Chillies – Too hot to handle ?

Chillies – Too hot to handle ?

If you can’t handle eating chillies consider yourself normal. Heat is the chilly plants defense system to stop mammals from eating it. Birds on the other hand have no problem; unlike humans the capsaicin in the chilly does not bind to their pain receptors found in their nerves causing them to feel the sharp pain. The distinct burning that we talk about after biting into a chilly is really pain that we experience. And while birds simply crap out the seeds, helping another chilly plant to dandy out of the soil, humans can end up anywhere from a pleasant food experience to a hospital bed. But then again, if you cannot handle chilly, how sorry your palette must be, for nothing can replace the taste of this unique plant in its contribution to food.

Peppers would be the correct way to address a chilly; that is really the broad classification of these ‘domesticated’ heat seeking food missiles. Those peppers which have capsaicin are called chilies, the rest we commonly call bell peppers or capsicums. The bell peppers are sweet when ripe unlike their ‘hot’ cousins. These hot little things originated from Peru, Bolivia and Chile which were at one time part of a larger geographical location called the Tawantinsuyu  Empire or more famously the land of the Incas. Residuals of chilli seeds also go back to 3500 BC  and have been found in ancient cooking vessels in many archaeological digs in Mexico.

Chillies are not native to India! Like tomatoes and potatoes there is a long list of now well-loved Indian vegetables, fruits, spices, snacks and deserts (samosa and gulb jamun included) that made India their home.  Interestingly, potato in Portuguese is called ‘batata’, the same word for the vegetable in local Indian languages like Marathi and Konkani. The Portuguese, like all colonists, were principally interested in trade. Christianity and the Cross were really way down on their shopping cart list; a truth that is often found hard to digest and heavily bandied around by some religious fanatics. Among the items that Vasco da Gama was credited to bring into India was the chilly.

Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, India had its own elements that added heat to dish. Pepper  horseradish and mustard were used extensively in Indian cuisine. Pepper grew wild in the Western Ghats, in Kerala and Karnataka.  Ain-i-Akbari, a cook book from 1590 has 50 dishes from Akbar the Great’s kitchen that used pepper.

But while India willingly traded its ‘black gold’ (read black pepper) from the Portuguese it wasted no time in embracing chilli. In a hundred years after the Portuguese set foot in India, chilli had taken root literally! While the Portuguese may have brought the chilly here, we decided to name it. Across India chilli is simply called by a variation of the traditional black pepper, kalimirch. Chilli simply came to be known as mirch. The red one was lal mirch, the green one is hari mirch, the capsicum is Simla mirch. In Tamil pepper is milagu and chilly is milagukai (the fruit of the pepper).  Across India we simply took this new import and hyphenated it to the good stuff we already had.

While the capsaicin filled peppers usually get into our dishes as a spice, the non-capsaicin variety found its way as a vegetable; commonly called capsicum. Some capsicum varieties are even dried like a chilli and used like a spice; Deghi mirch being a case in point. However, most capsicums are used in food  as a vegetable or in a salad when it is green in colour. While this has a slight bitter taste, if left to mature it changes into a riot of colours producing what is often called, Bell Peppers. Bell Peppers are sweeter simply because they have been allowed to mature. They change from green to yellow, purple, chocolate coloured and finally red or orange. The red or orange colour is the final stage of its maturation and is rich in Vitamin C. Having said that if you really want Vitamin C, eat an orange!

Over the next few articles on this topic, we will talk about types of Chillies in India and its uses in various dishes.

N.B Artwork done by my sister, Cherida Fernandez

Fr Warner D’Souza

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