentioned before, my house now holds five additional people (two highschool students, two Vietnamese men, and a male relative of my host mother's) along with my three sisters, brother, "uncle", mother, father, and myself. With all these people we also have/had some extra help around the house. Before what I will call "the accident" we also had an "ohm" (older aunt) who would do most of the cooking for the family during the day and go home at night. It was because of my Ohm that I finally got to meet a Kru Khmer.

As a health volunteer I had heard stories about the traditional Cambodian healers. Most of these stories left me with the image of a man with wild hair- possibly wearing face paint and a feather headdress- a “witchdoctor” of sorts. Needless to say I was a bit disappointed when this very thin, quite old, Khmer man rides up to my house on a decrepit bicycle last month. My ohm - who is in her late 60s - was trying to lift something much too heavy and rolled her ankle. Unfortunately because of her age her ankle no longer had the resilience to deal with it and didn't "roll" so much as break or was sprained … I still don’t know. When I arrived to the house my host sister had wrapped it in a scarf and told my Ohm to keep it still. After arriving back at home from teaching and seeing her in tears on the traditional Khmer table – greh- I started to tell her she needed ice for the swelling and quickly got a bag of it together for her. She took it from me and placed it ever so delicately next to her injury. By this time my sister had come back and told us that she had help coming.

And that was when, on his very sad looking bicycle, the Kru Khmer arrived. He was wearing the usual uniform of any rural Khmer man of simple means – a tshirt with an assortment of different sized holes, pants that are much too short, and a cigarette in hand. In his other hand he had incense and a bag of herbs. These herbs – when sniffed – reminded me of lemongrass and, maybe, spearmint? Anyways… the Kru Khmer quickly set about chanting and lighting incense. He gave my ohm one stick of incense to hold and stuck others in the ground around my house. There was some spitting involved in, around, and on my ohm, and in the end the herbs were placed on the injury and my bag of ice set to the side.

Now, a month and some days later, my ohm’s injured ankle is still injured and very very swollen. When I asked her if she had gone to the hospital she said no - that it will heal "in time". Now I pray that if anything happens to me - and I am somewhat unable to talk (unconscious or otherwise) - the first line of defense that my host family calls is the Peace Corps Medical officer and not the skinny, rough, smoking, spitting old man around the corner with the incense in his hands.

One question I've asked myself today: I wonder what the witchdoctor would've done with the hotness?

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