Cooking with Chili

Cooking with Chili

(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 lanterns.

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.

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