Chili Asylum: Isi Laureano's Red Hot World of Chili Peppers
Warning: it is extremely hot!
Amidst the vibrant flavors and a buzzing dining scene in Metro Manila stands a woman whose mission is to do what she can to put native ingredients at the forefront: Isi Laureano, 33, literally holds the key to the kitchen of her home-based business, Chili Asylum.
The one-woman team behind a successful 4-year-old business that is the quintessential example of simple but beautiful home-cookery, Laureano easily fits as the proverbial product promoter-but for local Philippine produce.
"Only fresh, naturally, and locally-grown ingredients," she says, eyebrows half-raised at the fact that the question was even brought up.
"I like to work with what we have and whatever is in season. When I source an ingredient, like a habanero for example, I work with it and make new products from there."
Chili Asylum has bottles for every kind of chili-lover out there: hot pickled peppers, spicy chimichurri sauce, sweet-and-spicy chili fruit jams (pineapple-habanero jam and chili mango chutney!), spicy pickled papaya, and spicy ketchups, among others.
Everything is homemade, too. Think simple brown tiles, an open kitchen, and an outrageous amount of siling labuyo airing out by the front door.
Laureano's humble beginnings stemmed from cooking for her friends and family at home. She'd throw in some heat, along with a variety of spices into her dishes and would work around with those flavors. Spicing up the classics is one of her favorite pastimes. Pizza without hot sauce? Unthinkable!
"I started working with chilies because I wanted to be different. I love condiments, too. I put chili in everything, even my breakfast! Although it's still best on pizza."
Laureano has a knack for making the flavor of the pepper shine: every single one of her products at Chili Asylum bursts with the natural flavor of the chili pepper. There is a sweetness and unexpected fruity notes in local Philippine peppers.
"I am very open to collaboration with local chili farms. I keep sustainable relationships and give them chili seeds in return for a constant supply. I have a group in Sierra Madre that is supplying my labuyo, and I want to meet them and teach them how it should be handled when transported. Recently, they brought in my labuyo in a plastic bag, which makes them spoil. I had to tell them: never in a plastic bag!"
In spite of a few bumps on the road (a whole bag of spoiled chilies, for example), Laureano is a proud zero-waste producer. Spoiled chilies go back into the soil or are made into chili spray for plants in the garden. Plus, since peppers don't normally last that long, Laureano also makes it a point to promote preserving and pickling them.
"That's why I'm doing preserving and pickling-both peppers and other fruits. I think it's a forgotten tradition in our culture. We used to do these things, we used to make buro a lot and ferment a lot, but it's forgotten. I'm trying to bring it back and a lot of people are trying to do it again, too."
Working with chili peppers every day is hardly an easy task, however. Laureano does all the dirty work: she handles everything from sourcing her ingredients, to cooking every chili product, to bottling every order, and to distributing her products. Every Sunday, come rain or shine, Laureano rolls up to different parts of Manila (that's from Quezon City to Alabang, folks) to deliver her products to the ten stores that she supplies to.
"I schedule everything, including market errands and at what time my suppliers deliver my ingredients. Everything is made-to-order. I don't bottle unless I get an order. So, when I bring it to the store, it's fresh."
One of her dreams is to put up a chili farm of her own. That way, Laureano will be able to start of movement she firmly believes in: that the Philippines has the potential to plant and produce a large variety of chilies, and that we should push the creative boundaries of using our current options in the market.
"We usually just stick to the pangsigang and the labuyo, but did you know that we have local habaneros, too? I think that we should teach our farmers to plant for varieties of chili peppers because we can. It's also time for us to explore drying them and preserving them in different ways. The labuyo is one of our best peppers here. I think it's time for us to bring back our labuyo."
She says all of this in between stirring a new batch of spicy banana (all-natural and preservative-free!) ketchup, which, if you were wondering, tastes fantastic.
"Recently, I was making a new batch of spicy ketchups when I turned on my hand blender and some of it splattered into my eye. That really hurt. My mom was hysterical!"
Her tips for cooking with chilies at home? Always wear gloves and have a tub of yogurt ready to relieve the burning heat on your tongue. Trust her-she has learned her lesson many times!
Laureano politely excuses herself from the kitchen, so I am left of poke at the little cherry tomatoes boiling down into my favorite condiment.
That's when the ice cream comes in. Laureano, with a smug smile on her face, proceeds to spoon chili chutney right over it, and hands it over to me.
Chili Asylum's flavors are here to enlighten, not frighten. Driven by a genuine urge to develop Philippine flavors, accompanied by a mission to grow a community of interdependent chili pepper farmers, and topped off with some good old Filipina businesswoman sass, Isi Laureano's world of chili peppers has nothing left to do but forge ahead.
Chili Asylum products are available at Real Food in Alabang, Urban Pantry in Greenhills, Kitayama Meat Shop in Makati, Providore at SM Aura, and Sweatshoppe Chili Food Store in Quezon City, among others. You can also order Chili Asylum products online through Market.ph. For more information visit the official Facebook page.