The Mythology of Indian Cuisine- Chillies

July 17, 2007

The most common myth about Indian food is that it is tooooo hot. I think this is changing, the signs are everywhere. The other day I was asked if chillies (aka chiles) are added to Indian food to make them hot, or tasty, or both. Great question, the answer has always been in my subliminal cuisine consciousness, but never considered openly. So, here goes!

OK, I am from Kashmir, where the best chillies come from, or so they say. When someone is looking for superior chillies, up north to the Himalayas you go. When my mother made roghanjosh she only used chilli powder from the valley, the others just dont have the color she said. And she was right, the other chilli powders were pale to begin with and when you kept adding more hoping they would turn bright red as roghanjosh is supposed to be, all you got was heat, and no taste. It had something to with the Kashmir plant species (originally all from The New World, as they tell us now), the altitude and hot dry summer sun, and something about adding oil when the peppers were ground.

In retrospect, it was not only color, but also the taste, the aroma. We thought the world was divided into Kashmiri and Non-Kashmiri chillies. I did not know then what I know now. It was only when American supermarkets fell in love with chillies of every kind and my local grocery went from just one basket of capsized capsicum of a pathetic nature to a plethora of perky chillies from several continents, Asian, South and Central American, and so on that I realised that this is not my mother’s produce vendor.

Every kind of hot pepper has its own personality, Serrano, Jalapeno, Thai, Italian, you name it. I have to confess though that as much as I prefer Thai or Thai like hot green chillies for Indian cuisine,  I have on occasion substituted whichever hot pepper happened to be in the fridge at the time.

Back to the question of chillies in Indian food. Its both, chillies are used in Indian cuisine for heat and flavor. The heat depends on individual preferences, and that differs not only from region to region but from person to person. Surely in a country of a billion people you dont expect everyone to want the same kind of anything! There are ways of regulating the heat when you use chillies. My mother in law always said you cannot cook any vegtable without adding a couple of green chillies whole, the heat is subtle, but the flavor adds an unimaginably delicious dimension to the vegetables. If you are a die hard, you could slit the chillies and have lots of yogurt or water ready. She was averse to using dried hot red chillies (my personal general cooking favorite actually) in vegetables becasue she felt it sucked up the oil, but in my grandma’s kitchen dry red chillies could be seen drying hanging in garlands come summer time, the air was suffused with the aroma. If you went close enough you had a sense of the heat right after you spent fifteen minutes sneezing your head off.

If you chop green unseeded chillies and  add them to any dish it will be hot, seeded much less so. For Raita I must always have some chillies, minced so you just get a touch of occasional surprise heat and taste, great juxtaposition to yogurt and whatever else is in the raita.

But as I said, chillies are used in Indian cuisine for flavor and heat,  and color, and the rest is up to you.


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