(Capsicum frutescens) Also spelled chilli
and chile. Fresh, dried, powdered, flaked, in sauces, sambals and
pastes, chilies appear in many forms, to be used with discretion. It is
well for the uninitiated to be aware that all chilies are not created
equal. They range from mild to wild. As a general rule the smaller the
chili, the hotter it is.
Is is hard to imagine Asian food without
chilies, although they are native to Mexico and were not known to Asia
until after the New World was discovered. The many and varied members of
the Capsicum family were taken by the Spanish conquistadors to Europe in
1514. In 1611, the seafaring Portuguese introduced chilies to India.
This is very recent in comparison with evidence that the natives of
Brazil and Peru began eating wild chilies between 6500 and 5000 BC.
The reason chilies are often called
chili-peppers has a connection to why the natives of the Americas were
called Red Indians or American Indians. One is no more pepper than the
other is Indian, but when Columbus and his crew set sail back in 1492,
he was confident he was on course for India. Among the treasures he
hoped to bring back from his voyage were spices such as cinnamon, cloves
and pepper, as precious as gold in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Instead, he found the Americas and pungent
fruits called aji by the natives. The Spanish named the people 'Indians"
and the pungent fruit 'red peppers'. In today's enlightened world the
people are referred to as Native Americans, but the plant gets called
everything from sweet or bell peppers to hot peppers or paprika peppers,
though they are not in any way related to pepper.
Capsicum varieties were introduced to Europe
and caught on in a big way in Hungary. The milder types are more popular
in the United States and Europe, but Asian appreciate the hotter
varieties. It seems that the further from the equator, the milder the
food. Large, deep-red dried chilies are used in Kashmir to give a
glowing red color to dishes without imparting too much heat. A common
scene to find huge basket piled high with these deep-red chilies at road
stalls in Kashmir. And with the morning sun shone through the
translucent pods, illuminating them like a pyramid of miniature
South India and Sri Lanka, on the other
hand, close to the equator, are renowned for their hot food. The heat
comes from fresh red or green chilies, dried chilies, or ripe red
chilies of different types dried and ground into powder.
In Burma, large dried red chilies are fried
in oil until crisp and almost black, and used as an accompaniment to
meals - sort of a chili pappadam which is held by the stem and bitten
into. Small bites are recommended. In India, chilies are soaked in
yoghurt and salt and dried in the sun for storing. These are called
chili tairu, and are treated like fiery papadams, being fried in oil
until crisp and eaten with rice. In the Philippines, the leaves of chili
plants are added to food in quite generous amounts - a cup of leaves in
a dish to serve 4 people - and they are added during the last 3 or 4
minutes of cooking.
Banana chilies (banana capsicums) are used
not as a flavoring but as a vegetable. They are ideal for stuffing with
savory mixtures. Smaller, hotter chilies are used extensively in salads,
sambals, curries and sometimes just on their own as an offering should
be necessary to add excitement to a meal.