Chillies in a Curry

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Ray Street

When you think of chillies, you usually think of a curry. But, believe it or not, chillies did not originate in India. Nor did they originate in Asia. Chillies came from the New World of Central and South America.

And guess who brought chillies back from the New World? Why, Christopher Columbus of course. Columbus sailed west from Europe, in 1492, to find a passage to Indonesia, one of the spice centres of the world. But instead, he landed in the Caribbean. And he found the local population spicing up their food with what he thought was pepper.

Columbus took seeds back to Europe where they became known as pimento, which is the Spanish word for pepper. But they weren’t pepper seeds at all – they were chilli seeds. And the chilli seeds germinated and grew more easily than real pepper.

Before the 1500s, the main hot spices in use in India were the long pepper and the more expensive black pepper. The main arrival point for chillies in India was in the Portuguese colony of Goa. The Portuguese sailed between the New World and Europe, trading spices and anything they could lay their hands on. And chillies were not only easier to grow than the traditional long pepper, they were easier to store and, because of this, chillies were cheaper than the long peppers. So it was not surprising the chillies swiftly took over from the long pepper in India.

And it didn’t take long for the chilli crops to be dried, turned into powder and then shipped to the spice lovers of Europe.

Today there are hundreds of varieties of chillies and more are being created each year.

Chillies belong to the capsicum genus of plants. In this genus are the sweet capsicums such as Bell Pepper (which have no “heat”) as well as the hot chilli peppers such as Anaheim, Jalapeno, Cayenne, Serrano, Bird’s Eye, Habanero and Scotch Bonnet (a Jamaican favourite).

Chillies come in all colours (green, red, yellow, purple and all shades in between) as well as lots of different shapes (short and straight, long and straight like a finger, curved, round, lantern shaped and lots more).

So where does the heat come from in the chilli fruit? It’s in the membrane. If you slice open a chilli, you’ll see the flesh (the outside shell), the membrane and the seeds. The seeds are attached to the membrane and the membrane is attached to the outside flesh. If you want to remove the hottest part of a chilli then cut away (and discard) the membrane (and seeds) so you are left with the outside flesh.

And what are the hottest chillies?  Currently, varieties of the naga chilli are the hottest but people are continually trying to breed ever-hotter chillies,usually so that they can make the “hottest curry in the world”. Although I’ve eaten really hot curries in the past, nowadays I prefer to be able to taste what I’m eating rather than sit with my mouth on fire. I’ll leave the “hottest curry in the world” well alone.

The first scientific measurement of the heat of varieties of chillies was undertaken by Wilbur Scoville around 1912. Extracts from different chillies were put into a water and sugar solution and tasted by brave panellists. The solution was diluted more and more until the chilli heat could not be detected and the amount of required dilution was recorded. The resulting measurement scale was known as the Scoville Scale. This scale seems pretty haphazard but was really quite accurate. Nowadays, chilli heat is measured using liquid chromatography. But no matter what system is used, the scales are for indicative comparison purposes only and the scales always have a lower and upper value (for example, the Jalapeno has a Scoville range from 2,500 to 10,000). A range is used because the heat can vary widely in chillies of the same variety and even between chillies from the same plant.

Here in New Zealand, the supermarkets and vegetable shops tend to stock only a couple of types of chillies – green and red!

When using chillies in a curry the one thing you need to work out is how hot a chilli will make your curry. When confronted with a new recipe, I tend to cook the curry as written and make a note of how hot I thought the curry was. If the curry is too hot then I can take several actions to lower the heat the next time I cook the curry. Firstly, I can reduce the number of chillies – if the recipe calls for two chillies then I can use just one. Or I can remove the membrane and seeds and just use the flesh. Or I can use a combination of these methods. The reverse process makes the curry hotter so I can just add another chilli (or even more than one more) and leave in the membrane and seeds. It’s really down to trial and error. One thing that I’d recommend is that you make sure you know how chillies in a curry affects the taste before you invite somebody round to dinner to sample your cooking – the last thing you want is for friends or relatives to be sitting clutching their throats and gasping for something to soothe their throat (a raita is one of the best things you can have on hand to counter the chilli heat).

Just be careful when you’re handling or cutting chillies. It will hurt a lot if you get the active ingredients in chilli (the main one being a compound called capsaicin) in cuts, your eye or in your mouth. Pouring water (or beer) into the area will not alleviate the pain – you need to use something like a raita, or yoghurt, to ease the pain.

Chillies did not originally come from India but it’s hard to imagine any Indian kitchen without chillies and chilli powder. It is a powerful spice and one to be enjoyed, not to be feared.

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2 thoughts on “Chillies in a Curry

  1. Last season, in my Auckland garden, was disaster for anything that resembled a chilli so I planted a great variety this year. However it was a bumper year and now I have far too many really really hot ones. Rather than waste them I took them up to our local Indian supermarket and gave them to the owner.I don’t care if he sells them or gives them away, just as long as they are not wasted.

  2. Great article Ray. I couldn’t have put it better myself, and I grow the things.

    My favourite chilli – because it is a good size, a good heat, is asthetically pleasing and has a good crunch – is the jalapeno. The colour of a ripe jalapeno is the most amazing, vibrant red. Love ’em!