The grand old red hot chilli pepper

Spice route

Spicy Treat Chillies in India have a 500-year-old history.

How was Indian food before the chilli? The standard answer is pepper. This is supported by the existence of dishes like the Malabar mutton curries or pickles which use pepper and not chillies for their pungency. Also, in many of the Hindu religious ceremonies, to this day, only pepper is used as chillies are taboo. The taste of pepper is quite different from that of chillies, and their heat too is of a different kind.

When the Portuguese captured Goa on November 25, 1510 and in the colonisation that followed, growing chillies became one of the most important agricultural inputs. Chillies thrived in Mexico as far back as 7,000 BC and ‘chilli’ was their original Aztec name.

Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America, came across chillies during his voyages and noticed a similarity in spiciness to the black and white pepper cultivated in Europe and named his discovery ‘red pepper.’ In those days, Europe did not have easy access to pepper from the East, as Vasco da Gama had not yet discovered the route to India and the Arabian merchants charged heavily for the available pepper. The spiciness of the newly-found chillies was a god-sent gift to European cuisine. Upon introduction to Europe, chillies were first grown in Spanish and Portuguese monasteries, where monks carefully cultivated it. Then, in the 1510’s, Portuguese brought it to India. Today, from the sambar of south India, to the bikaneri sev of Rajasthan,chillies rule the roost in Indian cuisine.

The world production of chilli crop sums up to around 7 million tonnes, and India, with a production of 1.1 million tonnes, is the world leader, followed by China and Pakistan. We export 75,000 tonnes of red chillies (25% of the international export market) every year and bring in 450 crore (100 million US dollars) in foreign exchange.

Again, in the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire, the chilli brought the curry flavour of Eastern mystique to the otherwise bland European table. English companies like Crosse & Blackwell, Lazenby’s, and the good old Bolst popularised the curry powder — the most popular version of chilli powder — and hot sauce. Anglo-Indian staples like fish moulee and Madras lamb curry specifically ask for a liberal dose of Bolst’s curry powder, so the British kitchen cupboard always had a tin of Bolst’s and today, due to the success of curry as a world cuisine, it is present in all supermarkets of the world.

Today, there are probably 400 different chillies grown in different parts of the world. Each variety has a distinct flavour of its own. The Mexican pasilla is the longest chilli one can set eyes on — about seven inches long and one inch wide, with a deep  purplish dark-chocolaty colour and crinkled texture.

The hot, fiery flavour of chillies is obtained from a chemical called capsaicin that is concentrated around the seeds and vein. They are low in fat and sodium, high in vitamin C and beta-carotene. It was always believed that the Red Savina Habanero variety of Mexico was the hottest chilli in the world. But the Tezpur chilli, grown in north-east India, has beaten it hollow as this chilli, called Naga Jolokia, is the hottest. Scientists from the Indian Army Food Laboratory reported that the Tezpur chilli had 8,55,000 scoville units of pure capsaicin (the scale of heat) in it, as compared to 3,00,000 scoville units in the Mexican variety.

Why do people like the chilli so much when it has such a burning sensation on the tongue? Food scientists have the answer. The burning sensation because of capsaicin fire causes pain, which releases the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins. These endorphins lead to a feeling of well–being. Perhaps, this ‘happy hormone’ is the reason why nothing goes down quite so well as a spicy curry. At one end of the spectrum of Indian red chillies is the minute purplish red birds eye chilli, also known as Tejaswini. It is scorching and even more so when dried. At the other end are the milder, sweeter ones like the deep red Kashmiri and the round bright and smooth cherry or bor chilli — both usually added to dishes to impart their subtle flavour, minus the extreme pungency.

Although India stands first in chilli cultivation in the world, its productivity is very low (0.9 tonnes/ hectare) as compared to the world average (2 tonnes/ hectare). The Chinese yield of chillies is about 2.2 tonnes per acre. The reason for this high yield is that hybrid seed cultivation and its benefits have not yet trickled down to Indian farmers.

The Indian crop is grown in an area of 7.5 lakh hectacre with 40 varieties. Of this, 2.24 lakh hectares are in Andhra Pradesh. With an annual production of 2.92 lakh tonnes, Andhra Pradesh is the largest producer of chillies in India. A hybrid variety of chilli was developed in Andhra Pradesh about eight years ago, that is estimated to yield between 8,000 and 10,000 kg/ hectare under normal conditions and higher if given additional attention.

If you long to taste all these types of chillies, head straight to Shertha in Gujarat. Just 25 km from Ahmedabad, this tiny village with a population of about 8,000, is the chilli capital of India. For miles along both sides of the Ahmedabad—Jodhpur Highway, mounds of red peppers drying in the sun is an usual sight. The spicy smell of chillies permeates everything in Shertha. From January to April, over 11,000 kg of chillies are dried and powdered here by 45-odd spice traders, employing 3,000 workers.

The different varieties of chilli that come to Shertha inclue Patni, Longi Mirch and Wonder Eight from Andhra Pradesh; Deshi Mirch from Mehsana and Gandhinagar; Reshampatti from Gondal; Bedgi and Kashmir chillies from Karnataka; and Jarila from Maharashtra.

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