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, but without a touch of chilli, dishes seem incomplete. Like latte without a sprinking of chocolate powder or potato wedges without ketchup. You get my drift…
There is a great variety in the chillies used in Indian recipes. Red, green, fresh, dry, powdered. Not only do they add the fire we love them for but also flavour in bucketloads. 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 ethnic shops. Green chillies are often slit/chopped and added to dishes. In Kolkata, where I’m from, each bite of food is accompanied by a little bite of a fresh finger chilli
- Red chillies: These are fatter and less spicy, often sliced and used in Thai curry and soups. Fresh red chillies are milder and great when chopped into salads or for decoration on 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 added to the dish. As naughtycurry put it “The presence of dried chillies does not necessarily signify scorching heat. When left whole, their flavor leaks out into the sizzle-hot oil or ghee… Omit dried chilies altogether, and the flavor 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 lot of takeaway cuisine is spiced with chilli powder. Used it moderation it adds a lovely red glow and sharp flavour to dishes without setting anything on fire.
The rule of thumb with chillies is to work out how much you can tolerate and then add just a little bit extra for that bite. My dad, for example, cooks a meat dish that uses 1 kg of lamb, 1 kg of little dry red chillies and ghee. It pushes his chilli threshold slightly but just about blows anyone elses off the roof.
One other thing to remember that Indian food was never meant to be searingly hot. Just like any other cuisine, it’s the taste that matters not the level of chilli.