How many chillies can you name? Join Kunal Vijayakar on a spicy trail

This fruit is now so integral to our cuisine that we’ve even forgotten we went thousands of years chilli-less, until it was brought here via Vasco da Gama.
In India, we use a large variety of dried, red chillies. And we love our fresh green ones too. You also get yellow, orange, purple, and chillies verging on black.(Shutterstock)
In India, we use a large variety of dried, red chillies. And we love our fresh green ones too. You also get yellow, orange, purple, and chillies verging on black.(Shutterstock)
Published on Jun 28, 2019 08:10 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKunal Vijayakar

Very often in life, the effects of small things prove to be inversely proportional to their size. I don’t mean to get mysterious or philosophical. But take for example the chilli. I often gawk in awe at this tender, slender little fruit, and marvel at its huge gustatory impact on food.

When it comes to Indian food, there is hardly any cuisine that doesn’t use chilli or at least chilli powder. Could you imagine cooking without fresh green chillies? I don’t think so. We have so embraced their flavour and piquancy, that we’ve quite forgotten that they are not native to India. Until 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed here, India used no chilli in its food. I cannot imagine what pizza without capsicum tasted like in the Vedic period… oops, just kidding.

There are now many different varieties grown in India. All chillies contain a biologically active ingredient called capsaicin, which is the cause of their heat and which stimulates the palate and increases our blood circulation. That’s why some believe that chillies are good for low blood pressure, the heart and our respiratory system.

Chillies also make you sweat, which in turn has a cooling effect, which is why they are so popular in tropical regions like ours. That seems a bit warped to me; I hate to sweat. But I’m guessing it’s true. Each type of chilli has its own profile and heat level, and while some are used for heat, others are used for their complexity of flavour.

Green chillies are unripe or fresh, hot if eaten with the seeds, and are used for their acidity and raw grassy flavour. I love slitting a long green chilli and adding it to scrambled eggs. It adds dimension and elevates the flavour of the creamy eggs. Chopped green chillies ground to a paste with coriander and mint is a chutney that can be used as a marinade, a base or just by itself.  

When tempered with ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and masalas, the same chutney makes a great green chicken or mutton curry. A simple green chilli paste is a key ingredient in most Mughlai cooking. It makes the flavours more complex. I cannot imagine a Qorma or Biryani without green chilli paste. When you add salt and lemon to green chilli paste, it can be stored and used in many vegetarian dishes, like Vatana na Ghughra, Khatta Dhokla and Doodhi Muthia.

We Indians also use a large variety of dried red chillies. In fact, there are different ones, used differently, in different parts of the country.

The Reshampatti from Gujarat are short, broad and dark red. They are medium in pungency and used in powdered form or stuffed as pickles. They add a vibrant red colour to food.

The Kashmiri Chilli is known to everyone for its flaming colour and for being non-spicy. It’s what makes a Rogan Josh that bright, brilliant red without heat.

The Mundu chilli is round and button-like and native to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It’s only slightly spicy but has a unique flavour that makes it indispensable to the cuisine, when tempered with curry leaves, mustard and methi seeds and added, for instance, to curd rice.  

The Byadagi chilli is grown in Karnataka and no Karwari Fish Curry is complete without this dry, long, crinkly fellow. The chilli is pungent and imparts a bright red colour to curries and gravies. The Byadagi chilli really comes into its own when combined with coconut.

The reason Andhra food roars with spice is because of the Guntur Sannam chilli. This one can in fact be deadly and that is why, though India grows a lot of it, very little is exported to the West. Demand for the Guntur chilli comes mainly from other Asian countries. Andhra uses the Guntur with passion and fervour. No Natu Kodi Kura (spicy Andhra chicken curry with coconut) or Guntur Kodi Vepudu (spicy chicken fry) or the Mamsam Pulusu (spicy mutton) would taste the same without Guntur chilli.

Mathania chillies, named after a town in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, have a powerful aroma and flavour but are not that spicy. This is the chilli that brings the laal to Laal Maas.

The Sankeshwari mirchi from Kolhapur is used in combination with other chillies to make chilli powder. It’s a bright orange and is also used in a lot of central Maharashtrian cuisine.

Little known outside Goa, the Titimiti is a bright orange, inch-long thing that is the reason a true Goan Prawn Curry looks and tastes the way it does.

And then finally there is the Naga Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost Chilli. It is one of the world’s hottest, is used both fresh and dried, and is the key spice in a Naga Smoked Pork.

These are just a few of the chillies we use in India. Overall this fruit is so adored that the Lavangi Mirchi is not only a bright red, spicy, detonative chilli from Kolhapur, but also a term used to describe a sensual, smouldering woman. How’s that for spice?

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