The Humble Chilli
The chilli (or chili) is used so much in the making of curries that it is difficult to imagine a curry without chilli.
A compound called capsaicin gives the chilli its heat. Some chillies are mild, some chillies are very hot and there are hundreds of chilli varieties in between.
The Arrival of Chilli in Europe and Asia
Chillies did not arrive in Europe and Asia until the end of the 15th century and we all have Christopher Columbus to thank for delivering the chilli to us.
In 1492 Columbus sailed to westwards from Europe to find a new route to the Indonesian Spice Islands in the hope of finding a cheap source of pepper. At the time, pepper was amazingly expensive.
But, instead of finding the East Indies, Columbus stumbled on the West Indies in the Caribbean. And Columbus found the local population were spicing up their food with what he thought were peppers but they were, in fact, chillies.
“Chilli” is an Aztec word and chillies were used widely in Mexico, Central America and South America. The use of chilli has been dated back as far as 6,000 years.
Columbus sent back chilli seeds back to Europe, calling them “pimento”, which is Spanish for pepper.
And the chilli was an instant success because they germinated and grew easier than traditional pepper.
The Chilli Arrives in India
Until the chilli reached India, the main hot spices being used were the long pepper and expensive black pepper.
Vasco Da Gama, another great explorer, reached India in 1497 by sailing south along the African coast and then rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Indian Ocean and stopping at Goa. Da Gama was instrumental in the Portuguese settling in Goa at this time (Goa is on the south west coast of India).
So a viable sea route to India was found and was used by the Portuguese to trade spices (along with other commodities) to the Goa colony. And the chilli was one of the spices that reached Goa (and the rest of India) starting the journey from the New World and using the newly found sea route.
And the chilli was easier to grow than long peppers as well as being easier to store. So the chilli became the hot spice of choice in India and the long pepper soon stopped being grown as a crop.
The chilli grows well in India and it was not too long before chillies were being harvested, dried, turned into powder and then exported to Europe.
The chilli had arrived in India and today it is hard to believe that it had not always been grown there.
Types of Chilli
There are hundreds of different varieties of chilli being grown today. Different types of chilli crossbreed very easily and new chilli varieties are being created each year. The goal of creating the hottest chilli ever drives a lot of people although the idea of eating such a volcanic chilli fills a lot of people with dread.
The capsicum group of plants includes a huge range of chillies, from the heatless Bell Pepper to the scorching varieties of Scotch Bonnet, Habanero and Naga.
And, believe it or not, chillies are fruit.
Chillies have a wide range of colours (reds, greens, yellows and purples) and shapes (straight, curved, round, short, long and all shapes in between).
The chilli heat is in a compound called capsaicin which is in the chilli membrane (the white flesh inside the chilli) and the chilli seeds. The membrane is joined to the chilli flesh and the seeds are joined to the membrane.
The main heat source is the membrane.
If you want to reduce the heat from a chilli then remove the membrane and seeds and just use the chilli flesh.
A few words of warning are needed here. If you are handling a chilli, either whole or when it is cut open, then make sure that you do not rub your eyes with fingers that have touched the chilli because the pain can be intense. Similarly, you should not handle a chilli if you have a cut or abrasion on your hand in case the capsaicin makes you wish that you were more careful. Capsaicin in the eyes or cuts is best treated with milk or yogurt, rather than water (capsaicin is not soluble in water). If you have particularly sensitive hands then you should probably use gloves when handling chillies.
Capsaicin is the active component of pepper spray, used by police for crowd control and by individuals for self-defence. Pepper spray is classified as a weapon in a lot of countries and individuals are not allowed to own it.
The Scoville Scale of Chilli Heat
In the early 20th century, corporations were making chilli sauces and pastes for the retail market but found it incredibly difficult to get consistent heat in their products.
In 1912, Wilbur Scoville devised a testing methodology where chilli extracts were put into a solution of water and sugar and the resultant mixture was tasted by a panel of people. The mixture continued to be diluted more and more until the chilli heat was undetectable. The amount of dilution needed was recorded and used to produce a scale of chilli heat. This is the famous Scoville Scale of Chilli Heat.
The Scoville Scale was remarkably accurate, despite its manual method of compilation.
Nowadays liquid chromatography is used to measure chilli heat.
The one thing to note about the Scoville Scale is that it gives a range of heat in a variety of chilli, not just a single number. This is because the chilli heat can vary quite markedly between chillies of the same variety, even from the same plant.
But the Scoville Scale is still useful today. If you always put Serrano chillies in your curries and are given some Habanero chillies, you can check the scale to see how the heat level in the chillies differ.
Cooking with Chillies
Chillies are used in curry cooking in various forms. You can add chillies whole, chopped up, as dried chillies or as chilli powder. And chilli is also in curry powder, curry pastes, masala and spicy sauces.
So what do you do if you have a curry recipe that uses chilli? You do not want to have a curry that is too spicy hot to eat and, conversely, too mild for your taste buds.
Probably the most important decision that you will make is where to buy your fresh chillies or chilli powder. Once you choose the chillies or chilli powder that you will use then you should keep using them until you are very familiar with chillies and want to experiment a bit more.
You now have a recipe and chilli so you can now make and eat the curry. If you like the curry but the heat is wrong for you then you can adjust the amount of chilli. Add a little more to make the curry hotter or reduce the amount (or remove the membrane and seeds) to make the curry cooler. Once you’ve made a few curries, you’ll understand how the chilli affects the hotness. So when you try your next curry recipe, you are in a better position to know how much chilli to use.
It is probably a good idea to try a new recipe on yourself so you can see how it will turn out before having some friends around for a curry feast and finding they cannot take the heat. This is also a good idea anyway because you will want to know how the curry tastes.
If you are having friends around for a curry, why not make 2 curries? One spicy and the other mild. That way there is food for everyone. Another idea is to make a raita (really easy) which can be used to tone down a curry as a raita has a base of yogurt (or yoghurt) and yogurt counteracts the capsaicin heat.
Chilli has only been used in Indian cooking for 500 years (if you can say “only” about a period of 500 years) but it is impossible to imagine chilli not being in an Indian kitchen.
Chilli and Health
Eating chilli is good for your health. There have been several studies in the past few years as to how chillies, and its heat generating compound of capsaicin, is good for your health.
Among the health benefits of eating chilli are that you can live longer, you are more resistant to cancer, you retain your memory longer, your metabolism is more youthful, the risk of getting diabetes is reduced, you have a lower risk of getting heart disease and capsaicin reduces hypertension.
All of this and tasty as well. Not bad at all.
The Not so Humble Chilli
So the chilli is not so humble after all. It is a key ingredient of curries, making them tasty and spicy hot.
And it is good for your health.
It is such an important ingredient that the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico exists just to carry out research on chillies and to educate the world on how to grow them and use them.
The chilli is an amazing food additive.