Few Indians are particularly fascinated by chillies. Our attitude to them is largely matter of fact. We know they are hot but we recognise that the heat is not the only point of the chilli. Sometimes we use chillies for garnish; sometimes we use them to colour gravies (as in rogan josh, for instance); sometimes they become important constituents of pickles; often they are cooked like sabzis (as in Simla mirch); and chilli powder serves many different purposes in our cuisines.
So it is in the rest of Asia. The Thais like their chillies. But no Thai dish is judged merely on the basis of its heat. The point of Thai cuisine is the interplay of fresh and dried herbs. The chillies only add a layer of flavour on top of the herbs and spices or they are sprinkled like tiny atom bombs on aromatic and fragrant salads.That Asia should not be terribly fascinated by chillies makes sense. They are not really Asian in origin. They were discovered in South America, where they had been cultivated for centuries, by Christopher Columbus and his men. Given that Columbus was not the world’s brightest guy and believed that America was really India, it is no surprise that when his men saw the chilli they immediately linked it to the hottest plant they knew – the pepper vine which was, of course, cultivated in India – and began to call all chillies, peppers.
The confusion persists today largely because even when it became clear to Columbus and his merry band of clods that a big fat chilli and a peppercorn could not possibly be the same thing, they started calling them “chilli peppers” (chilli was the Mexican name of the plant), thus muddling the issue even further.
But the chilli is a completely different plant from the pepper and botanists classify it as a fruit and not a vegetable. Chillies can look beautiful (in Italian cuisine, the flavour is sometimes less important than the colours of the big chillies that are often used) and don’t have to be hot. What we call the Simla mirch is not particularly hot and even the chilli that Italians associate with heat (the pepperoncini) would be regarded by most Indians as being more or less neutral.
But chillies contain a secret weapon and it is called capsaicin. Capsaicin has the ability to cling to the pain receptors on your tongue and produce a burning sensation. One theory is that nature gave capsaicin to the chilli to deter predators but to allow friendly creatures to enjoy it. (Birds cannot detect capsaicin and can easily eat the hottest chilli without feeling a thing.)
By that reckoning, human beings are clearly predators because capsaicin can burn the hell out of our tongues. But it can also – and perhaps this was nature’s little joke – cause the body to release endorphins, giving rise to a kind of chilli high, one reason some people crave hot flavours.
Though Columbus and his gang of looters and colonists took all versions of the chilli back to Western Europe, it had little impact on the local cuisine (Except perhaps in Italy). But then it travelled to Eastern Europe, where one breed, the paprika, came to typify Hungarian cuisine. And then to Africa, where Portuguese colonists used cross-breeding to create the now world-famous peri-peri chilli. (They brought it to Goa as well, which is why you probably know the name).
But it was only when the chilli reached Asia that it found its true adopted home. You can’t think of Indian food without the chilli. It became an integral part of East Asian cuisines and only the Japanese seem to have turned it away. In China, the more interesting local cuisines (Sichuan and Hunan, for instance) make abundant use of chillies.
It is funny, then, that given how the chilli travelled from the Americas to Europe and then to Asia, it should now be one of Asia’s most successful exports to the West (re-exports, that should be). From the Sixties onwards, English curry-houses run mainly by Bengalis from the Sylhet district of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) created rubbish curries with made-up names that reflected the chilli-content. A shahi korma was the basic curry with dahi or cream; a vindaloo was the basic curry with more chilli; and a Madras curry was the basic curry with a hell of a lot more chilli.
No self-respecting Indian would eat this crap but Brits began to treat hot curries as a proof of virility. If a lager lout could eat a really hot curry then he became a real stud. (Not sure how, frankly. His mouth would have been on fire so how could he possibly have done anything stud-like after dinner?)
Now, it is America that is in the grip of chilli-mania. According to a fine article by Lauren Collins in The New Yorker’s food issue last year, hot sauce is among America’s fastest-growing industries. There is an American hot sauce tradition (Tabasco is the most famous) but Asian sauces are growing in popularity. Sriracha, a South-East Asian hot sauce (it is a kind of sauce not a brand name and you get different variants in Thailand, Vietnam and other neighbouring countries) is so popular that some years ago there was a three-month national shortage because Americans bought the stuff faster than anybody could make it.
And India is now a major player in this chilli craziness because of the bhut jolokia, the chilli that is the pride of the North East. To understand why the bhut jolokia appeals, you need to understand the American crypto-scientific approach to the chilli. In 1912, a pharmacist called Wilbur Scoville created a test that measured how many drops of sugar water were required to mute the heat of a chilli. They now use liquid chromatography to do the same thing in a more high-tech fashion but the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) is still the basic test of the hotness of a chilli.
The Italian pepperoncini is about 300 SHU but to get the kind of heat that Indians could recognise as a proper chilli flavour you need something like 40,000 SHU. (Our red chillis can go upto 1,00,000 SHU without our even noticing.) A chilli that is 2,50,000 SHU is hot by most Indian standards.
In 2000, according to The New Yorker, an Indian scientist, RKR Singh from Assam, tested the local bhut jolokia’s heat and came to the conclusion that it was hotter than the red savina, the chilli which held the Guinness World Record for world’s hottest chilli. The red savina had a 5,70,000 SHU rating but the bhut jolokia seemed to be much higher.
An American professor of horticulture was sceptical of the numbers claimed by the Indian scientists but procured some bhut jolokia seeds and planted them. When his American-grown chillis were on the branches, he submitted them to Guinness and got the new world record. His American bhut jolokia rated at 10,01,300 SHU or significantly more than the red savina’s 5,70,000 SHU. So it was official. India had the world’s hottest chilli. Even if some American guy took our seeds and planted them.
Except that in the world of comparative chilli-heat, no record stays unbroken for long. In February 2011, Guinness announced that a chilli grown by an Englishman in Lincolnshire had beaten the bhut jolokia. (Obviously, the Brit had developed a taste for Sylhet-style Madras curry.) Two weeks later, another Brit (yes, it is all those curry houses) claimed a new record with a chilli grown in the North of England called the Naga viper. This rated 13,82,118 SHU versus the bhut jolokia’s 10,01,300 SHU.
Since then, the record has been regularly revised upwards. In 2011, the Trinidad scorpion butch T came in at 14,63,700 SHU. In 2012, it was claimed that something called the Trinidad Moruga scorpion (scorpion butch’s cousin, perhaps) had exceeded two million SHUs. And so it goes. Now people are regularly breeding chilli plants only to beat the world record – unlike the bhut jolokia, which occurs naturally and is used in the local cuisine.
So you’ve got to ask yourself: what is a chilli for? To win competitions? Or to flavour food? I think I know the answer. And it tells us about the difference between Asia and the West. The West stole the chilli from South America and never knew what to do with it. On the other hand, Asia built a whole cuisine around it. And now while we enjoy the chilli flavour in our food, the West wastes its time on stupid competitions featuring chillis that most people will never eat.
From HT Brunch, January 26
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