Chillies are the life and soul of a hearty Indian meal. You don’t necessarily have to overdo it until smoke comes out of your ears, tears from your eyes and it leaves you red faced, but without a touch of a chilli or two, dishes seem incomplete India. Like latte without a sprinkling of chocolate powder or potato wedges without ketchup.
There is a great variety in the chillies trade used in Indian recipes. Red, green, fresh, dry, powdered, cut fried not only do they add the fire we love them for but also add flavour in loads. Here’s my run down of the top of the crop:
Finger Chillies: Green, slim and potent these chillies have a lovely fresh flavour and a sharp bite. You can buy them in packets or loose from any vegetable shop or a street vendor, Green chillies are often slit/chopped and added to dishes. Generally each bite of food can be accompanied by a little bite of a fresh finger green chilli. Green chillies can be all sizes and the spike. Some big green ones can be of no bite but some flavour and some other small ones can be big champions. A small touch of them can be felt for some time.
Red Chillies: These can be more or less spicy, often sliced and used in Indian curries and soups. Fresh red chillies are milder and great when chopped into salads or for decoration in the dishes.
Dry Whole Red Chillies: There are two types. One looks like finger chillies, only fatter and red in colour. The other is about a centimetre long and more potent. They are often fried in oil as a tarka before adding to the dish. “The presence of chillies does not signify scorching heat. When left whole, their flavour leaks out into the sizzle-hot oil or ghee… Omit dried chillies altogether, and the flavour loss may be devastating.”
Chilli Powder: This stuff is more potent than anything listed above. It has a propensity to set ears buzzing, tongues tingling and can upset the stomach a while. A lot of takeaway cuisine is spiced with chilli powder. Used in moderation it adds a lovely red glow and sharp flavour to dishes. The rule of thumb with chillies is to work out how much you can handle and tolerate and then add just a little bit extra for that little sweet bite. In India Rajasthan there is dish called ‘LAAL MASS’ the so called prepared Red Meat. If you have to cook one kilo of goat meat you need to put one kilo of red chilli powder and half kilo of ghee the clarified butter and a pinch of salt.
It is not necessary that Indian food was meant to be sparingly hot. Just like any other cuisine, it’s the taste that matters not the colours of chillies.