Chili pepper is not indigenous to India. It was domesticated in Mexico in 7,000 B.C. and introduced to India by the Portuguese only about 400 years ago. Before that Indian cooks used white pepper and mustard seed to give “heat” to their entrees.
Indians embraced chili pepper with a fervor that remains unabated to this day. Therein lies the true charm of Indian cuisine; it never looks down upon any ingredient as foreign, but incorporates it and Indianizes it. Today Indians eat chili with much fondness in all possible ways: raw green chilies or dried red chilies, red chili powder, green chili paste, stuffed chilies, stuffed and dried and then fried chilies.
So embedded is it in Indian cuisine, that rare is a kitchen that is not stocked with chili. What would the blistering Andhra and Kolhapuri curries be without the chili? How would our pickles and chutneys taste without chilies? It is simply unimaginable.
At present, India is one of the largest producers and exporters of chili around the world. The weather and climate in India are excellent for an assortment of chilies.
In addition to their culinary usage, chili peppers have worked their way into the customs and traditions of the region to an unusual degree. Many believe that the smoke of roasting or even burning chili peppers protects the house and gives a feeling of warmth and security.
My 80-year-old aunt, who has always preferred to live by herself, keeps a small box of red chili powder handy at her bedside. Just in case any unsuspecting burglar decides to pay her a visit in the middle of night, she has the chili powder within easy reach to spray into his eyes and incapacitate him so she can run for help!
The heat of chilies is generally measured in Scoville Units, named after Wilbur Scoville who developed the unique measuring scale in 1912. On this scale bell pepper is 0, whereas the fiery habañero records over 300,000. The Tezpur chili from Assam has made history with a rating of 855,000 Scoville Units! It is now confirmed to be the hottest chili in the world.
In my research on chili peppers I stumbled across an interesting observations: generally, the part of any country closer to the Equator eats hotter food. So, the southern residents of America, Mexico, Italy, Korea, and India eat hotter food; in Peru, which is in the southern hemisphere, it is the northern Peruvians who are more fond of their chilies.
Chilies are grown worldwide in about 1,600 varieties with different shapes, sizes, and strength. Chili peppers redden as they ripen; the unripe ones are usually dark green, yellow, or purplish black. A general rule of thumb is that the smaller a chili pepper, the more pungent it is!
Be careful when you handle any kind of chili pepper. They contain oils that can irritate your skin and especially your eyes. In any case, after you have worked with them be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Green chilies are loaded with Vitamin A. By weight they also contain more Vitamin C than oranges, although practically, it is not possible to eat a glassful of green chilies. It would just burn your stomach lining.
If you happen to bite into a particularly hot specimen, to douse its fire don’t gulp a glass of water; it will only make matters worse as the capsaicin oil in the chilies and water do not mix. Yogurt or milk will give you the needed relief.
Or you can try my fix: if the chili gets to you, soothe it with another!
This recipe from Maharashtra, in western India, is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Our family friends, Jayant and Chanda Bondre shared this recipe with me. As a child, Jayant says, he ate thecha every single day.
1 teaspoon oil
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
10-12 green chilies
1 teaspoon lime juice
¾ teaspoon salt
Heat oil in a pan. Add garlic and cumin seeds. Stir for about a minute and then add chilies. Roast on high heat till the green chilies are charred. Remove from heat. Add salt and limejuice and grind coarsely in a mortar-and-pestle or food processor. Enjoy as a relish to add zing to any meal.
Hema’s Hints: While cooking this relish, open all windows and doors, otherwise the pungent aroma will irritate your throat.
Mix one teaspoon of thecha with one teaspoon of cream cheese to make a delicious sandwich spread.
STUFFED MIRCHI PAKORA
These are my favorite kind of fritters.
15 jalapeño peppers
½ cup peanuts
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 cup cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
½ cup besan (chickpea flour) or rice flour
¼ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder
Oil to fry
Carefully slit the chilies and remove the seeds and discard them. Keep aside.
Add water to besan, or rice flour, salt, and turmeric, and make a smooth batter. Keep aside.
In a blender make a coarse mix of sesame seeds, peanuts, cilantro, limejuice, sugar, and salt. Add just enough water to run the blender smoothly.
Stuff this mix into the chilies. Dip the stuffed chilies in batter to coat them well and deep fry to a golden brown. Serve hot with tomato ketchup.
Hema Hints: These pakoras taste great with masala chai on a rainy afternoon.
Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of a television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet.