Life for me without chillies is unthinkable.
I have chilli with almost everything I eat. The first item I ask at every restaurant is chilli …. freshly chopped if available.
Chilli is the next globally most recognisable food item after potatoes and pasta. Nowdays, with more research being done on this wonderful vegetable/fruit, more of its virtues are made known to the world. It is so potent for the immune system and for curing colds that it should become a daily prescibed item on the diet of all northern hemisphere inhabitants. Albeit to add some warmth to their cold ends, it would also lift their moods during the long Wintry days.
My favourite chilli remains the ones from Rodrigues, the sister island of Mauritius. It is the world’s smallest known chilli and yet very very fiery. So potent that it is pickled with lime and honey to ‘calm’ down its temper and made more amicable to our stomachs. I always carry my little bottle of ‘Piments Confits Rodrigues’ whereever I go. And when I visit my island, I pickle the chillies myself with Mum’s home grown lemongrass roots, lime and Bergamot leaves. Their flavour and taste is unlike anything I have seen or tasted in the vast chilli kindgom. But I cannot get them very often and eating them daily does mean the stock gets depleted very very quickly !
Each Summer. I make it a point to get them from Galeries Lafayette Gourmet, the only place in France where I can get the Combava chilli paste from Reunion island and our beloved Rodrigues Chillies. Now, I should mention that this addiction to chillies is not subjective. It is a trait familiar to many tropical islanders. Yes, we drink loads of Rum too, but the chilli thing maybe a tightly kept secret. We are each an ‘afficionado’ in our own rights by the vast amount and variety of chillies we consume in all meals. Even the humble national snack is made of chillies, it is called ‘ gateaux piments’ meaning chilli bites. You get it ? ….On Reunion island, they are called ‘Bonbons piments’ which literally translates into chilli candies. They are not candies though … Gateaux Piments has become my darling’s favourite now and there’s not a month without a gateaux piments day with cold cold beer ! By the beach even better. Not a treat we can enjoy often.
freshly made gateaux piments
If you season your morning eggs with tabasco, add chili to your coffee and have no interest in having your dinner without red savina than you should make chili the next theme of your trip.
Start your spicy trip with Mexico and don’t worry about swine flu, after all, as a chilihead, you are safe – chili kills all sorts of germs.
Chili for Mexicans is like wine for French or sushi for Japanese. In some ways it determines the culture of the country. Mexicans dry chili, marinate it, smoke it, stuff it, bake it or chop it up for salsa and, well, only God knows what else they do with it. Long before the Europeans arrived to the shores of America Aztecs used to eat yellow and red chilies mixed with chocolate. Now it is trendy and gourmet to eat chilli laced chocolates. And funny enough the credit is given to some self promoting chocolatier for pinching this thousands years old recipe from the Aztecs. Blame it on Western supremacy propaganda.
According to the estimates the Mexicans eat 6 kilo of fresh chilies and 0.5 kilo of dry chilies per capita per year which means that they eat more chilies than onions and tomatoes. Interesting fact is that one of the essentials elements that makes the kit of all Marines in the USA have a Tabasco bottle, probably to make the battlefield feel less drab ?. Anyway, to give such an honour and place to chillies is well note worthy.
The most popular Mexican dish with chilies is mole that can be prepared from four types of peppers: ancho, mulato, pasilla and chipotle (smoked jalapeno). It is a sauce that can vary from the thick and black mole negro to bright and green mole verde infused with herbs.
The most known regions for mole are Puebla and Oaxaca . The latter is even called the Land of the Seven Moles where the sauce is wildly celebrated.
The Thai cuisine perfectly balance the five elementary tastes: sweet, spice, bitter, salty and sour. Off course there is lots of phrik (as Thais call chili) around so if you are the beginner in hot cuisine take it easy and give your stomach couple of days to accommodate. On each trip to Thailand, I get the birds eye chillies and pickle them in brine and lime. Reason – living in Hanoi currently sees my craving for chillies getting a cold shoulder when I go about the town looking for ‘hot’ chillies. No such thing here.
There are around 79 varieties of Thai peppers that range from very very hot phrik lueng to relatively mild phrik yuak and phrik chi fa . To have their food even hotter the Thais blended their recipes with the Indian curry powder that arrived to the Indochinese Peninsula hundreds years ago. As a result one of the spiciest cuisines in the world has been created. Seeing the lovely red colour of oil floating in any gravy should not fool you. It is very hot and spicy, unlike the mild paprika that laces the Northern hemisphere dishes.
In this land of chili and curry anything can be spicy from salads and soups to desserts. The most popular among spicy ingredients are Thai curry pastes that are based on yellow, green or red chilies and a variety of other spices such as lemon grass, shallots, garlic, cumin and coriander.These pastes work with everything from meat dishes to vegetables, salads, soups and noodles.
It is useful to know a few phrases in Thai in order to control the amount of chili in your dish. If you want to burn your tongue immediately, ask for phet which means spicy hot. Phet nit noi is a little bit hot, mai phet is not hot. Be aware that what is a little bit spicy for Thai may be super duper spicy for you. Take my word for it !
To be Peruvian means to eat ají – Peruvian hot pepper. Every town in the country has its “picantaria” – the restaurant serving fiery food, whose name derives from Spanish word “picante”. The culture of chili has been celebrated for ages in Peru. The Incas used to freeze and dry ají to preserve it and add it to their dishes. In 19th century Friedrich von Humboldt wrote a political essay on the kingdom of New Spain, remarking that “The fruit of the chile is as indispensable to the native Peruvians as salt to the whites.” Living at such high altitudes certainly has meant that they have tamed and adopted certain ingredients that has helped them overcome al the discomforts that go with living in the mountains.
There are around 300 different chili peppers in Peru and thousands of dishes seasoned with ají . Not to get lost in the variety of Peruvian cuisine here are few popular dishes that guarantee the tears stream down your face while eating. A true opposite from the Thai chilli heat which sees your eyes popping wide from your sockets.
Ají de Gallina is a spicy chicken heated up by the Peruvian yellow chilies called ají amarillo . One pod of that pepper measure between 30,000 and 50,000 units of Scoville scale . It is also used for the preparation of the ceviche (or cebiche), the Peruvian national dish, which is cold raw seafood marinated in lemon juice, peppers and onions. The local legend says that one foreigner who tasted it gasped “son-of-a-bitch,” which Peruvians then adopted as “cebiche”.
Another worth trying dish is Papa la Huancaina – potatoes served with a special spicy sauce, olives, lettuce and egg. You can’t leave Peru without trying Sacsayhuaman, the vodka made of rocoto peppers, passion fruit, sugar and cilantro, called Sexy Women for those who cannot pronounce the Peruvian name.
If you want to have your chili for breakfast, lunch and dinner you should head for India. The country is the largest global producer of hot peppers and the Indian town Guntur in Andhra Pradesh state hosts the biggest chili market in Asia. The town even gave its name to one of the peppers that are called Guntur Red .
Chili came to India with the Portuguese that traded the hot peppers from Lisbon in the 16th century. The chilies soon conquered the Indian dishes and were added to Indian masalas and chutneys. Garam masala which in Hindi means “warm spices” is a combination of spices that can vary from mild to eyes watering. Masala is a base for Indian curry – it is believed that the word is an anglicized version of Tamil kari which means “vegetables in sauce”.
One of the most fiery Indian dishes is Vindaloo curry that includes pork or chicken in sauce made of lots of dried chillies with garlic and vinegar. If it does not satisfy your chili demands try Tindaloo which is a hotter version of Vindaloo. Undeniably the hottest curry in India and in the world is Phaal which include Bhut jolokia chili pepper, confirmed by the Guinness World Records as the most potent pepper on earth ( but honestly I think that the Rodriguan chilli beats it by far ! … bonnet or jalapenos are kids next to it )
Chasing chili does not end here. There are several other places in the world where hot peppers play the main role on the culinary stage. Check out spicy harissa in Tunisia, tajines in Egypt, the hot dishes of China, Jamaican jerk and kimchi the national dish of Korea. If you can’t travel to all these places, at least you know which nationality restaurant to pick for spicy dinner in your town. Choose any of them, but the lifeless paprika used in the Hungarian Goulash.
Next, I think I’m going to make my signature dessert this week end, dark chocolate mousse with cherry liqueur and … red chillies.
What say ?.