Chillies

Appears in

Fusion: A Culinary Journey

Fusion

By Peter Gordon

Published 2010

Chilli, chile, chili - they’re all the same thing and one of my favourite ingredients. Chillies (I’ll use the British spelling) are a versatile and inspiring addition to anyone’s pantry. As a seasoning added to savoury dishes, the use of them is truly global - from flavouring and colouring Spanish chorizo, creating sometimes agonisingly spicy Sichuanese dishes and Goan vindaloos, through to Mexican guacamole, Japan’s schichimi spice mix, a red duck coconut curry from Thailand, Indonesian beef rendang, Hungarian goulash or kirmizi- biber-flavoured Turkish kofte. When I was a child the only chilli I ever experienced was either sparingly dropped onto freshly shucked oysters from a bottle of Tabasco sauce, or a pinch of cayenne pepper added to cheese scones, or ground Hungarian paprika added to minced beef. Always added very subtly, just a hint of the potential heat was what was decided was best for the family. When I moved to Australia I discovered fresh chillies, as well as exotic cuisines. I found myself eating Indian chickpea-flour-battered whole green chillies, chilli- and cumin-spiced Moroccan tagines and Tex Mex dishes such as turkey tortillas drowned in cheese and ‘chile sauce’. Young men seemed to think it a sign of their manhood as to how hot a chilli they could eat and then drown with beer (although plain yoghurt is a better mouth cooler). If you like the flavour of chillies (yes, they offer more than just heat) then you should split the chilli in half lengthways and use a small teaspoon to scrape out the seeds and the membrane that holds them in - these contain the most capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chillies their heat. Not surprisingly perhaps, it’s capsaicin that is the primary ingredient in pepper spray - used for personal defence, riot and crowd control (often controversially).

Research shows that chillies have been eaten in the Americas since at least 7000 bc, and were being cultivated in Ecuador around 6000 bc. Related to potatoes and tomatoes (the nightshade family), they spread overland south into Peru then north into Mexico and North America. The West encountered this spice in the Caribbean, allegedly when Christopher Columbus tried it, and it was this first taste that, like so many everyday foods, started the spread of the plant into Europe (starting in Spain around 1494) and Greater Asia. Sailors took it with them to the Philippines and India, from where it spread into Korea, Japan and China, as well as overland through the Middle East into Turkey and Hungary, readily becoming absorbed into local cuisines and in many ways creating new dishes as it was popularised. It’s impossible to think of the cuisines of Thailand or Malaysia without using chilli. Mind you, peanuts and coriander aren’t indigenous to those parts either - thank God for the introduction and fusion of foreign ingredients, I say.

Whilst a scorchingly hot beef and pumpkin curry made from a mixture of fresh Caribbean Scotch Bonnets, dried smokey Mexican chipotle and reasonably mellow kirmizi biber from Turkey to give the heat many layers of flavour can be a thing of beauty, chillies can also be used in far more subtle ways. Try poaching stone fruit with a little fresh red chilli added to the syrup, or adding a teaspoon of the fantastic Spanish pimenton dulce (sweet smoked paprika) to your next lamb stew (along with some soy sauce) for a flavour enhancement that people won’t be able to pinpoint, but one which will be welcomed. Pureée a few fresh or crumbled dried chillies with plain yoghurt, buttermilk or coconut milk, some ginger, garlic and spices and use to marinate pork chops or duck breasts for six hours before barbecuing or grilling them. If my parents were happy to add seemingly exotic cayenne pepper to their cheese scones in New Zealand back in 1968, then there’s really no excuse for you not to experiment. And if you have a garden free from frosts, then there’s no excuse for you not to grow your own. There are a huge variety of chillies out there, just waiting for you to welcome them to your repertoire.

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