Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: red peppers
It all started a few years ago with a conversation I had with Pritha Sen. Pritha was my colleague at Sunday magazine in Calcutta in the 1990s, but over time she moved into the area she really loved: food. She is now, for my money, the greatest living expert in the history of Bengali cuisine.
I ran into Pritha while she was helping with the Bengali menu at ITC Royal Bengal. While the food she prepared was exceptional, she was more concerned with keeping me focused on something else. Did I realize, she asked, that in almost all commercial kitchens in India, chefs avoided local chili peppers and relied on a powder of Kashmiri chili peppers?
I said I had no idea but would check it out. And although she asked me over and over again, I never had time to check in with other chefs. Then, a few weeks ago, I noticed that the two companies I relied on for my veg – Anata and Krishicress – were both sending me some interesting chillies. Usually these peppers were included as gifts with large orders as part of a sampling / marketing exercise.
I tried them all and loved them. The sampling technique worked because inevitably I included the new variety of peppers in my next order. I asked Achintya Anand from Krishicress where he got all the chili peppers. He said there was suddenly a surge in demand from subscribers to his service who wanted the kind of chili peppers you wouldn’t normally get at your subziwalla.
Karan Anand (no connection, I think, to the Krishicress Anand), whose Anata keeps my kitchen full of goodies, said new vendors have come online, providing a blend of traditional Indian chili peppers with more famous varieties at the foreign.
Karan had once slipped a bundle of super hot Habaneros into my basket and we were sold for it. My wife found that just one Habanero added to the pan changed the flavor profile of a dish, adding not only heat but depth. Likewise, Achintya Anand sent me a pepper that I had never heard of (he called it a Palermo pepper) that had little heat but a lot of flavor and went well with Spanish and Italian cuisine. .
Karan said that as the Habanero-type market segment grows, people are also ordering local varieties like Guntur peppers. His customers understood, he said, that different peppers impart different flavors to food.
I called Pritha back. Was she right to accuse chefs of being stuck on a single chili when my online greengrocers actually offered more varieties of chili peppers than ever before?
Yes, she insisted. In the kitchen at the Royal Bengal, she said, she had been happy and comfortable because the ITC chefs weren’t stuck on a single chili but gave each local variety its due. In other restaurants and hotels where she had cooked or consulted, she said, the dominance of Kashmiri pepper powder was complete.
So, I did a little checking. The most famous masala named after a chili pepper in India is the Goan Peri-Peri masala, the staple spice blend for many Goan dishes. The masala takes its name from the Piri-Piri pepper. It is a chili (belonging to the Bird’s Eye chili family; it has many names: Pili-Pili, Peri-Peri, Piri-Piri) that the Portuguese planted in their African colonies and then brought back to Goa. This is the chili that gave Nando’s Piri-Piri sauce its name and it should be the staple chili in Goan cuisine.
But is it?
Nope. You guessed correctly. This is not the case.
No leader or masalchi I have spoken to used the peri-peri pepper in peri-peri masala. They have used bedgi hot peppers for the fire. But most of the time they used (wait!) Kashmiri red chili powder.
I asked one of the two greatest Goan chefs I know, Julia Carmen D’Sa, why it should be like this.
Well, said Julia, her family used to cook with real bird’s eye peppers which they called ‘Potugali’, but because they became harder to find in the market, they grew them in a bush in their garden.
But now, said Julia, no one cares. She cannot find peri-peri peppers anywhere and many Goan chefs use bedgi chili peppers for spice. (With Kashmiri peppers which are grown in Goa.)
If you need further evidence that public taste has advanced much further than the expertise of Indian chefs, then just look at the experience of the Indian sauce industry. Anant Kataria from Big Fat Essentials, whose kasundi mustard I use regularly, sent me two exotic chili sauces from her brand Miss Margarita. They were of Latin descent, he said, but as the restaurant they were used in had been affected by the lockdown, he started bottling them and found there was a huge market for them. chipotle and other Central American pepper flavors.
So I called the big guys in the sauce industry. Akshay Bector of Cremica, the company that finally gave India a ketchup that could stand up to the best in the world, told me that the sauce market as a whole is growing (its retail sales have increased by 50 percent) and that the Indians were looking for more interesting and warm teekha flavors. Cremica has had great success with pure Indian sauces, but says that in his experience Indians can tell the difference between different flavors of chili.
“We have a surprisingly complex kitchen,” he says. “Our palates have been shaped by years of consuming spices, so we can tell the difference.”
Veeba is the other big boy in the neighborhood. Viraj Bahl, its founder, included a Chipotle sauce in its early ranges and now Veeba offers many sauces and chili flavors, ranging from Sriracha (closer to the original Thai sauce than the American versions) to Bhut Jolokia, as well as various flavors based on peri-peri and peppers from Central and South America.
Viraj says we’re in the middle of a chili boom. For starters, he says, the market for spicy and pungent foods is growing. And second, Indians don’t want just one basic chili sauce. They want sauces with Indian chili flavors, some from East Asia (Veeba’s excellent sweet chili sauce is Thai-inspired) and ones that take inspiration from Central American cuisines.
This all brings us back to where we started. And to Pritha’s question. If the Indians are discovering the chili peppers of the world, then why are our chefs forcing us to eat more and more Kashmiri chili peppers? Why is the chili in restaurant dishes so one-dimensional? Why does all Indian food have to be the same red color as Kashmir chili peppers?
Again, consumers are much more sophisticated and adventurous than the restaurant industry.
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
Of Brunch HT, July 11, 2021
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