How The Arrival Of The Chili Changed Indian Food Forever

Several different authors have written on the history of the chili, including Wick Fowler, a Texas historian, and Carroll Shelby, the legendary car manufacturer. In 1967, a chili cook-off was held in Terlingua, Texas. Ultimately, Allen Smith won, although Dave Witts declared his taste buds were ruined. Carroll Shelby, however, remained adamant that his chili would be the best. The competition was hugely popular and two competing factions ended up settling in court.

In the 1830s, chili was a simple food that could be made by blending beef, fat, chile peppers, and seasoning. The dish was easily transported on horseback and boiled in a pot. In the 1830s, the Mexican Army sent lavanderas to travel through Texas and cook meat for its soldiers. This was an incredibly efficient use of space and a large washing pot was used for cooking.

The chili plant is native to Central America, but was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus. The Spanish had previously sourced spices from India, but the spice was expensive and scarce. Columbus sought high-yielding occurrences that would make Spanish trade independent of Venetian trade. His search eventually led him to the northern coast of Haiti. The indigenous people there had already introduced the small red fruits.

In the 1590s, Jesuit priest Father Jose de Acostas wrote about the chili in his "Natural and Moral History of the Indies." He outlined the uses of chili and the way it was prepared. He noted that if it was used in a spicy drink, it must be mixed with salt. He also mentioned tomatoes as a component.

How The Chili Was First Brought To India

Chilies are an essential part of Indian cuisine, whether they are fresh, stuffed, or dried. 

Yet, the first time most Indians learn that chili was brought to India by European colonisers,  that it is not a native plant, it shakes up our world view. “What??!”, is the usual puzzled response. But it’s true, our beloved chili isn’t even Indian.

The chili was originally brought to India by the Portuguese, but was quickly adopted by Indians. They have many uses and can be grown easily in our climate. Its introduction happened 450 years ago, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama arrived in the city of Calicut. The explorers left with ships full of black pepper and other spices, which were exported at a profitable price.

The chili's price was relatively low, which made it accessible to people of lower socioeconomic status. In Dalit communities, it was often used in dishes as a main flavoring agent. In the 17th century, it was used in chutneys and pickles. Eventually, it was incorporated into many dishes and became one of India’s most popular, and widely used, spices. Dried red chili became a favoured ingredient very rapidly.  

The Deccan region of India embraced chilies wholeheartedly. The arid climate was perfect for the cultivation of chilies. Moreover, they were much cheaper to grow than pepper. In Karnataka, byadgi (chili) is a popular chili, offering a smoky flavor, a rich color, and robustness. Jwala, the green chili, brings a sharp vegetal flavor and aroma.

Today, there are over a hundred commercial varieties of chili grown in India. Some of the most popular varieties are the bhut jolokia chili, Naga chili, and the Byadgi chili. Chilies are grown extensively in Andhra Pradesh, which contributes between 50-70% of the country's domestic production. Guntur chilies, meanwhile, are famous for their intense heat. The notorious Chili Chicken, an Andhra innovation, is now pretty much a mandatory presence in restaurant menus in the states of Andhra and Karnataka.  

The Different Uses Of Chili In Indian Foods

The Chili may be of South Americna origin, but the largest producers today are India and China. India's chili production accounts for about 25% of the world's total. There are different types of chilies used in Indian cuisine. For example, the Byadagi chili from Karnataka is used extensively in South Indian cooking. It produces a deep red colour, with a mild peppery flavor. This chili is a versatile spice that can be used in a variety of dishes. Its pigment is also used in cosmetic products, including nail polish and lipstick.

Chili is commonly used for tempering and to add flavour to curries and rice preparations. You can use green or red chilies to temper your food. Make sure to chop them in half first, as that will enhance the spiciness.

They can also be used in drinks and snacks, and eaten raw for seasoning. In addition to their spicy flavor, chilies have several medicinal properties. A small amount of chili can even improve the health of those who consume it in moderation. Chili peppers are also said to contain powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients.

Famous Indian Dishes That Use Chilis

For five centuries, Indian food has never not contained some amount of chili. These peppers, accompanied by ginger and garlic, have always added a punch to Indian dishes. Green chilis are a constant presence in homes across India. We take it for granted, but it really is a great way to add flavor, and spice, to any food. Adding green chilis to an omelet or garlic bread is one of the easiest food hacks that produces great results!

Green chilis have higher levels of capsaicin than red or yellow chilis. While chiles can be a bit too hot to handle, the heat in them makes them a great addition to Indian cuisine. Whether you're in search of a spicy dish or prefer a milder meal, you'll be able to find a delicious curry with chilis. The tandoori chicken dish is a classic example. It is marinated in spices and yogurt, and grilled in a tandoor clay oven. Once cooked, it's mixed with a creamy tomato sauce. This creates the dish we know as chicken tikka masala. Then there are the numerous Andhra restaurants, which place the brown and crisp marinated chilis on the table as a starter dish to whet your appetite as you await your order of chili chicken.  

Chilis are also a primary ingredient in our pickles, dips, and condiments. Calling the chili a common ingredient in Indian cooking is a massive understatement.