I have a friend who travels to Europe and USA with a bottle of Tabasco. She doesn’t relish food that is less than incendiary. The result is that she just has to spice up her food and she – and doubtless others like her – find that Tabasco works just fine. It is spicy, its liquid consistency makes it easy and non-messy to pour, the size is ideal to tuck into a hand-bag. My friend, a card-carrying Indian, doesn’t see anything strange in using a chilli seasoning from outside India. To me, it is downright ironical that an Indian national depends on a spicy seasoning that comes from outside Asia, and that too from North America.
But chillies, once upon a time endemic to South America’s Bolivia, are now found in many parts of the world, Tabasco being only one example. Hungary’s paprika comes from a sweet pepper, too mild for the likes of my friend, but Italy’s extreme southern state, Calabria, has tiny chillies that even my friend approves of, though she heaped scorn on a jar of Italian chilli chutney that I presented her, complaining that it had no punch. In Italy, you get to see chillies used for a variety of purposes, principally in Calabrian salami, which is spicy even for the average Indian taste.
One of the spiciest meals I’ve eaten outside India has to be at a Moroccan restaurant on the outskirts of Paris. Ask for a plate of kebabs and you’ll get a couple of dry seekh kebabs, a bowl of couscous, another bowl of a mildly flavoured soup and a plate of chillies pounded and made into a chutney. While it was fiery enough, it paled in comparison with a meal I had in Shanghai at a Sichuan restaurant. Barely half a cup of diced chicken was deep fried with half a kilo of chopped red chillies to make a Sichuan classic called Chonqing chicken. I thought the point of the dish was the chicken. It was not: the chillies had to be consumed as well. All around us, the Chinese version of lager louts kept ordering ever hotter and spicier dishes with an air of bravado.
It’s easy to forget that chillies only reached our shores four centuries ago – the twinkling of an eye for historians. Before that time, Indian food was spicy with black pepper and ginger. Today, Asian food has sort of acquired a stranglehold on chillies and nobody connects it with South America anymore. North-east India has been put on the culinary map of the world because of the bhut jolokia, the hottest chilli in the world, second only to Mexico’s habanero.
Millennia ago, Mexico had incorporated the chilli into its cuisine and today, it is unarguably the most sophisticated user of chillies. What’s more is that while we tend to grade our chillies into hot, hotter and hottest, Mexico boasts of 200 varieties that are smoked, served fresh or dried and that have a wealth of tastes, flavours and pungency levels.
Indonesian Chilli Paste
Like most Indonesian sauces, this one too is cooked and then pounded
10 fresh red chillies (or at a pinch green ones)
6 shallots, peeled and chopped
5 tbsp oil
2 tbsp water
3 tsp palm sugar (called taal mishri in Bengali)
Half tsp salt
Cook the chillies and tomatoes until soft. Drain and pound them with the shallots. Heat the oil and fry the paste. Add sugar, salt and water. Cook over low heat till oil separates. Use as a dip for fried food, particularly roast chicken.