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.
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].
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.
A tale of two tangos. La Cumparsita. Jalousie. And everything serendipitous in between.
[Also posted in Medium]