In 1498, Vasco da Gama navigated a sea route from Portugal to Goa in India. In 1510, Alfonso d’ Albuquerque landed with a small army and seized Goa as a colony for the Portuguese. What followed, became a symbiotic relationship between the two races and the lines between colonisers and colonised almost got blurred to obscurity.
The Portuguese being worldly-wise travellers introduced several new crops to this land. They brought in vegetables such as potatoes and breadfruit but nothing really impacted the Indian cuisine more than the sprouting of the first chilli plants. The cultivation of chillies took off from then on and is being widely grown from Assam to Zagadia. Although this is the generally accepted theory of the widespread use of chillies, there are mentions pertaining to a chilli like fruit in the ancient Vedas.
A historian argued that since the Portuguese introduced the chilli plant to India and chillies being the primary ingredient in curries, ergo the Portuguese invented curries. Indian curries are not so shallow. They do not consist merely of chillies but are flavoured with a careful blend of several spices. Traces of curries had also been found in the Mohenjo-Daro settlements, so that is one theory effectively ruled out. Chillies had been cultivated in Central and South America since 3000 BC. Not always as flavour enhancers, but were often used to incapacitate enemy soldiers in what would probably be the world’s first recordings of a chemical weapon.
Chillies contain a peppery compound called capsaicin that develops primarily to ward off insects that may attack the plant. This compound is powerful and can damage the eyes. The compound is normally centred on the seeds and the chilli membrane. Removal of these parts greatly decreases the hotness of the chilli. Not all chillies are hot; some are mild like the bell peppers and can even be given to children. The most effective way to compare the hotness of a chilli would be to use a unit known as SHU or Scoville Hotness Unit. The SHU was named after the inventor, Wilbur H Scoville. Although this test was used for more than sixty years to determine the hotness of chillies, it was not totally reliable since it relied on human palates for the testing. Around 1980, a better test known as the Chromatography test was developed to give a more accurate reading by using a method to analyse the number of heat compounds in the chilli. The Scoville units are used mainly to determine the heat in the chilli and it has absolutely no relationship to the flavours of the chilli.
Normally a couple of standard rules apply to the hotness of the chilli. The further you are from the equator, the milder the chilli. Smaller chillies are fierier than their bigger cousins. Removal of the pith and seeds of a chilli greatly reduces its heat. If you bite into a chilli and are experiencing a burning sensation, drinking milk and not water would help. Chewing on common salt, mint leaves or a mouthful of yoghurt are the other great remedies.
The jalapeno chilli is probably the world’s best-known variety of chilli. To the people who find it hot, be ashamed, as it measures a mere 4000 units on the Scoville scale. However, the title for the world’s hottest chilli goes to a variety called Naga Jolokia, which grows in the state of Assam. I may disagree with that. Although the Naga Jolokia rates an incredible 877,000 Scoville units, I have personally tasted and will vouch for the Cherry chilli, which is grown in Sikkim.
Chillies have been used for centuries as a poultice to help ease muscular pain. People in hot countries eat them to sweat so that they feel cool when the sweat evaporates from the skin. People eat chillies as they have high vitamin C content, prevent the capillaries from hardening and lessen the risk of cardio vascular diseases.
Personally I know that some people eat chillies as they enjoy the pain and the fact that they are able to push back the threshold. Me, on the other hand, I would sit back, watch them and order medium-spiced for myself.