Three little words — slit green chillies — never fail to gladden my heart. This phrase, found in many of the cookbooks in my collection, immediately conjures up a picture of a bright green chilli in a dish, adding colour and flavour to it. Some of my friends and family members are so fond of green chillies that we have begun growing them in a small pot so as to never be short of this essential ingredient.
When I add a slit green chilli to my curries, I often wonder how our ancestors coped without chillies — for, these came to India only late in the 15th century. True, we had substitutes — such as black pepper and long pepper, or pipali — but it’s difficult to imagine a dish without a few green chillies adorning it. Some of our greatest delicacies, in fact, need more than just a few green chillies — you have to add them by the fistful. Think of Kashmir’s mirchi korma or Hyderabad’s mirch ka saalan. And how can you have a plateful of pakoras on a rainy day, and not have green chilli fritters rubbing shoulders with potatoes, onions and cauliflower.
Then, there’s my favourite mirchi keema. There was a gentleman called Haji Chuni at Kasabpura in Delhi who cooked and sold the most delicious curry of minced meat and green chillies. He used to put about 200 gm of green chillies in a kilo of minced meat — and the outcome was as hot as it was delicious (and a one-shot remedy for anybody with a stuffed nose or a sinus problem). My late friend, Salim bhai, introduced me to the great ustad, and this memorable dish. I tried to cook it for friends once, and it went horribly wrong. For a dish like this, it’s important to deseed the chillies, which I clean forgot. Let me just say it was not quite a happy meal, and I ran out of my box of face tissues.
Chillies do not just pep up a dish; they have nutritional benefits, too. Rich in vitamins and antioxidants, they also speed up your metabolism. We have to thank the Portuguese, who brought chillies to India more than 500 years ago. These peppers were believed to have been first domesticated in Mexico, where there were wild chilli plants back in 5000 BC. Then Vasco de Gama dropped by, and we were introduced to a little green thing that eventually caught our culinary fancy.
Now, of course, we have some lethal varieties of chillies that we are rightfully proud of. Among them is the bhut jalokia or the raja mirchi of the Northeast, which was — till some years ago — thought to be the hottest chilli in the world. The hottest chilli now is said to be the Carolina reaper, which scored a maximum of about 2.2 million heat units on the Scoville scale, which, as we know, rates pungency. The raja mirchi may not be number one, but still scores about a million on the scale. There are a great many other chillies — from the Guntur variety and Byadgi to the hot dalle chilli of the east. And then, there is the everyday jwala mirchi of Gujarat, which flavours much of our food.
One of the most delicious things you can do with chillies is stuff them. Large red chillies are just right for stuffing and pickling. These chillies are stuffed with a mix of roasted mustard, fennel, cumin, carom and fenugreek seeds, tempered with turmeric powder, asafoetida, black pepper and lemon juice, and then pickled in mustard oil.
But the best thing really that you can do with a green chilli is to just bite into it. In the east, a popular meal consists of boiled potatoes mixed with mustard oil, a boiled egg and steamed rice. But what gives this dish its piquancy is a green chilli that is served with it. And when I have my chole bhature — sadly, not as often as I’d like to — half the pleasure of the dish lies in the green chilli that I bite into, after taking a piece of the bhatura, wrapping it around some chhole and popping it in my mouth. The green chilli gives it a delightful kick — and I sigh happily, before reaching out for a tissue.
Salim Bhai’s mirchi keema
Minced meat 1 kg
Green chillies 200 gm
Garlic-ginger paste 2 tbsp
Onions (finely chopped) 3 large
Coriander powder 1 tbsp
Cumin powder 1 tsp
Turmeric powder ½ tsp
Green cardamoms (shelled) 4
Cinnamon stick (broken) 2 inch
Whole black pepper 1 tsp
Yoghurt ½ cup
Coriander leaves 1 tbsp
Garam masala A pinch
A few cloves
Salt to taste
Oil as required
First of all, deseed the chillies, discarding the white pith. Wash the keema. Mix all the ingredients (except garam masala and coriander leaves) and pressure cook. After two whistles, turn off the flame. Transfer the keema into a kadahi, and on medium heat, keep stirring it for about 30-40 minutes, till the oil separates and you get a ghee-like flavour. Turn off the heat. Add the garam masala and coriander leaves. Serve hot with rotis.
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