Thinking about nightshades

I’ve written about them before. Solanaceae.

One family. Containing many of the genera I love, and some I still love but no longer partake of.

Solanum. The potato, the tomato and the eggplant.

Capsicum. The chili, the bell pepper.

Physalis. The tomatillo, the Cape gooseberry, the Chinese lantern.

Nicotiana. The tobacco plant.

The dhatura. The mandragora. And of course the original “deadly” nightshade, the atropa belladonna.

An incredible family, full of flavour, taste, adventure.

I was reminded about them while reading this in the New Yorker yesterday; thank you Lauren Collins, thank you New Yorker, for not hiding your light under a paywall bushel. [An aside: I am so hooked on capsaicin I probably get an endorphin rush just reading that article].

If you’re serious about chillies, you should read Amal Naj’s Peppers. It is the book on the subject; everything else is a jalapeno to his bhut jolokia.

And if you’re not serious about chillies, but like to dabble, here are ten tips:

  • 1. Stay fresh. Most of the flavour I really enjoy is to be found in fresh chillies.
  • 2. If you can’t stay fresh, stay close to fresh. Freshly crushed dried red chillies can be amazing. But only when freshly crushed. Within a week the magic’s gone.
  • 3. If you can’t stay close to fresh, go whole. Dried whole chillies are a whole different ball game. Very versatile, you can put them in anything. Cook them in dry dishes and wet. Use them as garnish. Drop them into drinks like fresh buttermilk. Have them all by themselves.
  • 4. If you must go powdered and can’t go fresh, go Japanese. Look for the right togarashi.
  • 5. Quality, not quantity. Infinitesimal slivers of a “big” habanero or a high-end Scotch bonnet can release more oomph than you think. Practise cutting rings as thin as you can make it. Collect the seeds separately. Use them to make fresh powders.
  • 6. Catalyse and enhance. Learn about using ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric as accents on the chillies. My anchor spice is the chillie, and I build flavour around it.
  • 7. Work on the secret stuff. Introduce asafoetida and tamarind, especially when you can get them fresh. Make a concentrated solution, literally a few thimbles full. And then use them to announce the chillies.
  • 8. Know your limits and those of your guests. Study the Scoville index. Make sure you understand it’s a log scale. Most people who “like” chillies are those who have graduated from bell pepper to jalapeno. They don’t know about ear-popping. Some may have meadered a little further up the scale, perhaps all the way to birdseye. But that means nothing in heat terms. Most people bail out at the high end of habanero or Scotch bonnet. This is serious stuff, and you need to be careful with it. For most things I stop there, and don’t bother serving anything hotter to my friends. Even if they insist they can have hotter stuff. Leave the Nagas, the Bhuts and the Scorpions to the specialists. If you need gloves to handle the chillies, you probably don’t want to put them inside you. Not unless you’re seasoned, really seasoned.
  • 9. Use vegetable oils to help bring out the flavour. If you don’t want to use oil, use soy sauce. Something liquid that frees the flavour up as you cook. Even for stir-fry.
  • 10. Give people an escape route. Keep some plain dal and some dahi, maybe in raita form, on the side. Both dal and dahi can have chillies, so if you mean to give people an escape then keep both varieties, with chillies and without.

More later. I’m hungry and have a plane to catch.

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