The Scarlet Magnificence
“The secret of happiness is variety, but the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it.”
Dread the red?
I was scared of this one when I was a child and I used to throw a fit every time my aai or aajee used to try feeding me anything which looked red. Yes. Even tomatoes. I used to make them peel apples also. It’s very hard to conceal this one with all its scarlet glory. Although it is very popular and varies with the country it is grown in, it is often misunderstood. Not all red chillies are spicy. Some are just used to impart colour to the recipe they are used in. Chilli powder is the easiest to manipulate.
Celebrity for a reason
In Indian cuisine, they provide three functions; colour, flavour and spice. For example, Kashmiri chilli is mainly used for colour ,flavour and is quite mild on the hotness. On the other hand, the Kolhapur chilli is used for its pungency and flavour but rarely for its colour. Some people mix the two. I prefer them separate. That’s the only way I can use the two to their best potential. Mixing the chillies when they are whole and then grinding them together is better. It’s similar to mixing the best grapes to make a more wholesome wine. That too is only left to the experts who spend their lives trying to find the perfect match. I am still talking about grapes, by the way. However, I do not recommend mixing two chilli powders. Please. Trust me. It’s a disaster. You don’t see people mixing wines now, do you? If you do, I suggest you walk away from that catastrophe.
Why is it important in Indian Cuisine?
Firstly and most importantly it is used to maintain balance. Only a recipe which incorporates sweet, sour, spice, salt is in itself complete. It is a yang spice. It is required to compensate and maintain the equilibrium of the recipe. What about desserts? Have you tried a chocolate chilli muffin? Make these. Eat These and then tell me. I always thought desserts are a complete package with nothing required to add. Enter chilli powder. The hotter the better. It changed the entire landscape of desserts and now I acquired a taste for it. Everything seems incomplete without it. I have to add a teaspoon to the dal, sabzi or paratha. I prefer red chilli powder to green chillies because there is something in its aroma. Maybe it’s the matured,well-rounded heat which the sun gifted them after mercilessly burning them during hot summer afternoons or the smoky intensity that the culprit ‘the spice mill’ imparted to them before turning them to dust. One would never know. But a sign of a good chilli powder according to my aajee is a “thaska” – Marathi word which describes the coughing one gets to the smell or the taste of spice hitting the back of the throat. Often a reaction to a chilli powder tempering or to the first morsel of spicy curry. :). It is also a sign to the chef that the chilli powder has hit the right place. 🙂
Secondly, the colour. We love colours and we want them everywhere. Moreover, red is considered auspicious. Although let me clear this,chilli powder is not what we use, to apply bindi on our forehead. Can you imagine? A dot of Kolhapuri chilli so close to our eyes? Yikes. It is a pigment called Kum Kum and sometimes we (including me) just use a red lipstick. Why do I mention this? For some curious folks out there.
Finally, I would like to say. Don’t be afraid of this red chilli powder or Indian food that looks red. Most of the times it is not over the top spicy (Check with you server though). Find the chilli powder which suits you. You may start with Kashmiri chilli powder and use it freely in your home cooking to add that extra kick to your usual delicacies. You will not be disappointed.
Let me know what your experiences with chilli powder have been like or which one you prefer using. Take care.