The Chile Cuisine of India, Part 1

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By Dave DeWitt   

Cultivation, History, and Culinary Use

Indian Chile Vendors, ca. 1880





Mango and Coconut Chile Chutney

Madras Fried Chile Fritters (Molagai Bajii)

Moghul Chicken Dilruba

Jungli Mans

  Indian Chile Vendors, ca. 1880

India is one of the largest producers of chile peppers in the world. The Times of India Directory and Yearbook for 1983 listed total acreage at 825,000 hectares (about two million acres), and this figure compares favorably to a 1986 total of 2.2 million acres. However, tonnage figures for 1980-81 of 485,000 tons and 1986 for 707,000 tons do not compare very favorably. This could be the result of reduced yields or a discrepancy between fresh weight and dry equivalent tons. However, according to the Regional Agricultural Reasarch Station in Guntur, acreage increased from 796,000 hectares in 1981-82 to 878,000 hectares in 1985-86. During that same period of time, production increased from 525,000 tons to 709,000 tons.

The largest chile production states are Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Together they produce nearly half of all the chiles grown in India. Other chile-producing states are Maharashtra, Karnataka, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu. Because of agricultural vagaries, production figures vary radically from state to state over the years.

Indian Chile

“Pusa Jwala,” a common Indian variety.

As is true all over the world, chile nomenclature is in a state of confusion in India. The names of the agricultural cultivars bear no relation to the common names of the chiles. The most important chiles in India are annuum varieties that resemble cayennes or New Mexican types. The most common of these is called Kashmiri despite the fact that they are not exported from Kashmir. Other varieties include Guntur Red, named after the most prolific pepper producing region in India, Guntur; Goan; Nellore; Reyadgi; and Reshampatti. The cultivars listed by the Punjab Agricultural Institute include ‘Andhra Jyoti’, ‘Pusa Jwala’, ‘Sindhur’, and designations such as ‘NP46′ and ‘X-235′. On a trip to India, your editor collected the most commonly available varieties in Rajasthan and they were Kashmiri and Lal Mirch (the equivalent of saying “red chile”).

Indian Red Chile

What the Indians call “Lal Mirch,” or “Red Chile”

Some chiles are harvested in their green stage and are taken directly to produce markets, but most are allowed to dry to their red stage, are harvested, and then are spread out over sand to dry. Near Madurai in southern India, red chiles in the process of drying can be seen covering a vast area of dozens of acres. After they are sundried, the chiles are tossed into the air to allow the wind to blow away sand and straw. Then they are bagged and taken spice markets where they are sold as whole pods or as various grinds of chile powder.

But how did chiles become such a important crop in India? The initial responsibility goes to the Portuguese. Under the leadership of Alfonzo de Albuquerque, the Portuguese conquered the city of Goa on the Malabar Coast in 1510 and gained control of the spice trade. Goa was rich in spices–cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and black pepper–which were shipped to Lisbon in return for silver and copper. These spices were essential to Indian kari cooking. Kari is a Tamil, or South Indian, word for sauce–or, more correctly, the combination of spices that are added to meat, fish, or vegetables to produce a stew. One theory holds that it was the word kari that was Anglicized to become the famous “curry.” Before chiles, Indian cooks used white pepper and mustard seed to “heat up” their kari mixtures.

Shortly after the fall of Goa to the Portuguese, it is suspected chile peppers were introduced there by way of trade routes with Lisbon. Because of their familiarity with all kinds of pungent spices, the Indians of the Malabar Coast were undoubtedly quite taken with the fiery pods, and planted seeds that had been imported from monks’ gardens on the Iberian Peninsula.

By 1542, three varieties of chiles were recognized in India, according to Dutch botanist Charles Clusius, and by the middle of that century chiles were extensively cultivated and exported. One variety of Indian chile was called ‘Pernambuco,’ after a town in Portuguese Brazil, giving rise to speculation that the chiles had passed from Brazil to Lisbon and then round the Cape to Goa. The difficulty with such a theory is the fact that the principal chile of Brazil was Capsicum chinense, yet that species is rare today in India–the chinense growing in India may actually be an extreme form of frutescens, the tabasco chile. A more likely scenario is that the chiles introduced into India were annuums from the West Indies, the first chiles grown in Spain and Portugal. This theory is supported by the fact that Capsicum annuum became the most extensively cultivated chile in India and its main Capsicum of commerce.

Unlike Africa, where chiles were dispersed primarily by birds, in India they were spread by more deliberate cultivation. The Capsicums became known as achar, a term probably derived from the native American name Aj, and as mirch in northern India, and mulagay in the southern regions of the country and in Sri Lanka. Incidentally, achar is also the name of spicy pickles.

K. T. Achaya, in Indian Food: A Historical Companion, quotes “the great south Indian composer” Purandaradasa (1480-1564) about chiles: “I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used. Saviour of the poor, enhancer of good food, fiery when bitten.”

The production of chiles was quite important during the British rule in India. By 1924, the British began to isolate varieties and work on breeding to improve yield and quality. The breeding was done by the Imperial Council of Agricultural Research and that agency classified fifty-two varieties of chiles.

S.N. Mahindru, author of Spices in Indian Life commented that “poor sections of the Indian urbanites as well as the rural population were main consumers of green chiles. Middle and upper classes used chiles to a lesser extent.”

No matter what the varieties were called, chiles eventually appeared in such a variety of ways in Indian cookery that the diversity and intensity of their use rivals that of Mexico, the Southwestern United States, and some parts of Asia. Four hundred years after chiles first entered India, the degree of their penetration into the various Indian cuisines was vividly illustrated by the cooking experiences of Robert H. Christie.

Christie, a British Army officer, collected recipes from India and used them to prepare elaborate banquets for his fellow members of the Edinburgh Cap and Gown Club in Scotland. In 1911, Christie published his landmark book on Indian cookery, Twenty-Two Authentic Banquets from India, which contained recipes for dishes from all parts of India, and from neighboring regions that are today separate countries. An examination of the ingredients of these recipes reveals that fully two-thirds of the non-dessert and non-bread recipes contained some form of hot chiles!

In some regions, chiles totally dominated the food. In Christie’s Bengal chapter, for example, twenty-two of twenty-three entrees contained chile peppers. In the Madras chapter, the count was eleven of thirteen, and in the Kashmir chapter, seven of eight recipes called for hot chiles in various forms, including fresh green and red plus dried red pods and powders.

Christie’s recipes from some regions, such as Punjab, were not nearly so hot, but still it is evident that in 400 years chiles had completely conquered the cuisines of India, a land already rich in spices. They became an essential ingredient in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking–imparting color, flavor, heat, and nutrients.

Spices in general and chiles in particular are so important to the Indian kitchen that they are purchased in monds, a unit of ninety pounds. Once in the kitchen, they are stored until the cook is ready to use them in freshly ground spice mixtures called masalas, which vary greatly from region to region and are designed for specific applications. The masalas generally combine red chile with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, and black pepper. However, ginger, mustard seed, fennel, mace, poppy seeds, nutmeg, and saffron also make an appearance in various incarnations of masala.

Whichever spices are chosen to blend with the chiles, they are first roasted separately and then are ground together in a chakki, a stone mill, or in a kootani, an iron mortar and pestle. The dry masala can then be stored in air-tight containers or used immediately in cooking. When the dry masala is mixed with water, garlic, and fresh ginger, it becomes a “wet” masala. This paste is generally cooked by itself before the vegetables, meat, or fish is added to the pan.

Chile peppers not only transformed the masalas of India, but also the chutneys, the primary condiments of the country. Chutney is an Anglicized version of the Hindi chatni, a word that refers to licking the fingertips, which were the utensils originally used to eat this mixture of chiles, fruits, various vegetables, and spices. Originally, the making of chatni was a method of preserving ripe fruits in the tropical climate. Today, Indian cooks prepare fresh chutney just hours before each meal by mixing fresh ingredients and then chilling them before serving.

Indian cooks are not impressed with Major Grey, the famed brand of bottled relish. They say that this commercial mango preserve bears no resemblance to homemade chutneys because it is is too sweet and is not hot enough. Also, the prepared chutneys contain too much vinegar and ginger, but not enough of the other ingredients that make homemade chutneys superior: mixtures of different chiles and “exotic” ingredients (for bottled chutneys) such as tamarind, bananas, chopped green tomatoes, fresh coriander, coconut, and freshly ground spices.

Despite these complaints, the British and now the Americans are quite fond of the commercial chutneys and serve them with dishes prepared with commercial curry powders. Such a practice is mystifying, especially considering how easy it is to prepare much better tasting chutneys from scratch.

In addition to their use in masalas and chutneys, chiles also appear as part of various styles of cooking such as vindaloo and tandoori. In vindaloo cooking, meats such as pork, goat, lamb, shrimp, or chicken are marinated for hours or even days in a mixture of vinegar, fiery chiles, fruit pulp, and spices. Then the meat is simmered in the same marinade, a process that melds the marinade with the meat juices and the chiles and reduces the entire mixture to an extremely powerful sauce.

The other style of cooking, tandoori, is very popular in Punjab and also uses chiles as a marinade ingredient; however, the method of cooking the meat is quite different. Instead of being stewed, it is baked in the intense heat generated in a tandoor, a clay oven that is sunk vertically into the ground. The chicken is first scored and then slathered with a yogurt-chile-lime paste. Then the bird is marinated for at least twelve hours in the mixture before it is skewered and inserted into the tandoor.

The fact that chiles occur in the majority of Indian entrees, side dishes, snacks, and festival specialties is not really surprising. In India it is said, “The climate is hot, the dishes are hotter, and the condiments are the hottest.” This saying supports the legendary Indian tolerance for hot chiles. In southern India, a typical meal for four persons can include the following amounts and types of chiles: a handful of soaked and drained whole red chiles, two tablespoons of cayenne powder, two tablespoons of freshly chopped green chiles, and a bowl of whole green chiles on the table for snacking. These chiles are, of course, in addition to the masalas and chutneys that are also used.

In fiery south India, there is another saying, “Heat plus heat equals cool,” an allusion to the gustatory sweating caused by hot chiles. The southern state of Andra Pradesh is the chile capital of the entire country, and, according to The Wall Street Journal, the city of Guntur is the hottest city of that state and is another location competing for the title of the hottest city in the world. In 1988, that financial newspaper sent reporter Anthony Spaeth to India to investigate rumors that chile peppers had completely conquered the local cuisine. His report was shocking, to say the least.

“In Guntur,” he wrote, “salted chiles are eaten for breakfast. Snacks are batter-fried chiles with chile sauce. The town’s culinary pride are fruits and vegetables preserved in oil and chile, particularly its karapo pickles: red chiles pickled in chile.” Another popular snack is deep-fried chiles dipped in chile powder.

Hot and spicy food is so predominant in Guntur that the agricultural market in town sells a single commodity: chile in its myriad forms. Legend and lore about chiles figure prominently in the culture of Guntur. The people often dream about them, and they believe that hot tempers arise from heavy chile eating and that chiles increase sexual desire. Children begin to eat chile at age five and quickly build up an incredible tolerance. In addition to culinary usage, the burning of red chile pods is said to ward off evil spells.

In Guntur, as in other world-wide hotbeds of chile consumption, those who do not eat chile are viewed with concern, if not suspicion. The people of Guntur attribute the abnormal avoidance of chile to several causes: the offenders have lived abroad, are from out of town, or have married someone from a less-fiery state.

In addition to their culinary usage, chile peppers have worked their way into the customs and traditions of the region to an unusual degree. Many people on the Indian subcontinent believe that the smoke of roasting or even burning chile peppers protects the house and gives a feeling of warmth and security. On the other hand, chiles can be an instrument of terrorism. In 1988, a gang of hoodlums boarded a train in India and began robbing the passengers. Anyone who dared to resist got a handful of chile powder thrown in the face and eyes.

On a lighter note, as an example of how ingrained chiles are in the cuisines of India, we present the kitchen of the Taj Majal Hotel in Bombay, which now serves Mexican food! Because this famous hostelry must cater to tastes of international guests, it now experiments with a cross-cultural cuisine known as Indian-Mexican food.

In this amalgamated cuisine, corn masa is replaced with yellow corn flour for making tortillas and tacos. In the tacos, lamb meat is spiced with ginger and turmeric, is laced with a panir salsa made with serrano-like chiles, and is sprinkled with distinctive Indian cheeses. Nachos, the familiar snack of the American Southwest, are transformed with the addition of spiced garbanzo beans covered with a red chile sauce made with a combination of New Mexican-type chiles and the far hotter Japanese santaka variety.


Mango and Coconut Chile Chutney

This chutney from the southwest coast of India can be served with any curry and can be used as a dip for any kind of chip, including fried plantains.

  • ½ cup water

  • 1 1-inch ball of tamarind pulp (or two teaspoons lime juice)

  • ½ cup warm water

  • 2 cups shredded coconut

  • 1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled

  • 4 green chiles, such as serranos, stems removed and halved

  • 4 cloves garlic

  • ½ cup cilantro

  • 6 large green mangos

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

  • 4 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds

  • 1 teaspoon asafoetida

  • 1 teaspoon greengram dal

  • 1 teaspoon red chile powder

  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder

  • 1/4 cup curry leaves

  • ½ cup cilantro leaves

  • Salt to taste

Soak the tamarind in 1/2 cup warm water for 10 minutes, then strain the pulp and save the liquid.

Grind into a fine paste the coconut, ginger, chiles, garlic, cilantro. Combine the paste with the tamarind water. Set aside.

Peel the mangos, discard the seeds, and grind the pulp in a blender or food processor along with the cumin and fenugreek into a smooth paste.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat, add the mustard seeds, dal, and asafoedita. When the seeds begin to pop, add the mango paste, chile powder, turmeric, and coconut-tamarind paste. Add a little water, mix well, and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from the heat and add the curry leaves, cilantro, and salt. Place in a jar in the refrigerator; it keeps for at least three months.

Yield: 4 to 6 cups

Heat Scale: Medium

Madras Fried Chile Fritters (Molagai Bajii)

Bajiis, the unstuffed Madras version of chiles rellenos, are popular tea-time snacks in Madras and other cities of Tamil Nadu. They are often accompanied by a mango chutney like the one in this section, and the taste combination is delicious. Serve with fruit drinks or beer.

  • 2 cups vegetable oil

  • ½ cup corn flour

  • ½ cup rice flour

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • ½ cup water

  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin

  • 10 green New Mexican chiles, roasted and peeled, stems on, slit length-wise on one side

Heat the oil in a skillet or wok over low heat.

Combine the flours and the salt in a bowl and add a teaspoon of the warm oil. Blend in the water and whisk to make a thick batter.

Turn the heat under the skillet or wok to high.

Rub the ground cumin inside the chiles and dip them in the batter. Reduce the heat to medium and fry the chiles in the oil for 2 minutes, turning once, or until they are golden brown all over.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Moghul Chicken Dilruba

This rich, spicy-sweet chicken dish from northwestern India has distinct Moghul influences. “Dilruba” means “sweetheart.” The Moghuls controlled most of India from 1526 until 1839, leaving behind some of India’s most famous architecture, including the Taj Mahal. The Moghul emperors loved to eat, and twenty-course meals were common in the royal courts. Not surprisingly, Moghul rule had a greater influence on Punjabi cuisine that that of any other conqueror.

  • 2 medium onions

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root

  • 6 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

  • 1 3 to 4 pound chicken, skin removed, cut into small serving pieces

  • 1 cup fresh plain yogurt

  • 1/4 cup almonds

  • 1/4 cup walnuts

  • 1/4 cup melon, pumpkin or squash seeds (optional)

  • 1 cup milk

  • 2 tablespoons garam masala

  • 1 teaspooon ground turmeric

  • 2-3 fresh green cayenne peppers, minced, or substitute any small, hot chiles such as serranos or jalapeños

  • Salt and ground cayenne to taste

  • A few strands whole saffron, soaked in two tablespoons warm milk

  • Minced fresh cilantro and whole almonds and cashews for garnish

Put the onions and ginger into a blender or food processor and process to a smooth paste (about the consistency of apple sauce). Heat the butter in a heavy, deep skillet and gently brown the onion mixture, stirring often.

Add the chicken and yogurt. Combine well and cook over medium heat until the mixture becomes rather dry and the chicken begins to brown.

Grind the almonds, walnuts, and melon seeds until quite fine. Stir them into the milk. Add this mixture to the chicken along with the garam masala, turmeric, chile peppers, salt and ground cayenne pepper.

Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the chicken is very tender and the sauce is very thick (about 10 to 15 minutes). Stir in the saffron and milk mixture and cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer.

Garnish with cilantro and nuts and serve hot.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Jungli Mans

In the Mewari language of Rajasthan, jungli mans refers to a dish that would be prepared by a stranded hunter who only had the basics with him. It is amazingly tasty considering the limited ingredients. It is also quite hot, so serve it with some plain white rice.

  • 2 pounds lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes

  • 2 cups ghee (clarified butter) or substitute vegetable oil.

  • 10 lal mirch chiles, or substitute dried cayennes or mirasol, stems removed, left whole

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • Water as needed

In a pot, heat the ghee or oil and add the meat, stirring constantly for 10 minutes. Add the whole chiles and salt and continue cooking. Add water as necessary to make sure that the meat neither fries nor boils, but is essentially braised. Continue cooking until the meat is tender, about an hour more, stirring occasionally. Remove the chiles before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Hot


[Article excerpted from The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia, William Morrow, 1999]


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