Scientific technology is wonderful, but does it matter to someone who just loves chillies what the numbers are? Vasundhara Chauhan shares some spicy information and recipes
One winter lunch at the club I asked for green chillies. They arrived and, before I could, a white hand was reaching out for one. It was our English guest, a much travelled journalist, who said that he'd lived years in Mexico where he had grown so addicted to Habanero chillies that he took seeds back to his native Yorkshire and grew them. He succeeded, the plant flourished and bore fruit. But minus the heat. As he put it, the weak, watery sun and skies of Yorkshire were no use to a plant that thrived on scorching bright Mexican sun. Which is probably why chillies are a tropical plant, and their "heat level" depends on temperature, abundant sunlight, humidity and soil.
A hundred years ago, an American pharmacist, Wilbur Scoville devised a method, the Scoville Organoleptic Test, to rate the heat, [T1]measured in SHU, Scoville Heat Units. Today, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion is rated as the hottest chilli pepper in the world - the mean score is 1.2 million, but some fruits have an SHU rating of two million. It ousted last year's two champions, the Infinity Chilli Pepper, with a rating of 1,067,286 SHU, which reigned for two weeks, and the Naga Viper pepper, which had displaced it with 1,382,118 SHU. A sweet pepper or bell pepper, which contains no capsaicin, scores zero on the Scoville scale, and a Jalapeno logs about 5,000.
Hot chillies contain capsaicin, a compound that stimulates the nerve endings on the skin. Scoville's method was subjective: it measured the spicy heat or piquancy of a chilli pepper by making an alcohol extract of the capsaicin oil, then adding it incrementally to sugar solution until the "heat" was just detectable by a panel of tasters. The rating on the Scoville scale indicates the degree of dilution required to reach that stage. Small mercy: the tasters taste only one sample per session, and even better now, the modern method to determine chilli heat uses chromatography, which measures capsaicinoid content directly and the results are counted in ASTA (American Spice Trade Association) pungency units.
Scientific technology is wonderful, but does it matter to someone who just loves chillies what the numbers are? For years I'd heard of the Naga Jolokia, also called Bhoot Jolokia and Raja Mirch. It grows in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. So, in Nagaland, where the food is delicious but bland, I asked for one. It's a pretty, innocuous looking heart shaped fruit, smelling slightly like desi tamatar. I took one small bite, with respect and fear, and then another. Which was a very big mistake because it takes a moment for the heat to get to you, by which time it's too late. The burning, like a grenade in your head, lasts for a day. Water, milk, boiled rice - nothing helps. So the next day they made me some chutney, Bhoot Jolokia coarsely ground with some fragrant local leaves, which was more convenient because a smidgen, mixed with rice, was easier to handle. The story goes that institutional kitchens start simmering a big pot of whatever, suspend a mirch a foot above it, lower it into the pot for a fraction of a second and then discard it. That's how potent it is.
But local chillies are good enough. I remember driving past mandis in Punjab in winter - at Sanaur and Samana - where red chillies were laid out in huge heaps on the ground, in different shades of red, the intensity of colour varying with stages of dryness or maybe even variety. Never having seen Guntur, and Gujarat mandis only in art films, this was a sight to behold.
Ideally this fish curry should be cooked a day in advance so that the fish absorbs the flavours of the kodampulli and chillies.
[T1] Not any longer - it's been displaced by ASTA
[T2]Trinidad Moruga Scorpion replaced both Infinity and Naga Viper
The writer is a food writer based in New Delhi, India.
LEHSUN MIRCH PASTE
Makes enough for 10 rotis
- Makes enough for 10 rotis n 6-10 whole dry red chillies n 12-16 cloves garlic, peeled n Salt n 4 tsp ghee
De-seed and roughly chop red chillies. Soak in a tablespoon of water for an hour. Grind, with water, garlic and salt, to a coarse paste. Stir into melted ghee. Keep aside and spread sparingly on each hot roti as it comes off the tawa.
ULTE TAWE KI ROTI
Heat a tawa and roll rotis as for regular phulkas, but thicker. Wet roti thoroughly by dipping in a large bowl of water and then place roti on hot tawa. When little bumps start appearing on top of the roti, reduce heat to medium and upturn tawa on to flame. Keep peeping to see which bit needs attention and shift tawa accordingly. When the whole roti is nicely speckled, it will be close to becoming quite dry and falling off the tawa. With a metal spatula or tongs, lift it off the tawa and place directly on the flame to crisp. Spread with garlic chilli paste and serve hot.
Kerala Red Fish Curry (Serves 4-6)
- 3 tbsp oil n 1/2 tsp mustard seeds n 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds n 1 medium onion, chopped
To be mixed with 1/2 cup water n 2 tsp red chilli powder n 1 tsp coriander powder n 1/2 tsp turmeric powder n 1/4 tsp pepper powder n 2 tbsp ginger chopped n 2 tbsp garlic chopped n 10 curry leaves n Salt n 3 pieces kodumpulli (fish tamarind) soaked in 1/2 cup water n 500 g fish cut into 5 cm pieces n 2 cups hot water n 2 tbsp coconut oil
Heat oil in a cheena chatti or a heavy-bottomed pan. Add mustard seeds until they begin to crackle and add fenugreek seeds. Stir once and add the onions. Sauté till the onion turns translucent. Add ginger, garlic and curry leaves and stir for a few seconds. Add spice paste and stir. Cook for a few seconds without letting the spices burn. Add salt and the soaked kodampulli pieces and the water used for soaking. Allow to come to a boil. Put the fish pieces in the gravy. Add more hot water so that the fish pieces are barely covered with the gravy. Let the curry come to a boil once more, then turn down the heat and simmer till the fish pieces are cooked and the gravy thickens. Do not stir the curry. Hold the pan from the two sides and gently swirl the gravy around. Once the fish is cooked, turn off the heat and pour the coconut oil on top.
Note: Kodampulli, like kokum, can be replaced with a lime sized lump of tamarind
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
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