Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Red hot chilli peppers
It all started a few years ago with a conversation I had with Pritha Sen. Pritha used to be my colleague at Sunday magazine in Calcutta in the 1990s but as time went on, she moved into the area she really loved: food. She is now, for my money, the greatest living expert on the history of Bengali cuisine.
I ran into Pritha when she was helping with the Bengali menu at the ITC Royal Bengal. While the food she had curated was outstanding, she was more concerned with getting me to focus on something else. Did I realise, she asked, that at nearly every commercial kitchen in India, the chefs shunned the local chillis and relied on a powder of red Kashmiri chillis?
I said I had no idea but would check. And though she asked me about it again and again, I never did get around to checking with other chefs. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noted that the two companies I rely on for my vegetables — Anata and Krishicress — were both sending me interesting chillis. Usually, these chillis were included as freebies with large orders as part of a sampling/marketing exercise.
I tried them all and loved them. The sampling technique worked because, inevitably, I included the new variety of chillis in my next order. I asked Achintya Anand of Krishicress where he was getting all the chillis from. He said that there was suddenly a spurt of demand from subscribers to his service who wanted the sort of chillis you did not normally get at your subziwalla.
Karan Anand (no relation, I think, to the Krishicress Anand), whose Anata keeps my kitchen full of goodies, said that new suppliers had come on line, providing a mixture of traditional Indian chillis along with varieties that were more famous abroad.
Karan had slipped a packet of superhot Habaneros into my basket once and we had been sold on them. My wife discovered that a single Habanero added to the pan changed the flavour profile of a dish, adding not just heat but depth. Similarly, Achintya Anand had sent me a pepper I had never heard of (he called it a Palermo Pepper) that had little heat but lots of flavour and worked well with Spanish and Italian food.
Karan said that while the Habanero-type segment of the market was growing, people were also ordering local varieties like the chillis of Guntur. His customers had worked out, he said, that different chillis imparted different flavours to the food.
I called Pritha again. Was she right to accuse chefs of being stuck on just one chilli when my online greengrocers were actually offering more chilli varieties than had ever been available before?
Yes, she insisted. At the Royal Bengal kitchen, she said, she had been happy and comfortable because ITC chefs were not stuck on a single chilli but gave each local variety its due. At other restaurants and hotels where she had cooked or consulted, she said, the dominance of Kashmiri chilli powder was complete.
So, I did a little checking. The most famous masala to be named after a chilli in India is the Goan Peri-Peri masala, the basic spice-mix for many Goan dishes. The masala gets its name from the Piri-Piri chilli. This is a chilli (part of the Bird’s Eye chilli family; it has many names: Pili-Pili, Peri-Peri, Piri-Piri) that the Portuguese planted in their African colonies and then brought to Goa. It is the chilli that Nando’s Piri-Piri sauce is named after and it should be the basic chilli in Goan cooking.
But is it?
Nope. You guessed right. It isn’t.
No chef or masalchi I spoke to used the peri-peri chilli in peri-peri masala. They used bedgi chillis for the fire. But mostly they used (wait for it!) Kashmiri red chilli powder.
I asked one of the two greatest Goan chefs I know, Julia Carmen D’Sa, why this should be so.
Well, said Julia, her family used to cook with the real thing, small birds-eye chillis which they called “Potugali” but because they became harder to find in the market, they grew them in a bush in their backyard.
But now, says Julia, nobody bothers. She can’t find peri-peri chillis anywhere and many Goan chefs use bedgi chillis for the spiciness. (Along with Kashmiri chillis which are cultivated in Goa.)
If you need further evidence that public taste has advanced much further than the expertise of Indian chefs, then just look at the experience of the Indian sauce industry. Anant Kataria of Big Fat Essentials, whose kasundi mustard I regularly use, sent me two exotic chilli sauces from his brand Miss Margarita. They were Latin in origin, he said, but as the restaurant they were used at had been hit by the lockdown, he began bottling them and found that there was a huge market for Chipotle and other Central American chilli flavours.
So, I called the big boys of the sauce industry. Akshay Bector of Cremica, the company that finally gave India a ketchup that could hold its own against the best in the world, told me that the sauce market overall was growing (his retail sales are up by 50 per cent) and that, Indians were looking for more interesting hot and teekha flavours. Cremica has found great success with purely Indian sauces but he says that in his experience, Indians can tell the difference between various chilli flavours.
“We have an astonishingly complex cuisine,” he says. “Our palates have been trained by years of eating spice, so we can detect the difference.”
Veeba is the other big boy on the block. Viraj Bahl, its founder, included a Chipotle sauce in its early ranges and now Veeba offers many chilli sauces and flavours, ranging from Sriracha (closer to the original Thai sauce than the American versions) to Bhut Jolokia, as well as various flavours based on peri-peri and Central and South American chillis.
Viraj says that we are in the middle of a chilli boom. For a start, he says, the market for spicy, chilli-hot food is growing. And secondly, Indians don’t want just one basic chilli sauce. They want sauces that have Indian chilli flavours, some that are East Asian (Veeba’s excellent Sweet Chilli sauce is Thai-inspired) and those that draw on Central American cuisines.
All of which takes us back to where we started. And to Pritha’s question. If Indians are discovering the chillis of the world, then why are our chefs forcing us to eat more and more Kashmiri red chillis? Why is the chilli in restaurant dishes so one-dimensional? Why must all Indian food have the same red colour that comes from Kashmiri chillis?
Once again, consumers are far more sophisticated and adventurous than the restaurant industry.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, July 11, 2021
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