When Vasco da Gama and his clan brought a handful of chilies to India back in 1498, little did they know that the humble spice (or fruit?) would end up defining the country and its cuisine long after they had left. Brought to Europe from Mexico by Christopher Columbus and from Europe to India by Vasco da Gama, the spice, it seems, found its home in a land far, far away from its origin — a land that is now defined by the amount of chilli it uses and produces.

Of course, this is popular opinion – there is also the belief that some chilli-related plants are native to India. The North-Eastern Bhoot Jolokia for example, is native to Manipur and is known as U-Morok there. The chilli has been used for millennia by this community and definitely wasn’t brought to them from another country or by western colonisers.

That said, nothing defines Indian food to the world as much as the red-hot spice that isn’t even native to India. No Indian dish is complete without it either — north, east, west, south, all regions have, in the past five centuries, developed their own varieties of chilies and their own ways of using them.

Though the documented records about chillies are few, it is clear that the spice came to Goa with the Portuguese in the 16th century and quickly became popular there. Some accounts also say that chilies started to be grown in Goa within a few years of the Portuguese settlement. The crop soon started to spread southward where the climate and soil were both conducive to its growth. While the conditions helped its cultivation, the locals embraced its heat, colour and flavour. Interestingly, while the southern states grew, used, and enjoyed the spice, the northern states remained oblivious to its existence.

The south side of the story
As food writer and chronicler Marryam H Reshii puts it in her award winning book, The Flavour of Spice, “it is scarcely believable that even 250years after the Portuguese introduced chillies to India, North India was still without this spice.” What is not unbelievable though is that the spice, though its prolonged usage and exposure, has become indispensable to the cuisine of South India, so much so that imagining south Indian food without it seems impossible.

Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana — the southern states are not only the highest producers of chillies (Andhra contributing to 75% of the total produce), but also the largest consumer of the spice. The sheer number of varieties you find here are mind-boggling, and the nuances in the flavour, heat, colour, and strength unparalleled. Although chillies grow all over India (over 200 varieties), Guntur in Andhra Pradesh is the undisputed home of this fiery red spice. Wonder Hot, Teja, Byadgi, Sannam, S 273, Salem, Samba, and Nellore are just some of the chilli varieties that define the flavours and heat of the food here.

“The region is famous for its chillies,” says Yogen Datta, executive chef, ITC Kohenur Hyderabad. “While Telangana prefers the hot and spicy Guntur chilli, which gives the local curries their trademark high notes and heat, we use a combination of Guntur and Byadgi.” Byadgi, a milder variety, lends a beautiful red colour to the curries and is a popular palate pleaser, explains the chef. Guntur meanwhile is reserved for local specialties served at the hotel.

“I love the subtle flavour that chillies like Byadgi bring to a dish, along with the vibrant colour, without adding much heat,” says author, columnist, and food blogger Nandita Iyer. Living in Bangalore, she says, makes the local chillies from Karnataka her favourite. “I use them in tempering; roast and grind them up in spice pastes for sambar; I also use them to prepare podi, and chilli powder.” While the milder chillies maybe popular with some, most in the region swear by the heat of varieties like Teja, Madras Puri and Hindupur. The leader for its heat however is Guntur Sannam, a smaller fatter chilli, rated high on pungency and fieriness.

Going further south
All South Indian chillies however are not grown in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka only; some come from Tamil Nadu and Kerala and have their special place in the respective cuisines. “Round in shape, flavourful and not too not spicy, Mundu chilli used in the Chettinad cuisine, gives a unique flavour to their curries,” informs chef Datta. And from Kerala comes Kanthari, which is known for its heat, spiciness and the unique characteristic of turning white when mature.

Curries, pickles, sambars, dals, chutneys, podis — while no south Indian preparation can be complete without its chillies; they are used widely in western and oriental cuisines as well. “Bird eye chilli, or Kanthari as known locally, is used widely in Thai and Vietnam cuisine apart from the dishes back home in Kerala,” says writer, consultant and baker Monika Manchanda, who uses the spice frequently. She feels that the hit of spice and the slight fruitiness that it brings to a dish makes the chilli an interesting ingredient to play with. “Chillies work both raw and cooked — in dipping sauces, salads or thrown into meat curries; it is always delightful!” she quips.

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