Spices remind me of ancient civilisations. Of the Indians and the Egyptians, of the Chinese and the Sumerians and of the medieval Europeans. There is some enigma and mysticism attached to spices. The Egyptians mummified their dead with cumin, the Chinese burnt cloves to commune with the spirit world, the Europeans of the dark ages believed nutmeg was the only cure for the Plague and the spice all Indians bathed in spices both literally and figuratively.
My encounter with spices took place at the unlikeliest of places. It was during the funeral of one of our neighbours. The widow of the poor deceased soul informed my Ma that lunch was being served in the next room and added apologetically, “The food is without spices; we are in mourning!” That was when I had my epiphany. Indian food without spices is heresy of the highest order, only to be tolerated if you are in mourning.
The anomaly of the Spice Trail
But what is known today as “Indian spices” was unheard of even a millennium ago. Chillies, which the world inextricably identifies with Indian food came to our shores only about 450 years back. Spices like coriander and fenugreek came from Egypt and Greece respectively and so did mustard seeds, nigella seeds, nutmeg and mace. India has embraced them all and has developed supremely sophisticated ways to use them in her regional cuisines. Such was the demand for spices that India is now the largest producer and consumer of spices in the world. Be it savoury, sweet, sour or bitter, nothing, absolutely nothing is complete without spices. Let alone food; we use spices as painkillers, as tranquilisers, as anti-depressants, as immuno-boosters, for dental health, for lightening skin tone, as aphrodisiacs and even as suppressants for libido. I can go on and on.
Indian food is so steeped with spices that often it is the spice that defines a dish rather than the main ingredient. Considering how all-pervasive spices are, it is very surprising that we know so little about them. Ask a common grocer anywhere in the country where his chillies are coming from and he will answer with an indifferent shrug. Ask the spice seller of a spice shop where his carmine chillies are grown, he will reply confidently, “Kashmir”. Actually, it does not. What is known as “Kashmiri chillies” in the market are grown from seeds that at some point originated in Kashmir but have been grown for decades in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The most intriguing aspect of spices is its provenance vis-à-vis its use. Take the case of West Bengal. It is one of the largest consumers of poppy seeds in the country which grows nowhere near its borders. Or say saffron which grows only in Kashmir. Its use in Kashmiri cuisine is insignificant in comparison to the largely vegetarian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. So, how did spices travel? Frankly, I don’t know. It is this mystery and my fascination for understanding spices that forced me to dig deep and explore.
In my quest, I have pestered every chef that I could lay my hands on, travelled and met owners of spice stores and spice merchants, visited the spice auction markets of South India, sneezed and coughed and made my way with watering eyes through Khari Baoli in Delhi and interviewed home chefs and housewives. Yet, the insurmountable world of spice is so vast that the major part of it is still left unexplored. I believe it’s not a job that can be completed in one’s lifetime. So, let’s discuss today only about chillies. The reason being, chillies are the most prolific in their uses and are universally common in any Indian regional cuisine.
Ask any ten people from any part of the world what they correlate with Indian food and nine of them will reply “Chillies”. They are not off the mark, though there are many wickedly hot dishes from many other parts of the world. This hottest and one of the most flavourful of all spices has been around since 7500 BCE. The earliest mention of chillies being used in any form of cuisine is in Mexico around 5000 BCE. Astonishing that chilli reached India only about 450 years ago. That also when the Portuguese brought it to Goa. What an irony that the Europeans introduced chillies to us presumably from Brazil! According to Lizzie Collingham, Pernambuco peppers started being grown in Goa. Their use grew exponentially southwards supplanting the extremely expensive black pepper and pipli (long pepper). The use of chillies moved northwards to Delhi and Agra only with the Marathas towards the end of the Mughal period.
Chilli is so integral to Indian cuisine that the lack of it in a dish suggests the cook simply doesn’t know what he is doing …………. “Namak mirchi kam hai (there is not much salt and chillies in this dish)”- it is the ultimate indictment. But where did this taste of spice originate? Scientists noticed chillies growing in the wild in Bolivia. But the Mexicans were the first to cultivate chillies. It is believed that it was introduced in Mexico about 6000 years ago by the Native American communities known as Pueblo.
Varieties of chillies and their uses
In India, the largest chilli producing belt lies in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Out of 200 varieties grown in India, Andhra contributes 36 of them. The species of chillies decide the kind of cuisine it will be eventually used in. For chilli powder, thin-skinned chillies are essential. But, when a coarse powder is required, thick-skinned ones work best. For tempering also, thick-skinned chillies are the ideal choice. But chillies are not only about Andhra Pradesh. Those photogenic fat round chillies are known as Gundu from Tamil Nadu. Byadagi chillies are long and crinkly and are grown in Karnataka and so are the lesser-known Kundapura chillies. There are others like the famous Aldona chillies from Goa which are a staple in such fiery dishes like Vindaloo and Sorpotel, the tiny Bird’s Eye chillies of Assam and Nagaland, the body-and-soul-burning Bhut Jolokia of the North-East, the glossy scarlet Dallae Khursani of Sikkim which deceptively looks like benign cherries, to name only a few. There are also chillies that do not turn red at all, like Gollapadu from Andhra Pradesh. Yellow chillies or Manali chillies grow in Manali in Himachal Pradesh which is plain hot with a very slight flavour. Manali chillies are put on the table of every household in Ladakh. Momos, thukpas and Ladakhi sausages are all spiced with Manali chillies. In its powdered form, it is extensively used by the Muslim community of North India.
Even though we Indians gloat over our spice-tolerance levels, most of us are not accustomed to eating very hot chillies except maybe the blokes from the North-East who habitually ingest Bhut Jolokia. I had a taste of this monster when I ordered a pork item at a restaurant in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The owner of the eatery assured me that he had watered down the chillies to unethical dilution for the sake of weaker souls like me. Even then I felt being kicked by a mule.
Our pride in chilli-tolerance can take a serious hit if we compare it with two of China’s regional cuisines- Sichuan and Hunan. Try eating the Sichuan speciality Chongqing Chicken in which tiny morsels of chicken are fried in chilli-flavoured oil and dunked into a bed of super-hot red chillies. Most of you will be crying out for Mamma. Chinese restaurants in India serve a much milder version of chilli paste on the table. Anywhere in the Chinese speaking world, you will be served fiery eye-watering pounded chilli paste blended with dried shrimp paste. In Thailand, every Thai restaurant has Prik Nam Pla which is sliced fresh chillies in fish sauce. Risk taking a bite and you will know what I mean.
We don’t know our chillies
It intrigues me how disrespectfully we treat our chillies- not only in India but also in China, South-East Asia and many other parts of the world. We mostly use chillies to spice up our food without ever caring that each variety of chilli has its own unique flavour. If you do not get Karnataka’s Kundapuri chillies, you will happily substitute them with Kashmir’s Pampori ones. We seem to forget that taste of spices is analogous to the taste of chillies. Chilli growers, suppliers, spice shop owners, spice houses and buyers categorise chillies based only on their hotness quotient, which is a shame. But in a place like Mexico, this will be sacrilegious. They boast of over 200 varieties of chillies each of which has its own distinctive flavour and well-defined place in each dish. Some are sundried, some are smoked, some are sweet and mild, some are pickled and some are hot enough to churn your innards. You cannot replace Anchos with Poblanos in Mexican cuisine and expect to get away with it. Yet, we do precisely that. And also, we give too much importance to the colour they impart to a dish rather than the flavour, especially in Northern India.
Often, you will hear, “Don’t order this dish. It has no chillies. The gravy is white”. The general idea, though stupid, is that anything white or pale yellow is flavourless and hence not worth spending upon. This kind of logic literally disgusts me. Bengal’s Doi Maachh is pale yellow, so are Kerala’s Meen Moilee, the Bohra Dabba Gosht and Kashmir’s Mutton Yakhni.
Indian chillies like the Mexican ones have different attributes and characters. Different countries import different kinds of chillies from India depending on their specific requirements. For example, in India, the pickle producing companies demand chillies that ‘bleed’ and retain their red colour for a long time. If consumers feel their pickle is losing its colour, they will move on to another brand although it has been proved that colour has no correlation to taste. South India needs its chillies to be less red even within the same brand. Others demand other attributes, not colour. The UK requires its chillies to be plaited in long braids along with braids of onion and garlic that hang in the kitchen. They are plucked from the braid when required. Hence, Guntur chillies which have around 11% moisture and can easily be plaited are the obvious choice. Rajasthani chillies on the other hand containing only about 3% moisture are too brittle for the purpose. The Arabs require stalks to be left on the chillies. The Arab countries are perhaps the only region that imports chillies with stalks. Chefs in Arab countries de-stalk the chillies and crush them between their palms while using them usually on meat that has been basted with olive oil. Because of the stalks, the seeds are retained on the meat and when it is grilled or roasted on an open flame the seeds turn the flame blue adding to the dramatics. Without the seeds, the show is lost.
Junglee Maas is a very old meat preparation of Rajasthan which was invented to satisfy the hunger of the Rajput kings during their hunting escapades. The meat used to be from that of wild game like wild boar, deer, etc. As there was very little access to ingredients during travel and Rajasthan, by and large, being a dry state, the meat was cooked using non-perishable ingredients such as salt, ghee and red chillies. The beauty of this succulent dish is its simplicity and use of bare minimum ingredients. I was doing my research to get hold of the original recipe but was put off by recipes with onion and garlic which did not conform to its history. Then I found Atul Sikand’s recipe and replicated it. Frankly, it was a revelation. Although the recipe called for boneless cubes of mutton, I used a mix of boneless and bone-in in the ratio of 70:30 to enhance the flavour with juices from the marrow.
- Mutton- 500 g
- Ghee- 4 Tbsp
- Mathania red chillies- 15 nos.
- Water- 100 ml
- Rock salt- to taste
- Wash mutton and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
- Soak chillies in water for 15-20 minutes.
- Heat ghee on a skillet over medium heat, add meat and sauté for 10-15 minutes till they are well browned.
- Add soaked chillies and salt and cover and let it simmer on low heat for 25-30 minutes.
- Add water in stages and gently let it simmer till succulent and tender. The idea is to keep the correct balance between ghee and water. There should not be too much water at any point in time, nor should the meat fry.
- Serve hot with roti or naan or Saffron Rice.
For this recipe, I dug out food blogger Kaveri Ponnapa’s recipe which uses three kinds of chillies. This recipe originated in the coastal areas of Mozambique and is a tribute to the Portuguese voyages of world discovery.
For peri-peri butter
- Softened unsalted butter- 500 g
- Bird’s eye chillies- 5 nos.
- Garlic- 6 cloves
- Paprika powder- 1 Tbsp
- Red chilli powder- to taste
- Lime juice- 20 ml (juice of 3-4 limes)
- Sea salt- to taste
- Prawns Grade A (head and shell on)- 1 kg
- Lime juice- to taste
- Pei-peri butter- as above
- Chopped coriander leaves- for garnish
- Lime wedges- to serve
For peri-peri butter
- Pound garlic and chillies in a mortar and pestle into a paste.
- In a mixing bowl mix the paste with softened butter, paprika, red chilli powder salt and lime juice.
- Chill until required.
For the prawns
- Take a sharp knife and slice through the backs of the prawn shells and devein keeping the shells intact.
- Wash the prawns lightly with salted water, drain and pat dry.
- Place the prawns in a glass bowl, drizzle with lime juice and cover with the previously prepared peri-peri butter and marinate for 20 minutes.
- Place the prawns on a baking tray and put them under a hot grill for 5-7 minutes basting with melted butter and turning once. Be careful not to overcook as they tend to become tough and chewy when overcooked. They should be crunchy and tender with lots of liquid, spicy butter.
- Sprinkle chopped coriander on top and serve hot accompanied with lime wedges.
Chillies have had a wondrous journey through the annals of history. A spice that had its inception in ancient South America, chillies have traced a glorious yet unexpected path when the Europeans introduced them to Asia. In less than 450 years India has embraced this prodigious spice so completely that it is now almost indispensable to and indistinguishable from Indian cuisine.