Chilies have been on my mind since my visit to the Agriculture Mela last week, where this picture was taken by my friend. And then, another friend who went trekking to the Northeast brought me back the super-hot special chilies from there. The blog today is more an excuse to share the picture, than anything else! But now that we are on the topic, here goes:
The chili is the fruit of a plant belonging to the genus capsicum of the family Solanaceae. Capsicum is aptly derived from the Greek word ‘Kapsimo’ meaning ‘to bite’. The plant originated in South America, probably in Peru, and was domesticated as early as 5000 B.C. Christopher Columbus carried chili seeds from South America to Spain in 1493, and from there they have spread across the world. They were introduced in South Asia in the late 15th/ early 16th century by the Portuguese, and today we cannot imagine any of our cuisines without them (except maybe Kerala!).
When we talk of the heat of chilies, a reference to the pungency is natural. But how is pungency measured? The Scoville scale is a measure of the pungency (spiciness/heat) of spicy foods, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). This is based on the concentration of capsaicin, the alkaloid responsible for the ‘heat’. The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, whose 1912 method is known as the Scoville organoleptic test. Originally, the SHU rating was given based on this test, which got people to taste and rate. But obviously, this was quite subjective. Today, liquid chromatography is used. The unit of measurement remains SHU.
The hottest chili in the world is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from Trinidad and Tobago. This pepper is rated at a 2,009,231 SHU.
India’s hottest, and World Number Four, is the Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper) from Nagaland. On the Scoville scale, this measures a whopping 1,041,427 SHU.
Some other special chilies of India:
Kashmiri Chili: Known more for its colour than its spice.
Guntur Chili: The Guntur Sannam S4 is the chili responsible for the spiciness of the famously spicy Andhra cuisine.
Birs’ Eye Chili Dhani: Grown in the Northeast, this tiny chili packs a very spicy punch.
Kanthari Chili: These chilies grow in Kerala and become white when mature.
Mundu Chili: Grown in Tamilnadu and Andhra, they are small and round, with a thin skin. The are not too spicy, but have a unique flavour.
Jwala Chili: Grown primarily in Gujarat.
Byadagi Chili: This chili grown in Karnataka are long and have a thin skin. When dried, they have a crinkly appearance.
Maybe next time you are at a restaurant and want to sound very well-informed, you can ask the waiter what the SHU level of a dish is!
PS: Thanks Anu, for the pic, and Sudha for the chilies.