It’s Getting Hot, Hot, Hot!

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.


Lemon Tree Very Pretty, or The Recalcitrant Citrus

Those who grew up in the ‘70s would remember this song. It went something like this:

‘Lemon tree very pretty
And the lemon flowers are sweet
But the fruit of the lemon
Is impossible to eat.’

I grew up in Delhi, and in my youth had not seen a lemon tree. So I took the first few lines of the song to be true. But I always wondered about the last two lines. Sure, we didn’t eat the lemon, but we couldn’t get by a day with it! The rasam, the dal, the nimbu paani, the lemon rice, the zing needed to cover up any insipid dish. The lemon was irreplaceable.

A few years ago, we moved to Bangalore. And for some reason, the price of lemons soared that year. Considering we use about 10 a week, my veggie budget soured. Having a small plot at the back of the house, I decided to grow my own lemons.
The next day, I marched off to the nearest nursery. The nursery-wallah sold me a lemon tree (over the years, the feeling has grown that he actually sold me a lemon, but more on that!). He assured me it was a hybrid and would start flowering the very year. ‘Pluck out all the flowers this year’, he said. “Then next year, you will get a good crop.’

I looked out of the window every morning to check on the flowering so as to quickly pluck them out, lest they jeopardize the long-term fruiting. After several months, there was one bud. I plucked it out.

Along came the next year. Oh, the anticipation! I waited and waited for my tree to flower. Every time I picked up lemons from the vendor or the super market, it was with a sense of ‘Listen, I am paying your price now. But you are not going to take me for a ride for too long. Just wait till my tree starts fruiting.’
It was a case of the milkmaid and her castles in the air!

My tree did not flower that year.
Or the next.
I shared my sob story with anyone and everyone who would listen.
Then a friend told me to beat the tree with a broom, in the night! She said that it was a well-known remedy for such recalcitrant lemon trees! I got home and googled it, and sure, there were lots of people talking about this. Quite a prevalent urban myth! Many posts suggested that it was the beating with the broom that was at the core of it. The beating at night, they said, was so that the neighbours didn’t think the perpetrator was mad!
Nothing to lose, I thought, and did the needful for a week, in the dead of night. Though I have to admit, I couldn’t bring myself to beat it very hard!
A month or so after that, I went to a Krishi Mela. Lots of agri-related people and enterprises had stalls. I picked a couple of likely looking ones and shared my woes. The first listened, asked me a few questions, and declared that there was no hope. I just needed to pull out the tree and plant another one. The next stall guy told me the problem was completely solvable, and sold me a few soil tonics and leaf sprays, which he assured me would fix it.
I followed the instructions. And also beat the tree once in a while for good measure.
And lo and behold! The tree flowered. Rather generously. At last, I thought! Whether the beating or the tonics, one or both seem to have worked. I didn’t care which!
The flowers turned to fruit. But my days of waiting are not over. The fruits haven’t grown bigger than a large marble, in two months. My neighbour’s tree in the meanwhile is full of large, yellow fruit.

Believe me, the lemons look much bigger in the pic than on the tree!

I look out of the window every morning and think: ‘The lemon tree is not a particularly pretty tree. Nice enough but nothing spectacular. The flowers are nice too—small and white. But again, the anar next to it has prettier flowers. But the fruit of the lemon is what I want, but will I get it?’
Will I be  a sour loser this year too? Well, at least I will try not to be a sore one!

The Pelican Has Landed

Raghu often lectures in various places. One of his favourite places to do so is the Silver Oaks School, a unique school in many ways. When he went for a talk there a few years ago, they gave him a potted plant. It looked pretty nondescript. We just left the pot on the verandah and watered it occasionally. But then, a few months later, it burst into flower! The flower whose pic you see below! Pretty exotic! It never grew very much but gave about 2-3 flowers a year, and were we proud of it! All our visitors made quite a fuss over it. We asked the gifters the name of the plant, but they didn’t know.



20180415_091803And then we moved to Bangalore, and decided to plant it in the ground. And were we in for a surprise! It was a climber, and boy, did it climb. It climbed to the first floor and went all over the terrace rails and roof. And flowers? About a hundred a year! Huge purple ones, with yellow centres. And very cute kind of seed pods—they burst into a parachute shape when they were dry. Our house became known for this creeper which was all over the roof.

Everyone was fascinated with the flowers, though a lot of people were a bit uncomfortable—as we sometimes are, especially with some types of orchids.

Then a friend decided to do a bit of research, and told us it was a Pelican flower (Aristolochia grandiflora). With that lead, we did our own research, and figured this was Aristolochia littoralis, a sort of cousin of the Pelican flower.

Apparently, these flowers are called Calico flowers (because they look like cloth?). Or Elegant Dutchman’s Pipe, because the flowers look like Sherlock Holmes’ pipe (now why would that be? Holmes was not Dutch to the best of my knowledge. But he may have been elegant, I concede.)

A lot of people had commented that our flower looked kind of carnivorous. But actually, it is not. Apparently, it is pollinated by flies and it does trap the fly inside to ensure pollination, but lets it out in a day or two, when the job is done. So machinating yes, but carnivorous no (sensitive readers, please excuse my anthropomorphism).

Nor do the flowers smell of dead carrion, as the books say they do. At least, ours don’t!

This plant, which is a native of South America, is an invasive species in Australia. But hopefully, not here. A lot of friends asked for the seeds but they couldn’t propagate it, so while my plant grows and grows, at least it is not spreading.