Well, you may be surprised to read this but nilgiri’s cooking classes are possibly the oldest cooking classes on Indian Food in Australia and are still going strong!!
We started off with 26 classes a year (held on the second Saturday of each month) and today we do around 120 or so classes each year. Every class has about 12 participants which means about 2,400 participants attend the classes each year!!!
The aim of these classes was, and still is, not just to tell the world that Indian food is a little more than just ‘butter chicken’, ‘roganjosh’, ‘vindaloo’ and ‘chicken korma’, but also to try and answer some questions about the use of salt, chilli, ghee, spices etc. in Indian cooking.
The last blog, “I’ve been cooking indian food all my life I don’t need to do a cooking class”, discussed some of the uses of salt in Indian cuisine. This week we will try and tackle the second- and third-most important ingredients: chillies and pepper!
Firstly, chilli in India is called mirchi or mirapakaya and is not a native plant except for the naga chilli that is found in the region of Nagaland, a vibrant hill state located in the extreme north-east of India.
Chilli was brought by Europeans from the ‘new’ world as a trade with other spices in the 15th century and since then has become an integral part of Indian cuisine. Before the introduction of chilli, pepper, a flowering vine native to India, was the main spice used. The word pepper is derived from the Sanskrit word pippali, which means ‘berry’. In India pepper is called mirch, milage or mirey.
Now, I’m asked lots of questions about chillies and pepper so let’s answer some of them one at a time, starting with the most frequent of them all:
1. Should I remove the seeds of the chillies or keep them?
Ha! This one is my favourite questions. I ask participants what they generally do and most say that they remove the seeds. I will ask them why they do this and they will always say it’s because they think the seeds are hot. “Then why add the chilli in the first place?” I ask, incredulously but I already know the answer. “Because”, they reply, “the recipe says so.” I knew it!
I can bet you my last dollar that no real cook will ever say or do this. It is the absolute lack of knowledge and he/she who advocates removing the seeds has no bl..dy interest in you or your health and is feeding you with garb…e.
Dear friends, the seeds are where the real ‘stuff’ is.
The seeds of the dry chilli help encourage perspiration, and perspiration causes a positive metabolic balance by cooling the body from the inside out. Sure, you sweat but it’s positive sweating!
I grew up in a place called Hyderabad in the Deccan where the temperature can fluctuate between 36 C and 45 C throughout the year. We did not have a fan till the early 70s. Well, mum kept us healthy by adding dry chillies, not to all our dishes but to just one of them and that was enough to keep us ‘cool’.
So, let’s get back to the seeds of our fresh chillies: they are loaded with vitamin C and are known to contain about eight times more vitamin C than fresh oranges! They’re extremely good at creating more saliva (you may have noticed this!). Saliva, I have been told, contains an enzyme called amylase. Amylase from our saliva breaks down the carbohydrates before it starts to accumulate in the intestines if not broken down fully. Now, I am not trying to be a smart arse, you know, but this anti-propaganda about the chilli is the cause of a lot of health problems in the world. Ever seen an obese Asian? No, not really, I’m sure, even though they have rice for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner we really don’t see too many ‘heavyweights’ from this community because they eat chopped chillies – with the seeds, of course – soaked in soy sauce!!
2. When do you add the chilli?
Well, it all depends on which chilli we’re using. I believe a fresh chilli, whether it’s green, red, yellow or purple is like a fresh herb. Don’t overcook it as you’ll lose all its goodness, so add it towards the end, or half-way through, your cooking.
If the chilli is dry, however [which means it has no moisture in it], I would use it as a spice [because as the moisture starts to disappear from the fresh chilli its volatile oils start to appear which turns it more into a spice]. When cooking with dry chillies, I generally heat the oil till it starts to smoke, then add the dry chillies and immediately remove the pan from the heat and watch them ‘balloon’ which creates an aromatic oil and then I proceed with the rest of the recipe.
3. How do I add the chillies – do I cut them, keep them whole, chop them or. . .?
Another great question that often confuses people.
I believe the more surface area that comes in contact with the medium, the greater the ‘zing’. This means that if you keep the chilli whole, you expose less surface area and get less ‘zing’; chop it up, you expose more surface area and you get more ‘zing’. Are you getting the idea? It’s simple!! I like to keep a good balance of both, or else you end up with ‘rocket fuel’ that does nothing more than burn.
4. When do you add pepper?
The amazing thing about pepper is that you can add it at any stage of cooking, it depends on what you want.
You can start a dish by crackling black pepper, like we do in nilgiri’s when we make andhra chicken pulao; when you add the pepper at the start of the cooking process, the pungency of the pepper is increased as it permeates into the meat; or you can add it during the cooking process like in chicken chettinad, or towards the end of cooking a dish as in a poondu rasam when we add it during the tempering process which means it becomes more ‘superficial’, more like a garnish.
Adding pepper onto our meal is, of course, something we’re all familiar with. We also grind it onto our soups, for example, to get that extra ‘zing’, just like my dad used to do onto his tomato soup every time I made it for him – a long, long time ago!
5. What are the best peppercorns (red, green, black etc. . .)?
In Indian cooking green and red peppercorns are not commonly used. Black pepper (a.k.a the king of spices) comes from the South of India and in fact the best pepper comes from the region of Tellicherry in Kerala.
White pepper tends to be more pungent than black pepper and hence is used in smaller quantities. White pepper is added to kebabs and tikkas to keep them looking bright and fresh, like in reshmi kebab.
Unfortunately that’s all I have time for this week, folks. There are lots more things to say on this ‘burning’ topic. So, until next week as always, happy cooking and remember that not one single person has died eating chillies, except for that so-called ‘chef’ in England who ate around 45 chillies one night to impress his girlfriend. He never woke up! The id..t ate dry chillies!! May his soul R.I.P!!!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!!
Click mirchi ka salan recipe for a recipe which uses fresh banana chillies (which aren’t too hot so they’re a good introduction to keeping those seeds in your chillies when you cook them!). Be careful when you buy banana chillies that you don’t buy their hotter Hungarian siblings by mistake! Click prawn balchao recipe for another delicious recipe which uses dried chillies.