Some Like It Hot: A Paean To Chillies

This is not meant to be a post about the Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis film by Billy Wilder. I didn’t actually watch it till late 1999, some forty years after it was made. It wasn’t on my bucket list. I was 42 by then, and so I was pretty careful about any new entrants to that list.

And then I saw a film called Tango. Which led me to learning about La Cumparsita. Digging into that led me to Some Like It Hot. So I had to watch it. And when I did, I really enjoyed it.

Connections. Things that lead from one to another, the accidents and the sagacity of serendipity.

Which is what my love affair with chillies has been all about.

I don’t remember the first time I came across the chili pepper. For sure that’s not what I would have heard it being called; I probably learnt it as ??????? and pronounced it as “mologa”. [I’m told that I should pronounce it “milakai” but that’s not what I remember from childhood].

As a South Indian Brahmin growing up in Calcutta, I was likely to have been fed the staple idli with the reddish powdered form “mologapudi” while still in nursery; slivers of the green common Indian version of the fruit would have made it into many of the dishes I was served by the time I was seven. I think I must have been a little older before I was allowed to have More Mologa, blackened, desiccated, oh-so-delectable. More in name and in nature.

Life was simple then. Chillies when fresh were red or green. When we dried them and pulverised them the results were red. If we dried them longer they turned black. They tasted “hot”, they always made me salivate, sometimes they made me sweat a bit, and occasionally they brought tears to my eyes. But it was all worth it because they made me feel good.

For 23 years of my life that was the way it was. A readily available feel-good factory that was encapsulated in just one word: chillies.

Then I moved to the UK. For the first year or so I was scared of entering a supermarket. I could not understand a shop that had a whole aisle of toothpaste. So I spent time buying what I needed at local groceries, often run by Indians, usually with very Indian-looking chillies. Life was good.

As I spent more time away from India, I learnt about the sheer variety of chillies available. When fresh green chillies were hard to find, I tried?—?and rejected?—?the cayenne pepper. Then I started coming across jalapeños, and found them lacking as well. Local supermarkets weren’t that good in stocking the hot stuff, except in powdered form.

I wasn’t a fan of the red powder. I was, and continue to be, wary of hot curries where I can taste the grain of the powder in the sauce. They do nothing for me except to go through me. [Which, by the way, is how the wild plant goes about conquering the world. Birds eat chillies, ostensibly drawn by the colour of the chillies. They don’t get affected by the capsaicin and allow the seeds to pass through them unmolested. Something to remember the next time you come across a fresh dollop of bird dropping. Just in case you’re the type of person who is waiting to discover the next kopi luwak. I have always wondered about that; I’d love to know how the person who discovered it actually discovered it. If you know, please tell me].

From the Guardian

It was only a matter of time before I learnt about and marvelled at the Scoville Scale. By then I was almost a connoisseur, graduating well beyond the simplicity of the classic Indian green. My interests were still single-dimensional and focused on cooking and eating the fruit in all its guises.

Years of experimentation led to my being able to recognise particular varieties quickly and accurately; to know when to keep the flesh and to discard everything else, when to keep the seed and to discard everything else, when to hold on to the whole fruit. Which chillies could be eaten raw, which ones needed softening, which ones needed accessorising. Common accessories included garlic, ginger, onion, scallion, soy sauce, lime juice, salt, olive oil, mustard oil, groundnut oil. [Learning can be so much fun. Does someone know of a MOOC on the chilli plant?]

I’d grown up thinking that chillies must be Indian in origin, but was disabused of that notion soon after visiting the US for the first time. Until then I’d never considered the delicious hypothesis that Christopher Columbus could have been instrumental in helping make the hot Indian curry hot. If Columbus hadn’t turned right when he meant to turn left, if he hadn’t discovered the Americas while looking for India, he may never have found the chilli plant to take home and thereby gain forgiveness for his error. If Vasco da Gama and his merry marauders hadn’t found their way to India, and if they hadn’t decided to come bearing gifts, then the curries of my childhood may have remained unmemorable.

Then, in the early 1990s, I read Amal Naj’s wonderful book Peppers. My interest was properly, pepperly, piquantly piqued. I began to investigate how capsaicin worked, how it scammed the body into delivering drugs for free. Why the hotness of the chilli was considered a sensation rather than a taste. Why the endorphins and dopamine were released. I fell a little bit more in love with the plant.

Until then, I only had a first-principles view of chillies. They grew mainly in hot countries, and so I surmised that they had a simple purpose: to aid in making us feel cool. A little sheen of sweat, the slightest wind, and hey presto to green and sustainable air conditioning. Worth the “pain”.

Since then I’ve been able to expand that view, understand something about the medical properties of capsaicin, its use in self-defence, even warfare. I’ve been able to delve into its history, its travels, the legends, the arguments galore. Five cultivars, seven thousand years, millions of miles travelled, aided and abetted by feathered friends and Iberian navigators. Over two thousand varieties now, many of them as a result of passionate amateurs playing with the fire of capsaicin.

I can make myself a different salsa every day, and often do. I’ve had the privilege of travelling often, and wherever I go I look for new chilli tastes. From kimchi at Muk Eun Ji to street hawked chilli gelato in Certaldo. From habanero dosas at Dosa on Valencia in San Francisco to Lindt Excellence Chilli Chocolate Bars hoarded in my fridge for a rainy day.

Some years ago I learnt about Solanaceae. The nightshades. One family of plants. Inclusive of the potato, the tomato, the chilli pepper, the aubergine. Extending to tobacco and on to mandrake root, belladonna, deadly nightshade, and beyond. Tubers, herbs, shrubs, vines, trees. I began to learn about the brothers and sisters of the chilli plant.

And so to today. I remain passionately in love with this strange plant, one that is abundantly available and accessible to both rich and poor. [In Calcutta, the rickshaw-wallah meal often consisted of chillies, salt and what looked like a lump of chapati flour]. A plant that “tastes” wonderful even though the taste is actually not a taste but a sensation. A plant whose migratory history, while fascinating, remains steeped in ferocious argument. A plant whose medicinal properties we’re still learning about. [I’m particularly interested in some areas of research into capsaicin’s anti-carcinogenic possibilities].

You probably think I’m mad, writing about chillies this way. Before you decide how mad I am, take a look at what some members of the Danish National Orchestra got up to.

Tango Jalousie.

A tale of two tangos. La Cumparsita. Jalousie. And everything serendipitous in between.

[Also posted in Medium]

Of certainties and doubts

Still continuing with my experiment, in writing on medium and cross-posting here. I tried it the other way some years ago and it died a death. Let’s see.

View story at Medium.com

The Web and serendipity

Another cross-post from Medium. Still investigating how that pans out.

View story at Medium.com

Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. [Take two]

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

It remains one of my favourite quotations. So much so I felt like using it again, having already started a post with it nine years ago.

A close friend sent me a music-related link a few hours ago, and I wanted to write about it straightaway.

I wanted to.

But I couldn’t.

The link wouldn’t let me.

Every time I decided I’d had enough, I’d get enticed to wander down another rabbit hole. With glee. Considerable glee.

There was, (and still is) a part of me that wondered whether I should share the link. I thought about it. Thought hard. And found myself singing along to Mama Cass: Was I to blame/for being unfair? And chuckling as I went down another rabbit hole.

Unfair. Yes, unfair.

If you like the kind of music I like, you may be in for a wasted weekend. An enjoyable wasted weekend. A very enjoyable wasted weekend.

Musicmap.

There. I’ve gone and done it.

I did warn you.

 

 

Father and son: a post for the cricket-mad

Cat Stevens, Father and Son, Tea For The Tillerman, 1970

One of my favourite songs, from one of my favourite albums, written and performed by one of my favourite musicians. I’ve had the pleasure of watching him perform “live” a couple of times, and I treasure those memories. [I was really looking forward to watching a performance of Moonshadow the musical, but it didn’t quite work out. Don’t think it made it out of Oz.]

Father and son. My father passed away very early morning on 20th May 1980; not surprisingly, he was on my mind these past few days. I still think about him every day, I still miss him every day, I still celebrate memories of times with him. I was one of five siblings, and our mother is still alive; we all continue to remember him with sadness and with joy. My youngest sibling turned 50 earlier this year; my mother turned 75 only a few years ago; I’ll be 60 next year; as the anniversaries stack up, I spend more of my time reminiscing about the joy.

Joy there was, and joy in plenty. Joy across the splendid time that was guaranteed for all while he was around, a splendour the family has been able to hold on to through times since, times hard as well as times easy. And we’ve known enough of both.

This post is tangentially about some of those joys. Cricket. A warped sense of humour, more warped than normal when it came to wordplay. And a level of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. These are a few of my favourite things.

And so to the post.

There was a time when pubs were pubs, filled mostly with regulars, where everyone knew you by name and where the person behind the bar would know what you normally drink. A pint of the usual, Dave? That sort of thing.

It was a time of saloon bars and public bars, of dartboards and of unhealthy snacks and even more unhealthy oodles of cigarette smoke.

It was a time when landlords and landladies had to find creative ways of pulling the locals in during the early part of the week, rather than just relying on Friday and Saturday doing their bit for God and country, aided and abetted by bits of Thursday evening and Sunday lunchtime.

Or, to quote the title of another wonderful Cat Stevens song, Tuesday’s Dead.

The pubs tried many techniques to resuscitate Tuesday. One of which was the pub quiz.

This meant that for a couple of hours every Tuesday evening, one part of the pub would be full of would-be Masterminds earnestly arguing about obscure things and occasionally hitting on the right answers. A splendid time was guaranteed for all.

Not everyone was earnest, and not everyone took it seriously. There was a regular undercurrent of chatter and banter, often asking questions that weren’t quite kosher. [Example of a kosher question: Sunderland in 1979, Villa in 1981, who in 1980? Or, name 3 England captains that played for Scunthorpe. The non-kosher variety? Which is the odd one out? 17, 29, 33, 47, 54. I won’t tell you the kosher answers, they’re good, nice questions. But the answer to the last question is unfair-by-design. Basically it’s whatever the others don’t come up with. And then, as you prepare for a quick getaway, you say to the others “Number xx. Doesn’t come with rice”.

Many of the questions of the not-quite-fair variety had to do with sport. Usually football, but not necessarily restricted to football.

One of my favourite such questions was very tongue-in-cheek. Which father-son combination scored the most runs in Test cricket?

The answer was — yes, you have my full permission to cringe now— Miandad. Javed Miandad, to be precise. Pronounced, for the sake of this answer, Me-and-dad. Cringe away.

The first time I heard that monstrosity was in the mid-late 1990s, a time when we were all getting used to the phenomenon of being connected to the Web.

I was intrigued by the mock and unfair question. Could it be? After all, Miandad was no mean bat, he’d scored an entirely respectable 8832 runs. At the end of 1996 (around the time I’d checked on the data) he was 4th on the all-time individual list.

The imp in me asked myself, I wonder if any father-son combination in history has scored more than Miandad. So I checked. And the answer was a resounding no.

Me-and-dad was the undisputed “father-son” champ.

And then I forgot all about this.

Today, while reading something else, I saw a reference to the Me-and-dad  question, by now a chestnut.

And I said to myself, I wonder. Is it still true? Has no father-son combination beaten good old Javed?

So I checked. Again.

Went through the whole list of father-son combinations that have played Test cricket. All 45 of them.

And.

Oh frabjous day.

Found that Javed had been deposed.

We have a winner.

Micky and Alec Stewart scored 8846 Test runs between them. 14 more than Me-and-dad. And, in the bittersweet way all such statistics are formed, it took Alec till his very last Test innings to score the runs that would take Stewart father and son past Miandad.

The Me-and-dad question won’t work any more. Hasn’t worked since 2003.

Anyway, for those who are interested. Here are the 45 father-son combinations that have played Test cricket, and the runs they’ve scored between them, as of today.

  1. Micky and Alec Stewart 8848
  2. Colin and Chris Cowdrey 7725
  3. Len and Richard Hutton 7190
  4. Hanif and Shoaib Mohammed 6620
  5. Lala and Mohinder Amarnath 5256
  6. Vijay and Sanjay Manjrekar 5251
  7. Dave and Dudley Nourse 5194
  8. Everton Weekes and David Murray 5056
  9. Nazar Mohammad and Mudassar Nazar 4391
  10. Peter and Shaun Pollock 4388
  11. Alan and Mark Butcher 4288
  12. Lance and Chris Cairns 4256
  13. Chris and Stuart Broad 4226
  14. Jahangir and Majid Khan 3970
  15. Geoff and Shaun Marsh 3948
  16. Walter and Richard Hadlee 3667
  17. Ken and Hamish Rutherford 3220
  18. Vinoo and Ashok Mankad 3100
  19. The Nawab of Pataudi Senior and Junior 2992
  20. Pankaj and Pranab Roy 2513
  21. Datta and Anshuman Gaekwad 2335
  22. George and Ron Headley 2252
  23. Jim Parks Senior and Junior 1991
  24. Joe Hardstaff Senior and Junior 1947
  25. Yograj and Yuvraj Singh 1910
  26. Rod and Tom Latham 1511
  27. Lala and Surinder Amarnath 1428
  28. David and Jonny Barstow 1329
  29. Fred and Maurice Tate 1207
  30. Zin and Chris Harris 1155
  31. Walter and Dayle Hadlee 1073
  32. Roger and Stuart Binny 975
  33. Frank and George Mann 657
  34. Giff and Graham Vivian 531
  35. Rodney and Aaron Redmond 488
  36. Andy and Malcolm Waller 465
  37. Mac and Robert Anderson 428
  38. Brendon and Doug Bracewell 377
  39. Arnie and Ryan Sidebottom 315
  40. Ron and Dean Headley 248
  41. Jeff and Simon Jones 243
  42. Hemant and Hrishikesh Kanitkar 185
  43. Wynne and Grant Bradburn 167
  44. Charlie and David Townsend 128
  45. Malcolm and Kyle Jarvis 62