One weekend, on a whim, my husband and I picked up a pack of ‘Bhut Jolokia’, one of the spiciest chili peppers in the world.
Then, we dried the rest of the Bhut Jolokia peppers to make homemade hot sauce for long term use.
Feeling the slow burn of too much capsaicin left us with one thought from our Bhut Jolokia experiment: ‘Sometimes, the way to chili pepper wisdom must come through the spiciest route!’
India and Its Chili Connection:
Although chili peppers historically originated in central parts of the Americas, it’s no surprise that today, by a long margin, India is the world’s largest producer of chili peppers, or ‘chillies’ as they’re commonly referred to around the country.
For most of us who’ve had the pleasure of sweating it out over spicy but delcious Andhra food, it also makes sense that the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India produces majority of this essential Indian ingredient.
Which Chili Pepper is Right for You?
In spite of thousands of chili pepper varietals, the obvious question ‘which chili gets used where?’ doesn’t call for much thought back in India.
It’s commonly known that Kashmiri chilies are good for color and flavor with low levels of spiciness, while south Indian chili pepper types offer a stronger spice kick.
In a generations old display of the modern-day ‘Farm-to-Table’ concept, most Indian homes cook with the regional chili peppers produced and sold by their local farmers and spice stores.
And so like many Indian living outside India, during my early days in the US, the wide selection in western markets left me wondering on my chili pepper judgment for Indian food.
Based on the desired levels of spiciness, from highest to lowest, I’d suggest picking green/red Cayenne chili pepper, Thai green chili pepper or Serrano pepper; these chili peppers impart the kind of spicy taste required in India’s cuisines.
Habenero peppers, although spicier, can be too intense in authentic Indian cooking, while Jalapeño in a curry may as well be green bell pepper.
How to Treat your Chili Pepper:
Like all spices, chili peppers need to be cooked through, really well. Toss them in hot oil, roast them on a dry griddle or cook them with water or stock in a slow cooking curry, stew or soup. Undercooked spices will leave you with an unpleasant spice taste, which detracts from the flavors of the dish.
Indian cuisine uses chili peppers in 3 main forms:
First let’s look at whole fresh red or green chili peppers; they’re best to impart an instant spice kick to food.
If you’re looking for subtle spiciness, add the entire fresh chili pepper uncut to hot oil, so the spice can mildly infuse your dish.
Or take it up one step on the spice level, by slitting the fresh chili pepper, before adding it to oil; the chili seeds will give a bolder flavor.
For its full spice impact, chop the fresh chili pepper very fine, so you get a taste in each bite.
Whole dried red chili peppers are often used for making wet spice blends used in curries and stews. They’re also great for tempering, which is the process of adding ground or whole spices to heated oil, along with aromatics and herbs.
Which brings me to the often used ground dried red chili peppers or red chili ‘powder,’ as ground spices are often called in India. Look for ground Cayenne pepper in western spice aisles.
Advice on Using Chili Peppers:
The purpose of chili peppers is to add depth of flavor to a meal, not ‘torture by spice’.
Each palate has a distinct level of tolerance for spice; use your judgment to increase or reduce the quantity of chili pepper in any recipe as suited to you and your family.
Keep in mind that children don’t have a well-developed spice palate; like all other foods, it helps to introduce spices in small amounts from a young age to build their liking for flavors.
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