As an Antillean by blood, I constantly crave heat. And it’s not enough to merely feel the tropical sun on my bare skin. I need to consume heat. When I return to the Caribbean, I don’t feel completely at home until I’ve burned both the tip of my nose and the tip of my tongue. This might explain my addiction to pika.
No respectable Antillean table is fully set without a jar of pika among the condiments. If you sit at the counter of a beach bar, place an order through the window of a truki pan snack truck, or have lunch at a local krioyo restaurant, you will no doubt encounter it yourself. The clear, unmarked glass jar of glistening flotsam looks innocent enough, but if you feel bold enough to have a taste, be prepared – one tiny dollop can let loose a kick so fierce, you’ll be almost panting.
"My eyes were still tearing when I finally sat down to enjoy the meal. But I like to think I was crying tears of joy."
Directly translated from Papiamentu, pika means “pepper”, which refers to those chunky bits of flotsam. Depending on which peppers are used, the hue of pika relish can range from light green or yellow to bright red. But don’t allow yourself to be hypnotized by the playful colors. Any combination is guaranteed to be delicious – but deadly.
Traditional island recipes for pika relish call for a sizzling combination of hot peppers, wine vinegar, and olive oil. On Curaçao, freshly squeezed lime juice is added to punch up the tangy flavor. On neighboring Bonaire, local chefs have been known to throw in an extra red chili pepper for good measure. On both islands, at least two Scotch Bonnet peppers are required to make a ten-serving supply.
Scotch Bonnets, which pack twice the firepower of a regular jalapeno, thrive in the warm climates of the Caribbean. Habaneros, which come by way of South America, are occasionally used in a pinch for replacement. By appearance alone, these peppers can be deceptive. They are generally small, brightly colored, and cherubic – the name “Scotch Bonnet”, in fact, comes from its cute little hat shape.
Eating pika – like swimming with dolphins or dancing to the music of a live tumba band – can only be experienced and fully appreciated in the Caribbean. Or so I believed until I was invited to a cooking class at Angelica’s Kitchen on Curaçao, where I was told I was going to learn to make homemade pika.
Two thoughts occurred to me.
First: Learn to make pika? Impossible! Pika is a magical concoction of spice, sweet tang, and a shock sensation that makes every bite an adventure. Not just anyone could “learn” how to make pika.
Second: Wait! If I got the recipe for pika, did that mean I could make it wherever and whenever I wanted? Sign me up!
For the first part of the cooking class, chef Clarita Hagenaar led us through the Curaçao Floating Market on Sha Caprileskade where we stocked up on peppers from the kaleidoscope crates of yellow, orange, and red bulbs that had come straight off the boats from South America. Back at the kitchen, I chopped and gleefully gathered the diced peppers by the handful to add to the pot, despite Clarita’s warning not to handle the Scotch Bonnets directly.
Later, when I scratched my eye without washing my hands, I understood why Clarita had been so worried. She had to lead me to the bathroom by the elbow where I spent the next twenty minutes blindly soaking my swollen eyelid.
My eyes were still tearing when I finally sat down to enjoy the meal. But I like to think I was crying tears of joy. Never before had I enjoyed a home-cooked dinner with pika I had prepared myself.
Having made the recipe myself once, I began to consider myself a pika expert. Especially after having spent a lifetime smothering pika all over mero (sea bass), lomito (steak) sandwiches, and even adding it by the spoonful into my sopi piska (fish soup). I later spent two weeks on Bonaire and discovered a whole new world of pika, but that’s another story!
Suffice it to say that in all its varieties of color and spice, a jar of pika is the closest I’ve ever come to capturing that mysterious, vivid flavor of the Caribbean in a bottle. I’ve since made Clarita’s pika recipe back home in New York, and it brought me happily back to delicious Curaçao; I must admit though that there’s nothing quite like eating the real thing in the real place!