Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dear Rushina

Dear Rushina,
It is a chilly winter morning here in Delhi as I write this. I arrived quite late from the airport last night and the reunion with my sisters was wonderful. Your Naga King chilli and wild apple pickle was one of the first things I proffered to them. And much like my response, eyes widened, smiles appeared accompanied with sounds of delight and words of appreciation. You might just be able to take Nagaland by storm with this one. You see, the Naga King chilli is a very serious condiment. Mostly eaten in/as chutney, or preserved in pickles (which are rarely sweet), its formidable heat is the highlight in dishes to which it is added. Anyone eating a chutney or dish with Naga king chilli will know and must know it is in there. It’s also ridiculously expensive for Naga market standards and costs anywhere from 1000 to 1500 rupees per kg.

Given this fact, I guess it’s understandable if you want your guests to know such an expensive ingredient is present in your dish. In this sense, your pickle is both cheeky and extravagant; because it allows king chilli connoisseurs like me to (re)discover and savour the flavours of the chilli which are too often overpowered by its heat, even as I wonder if it really is my beloved raja chilli; and because the absence of this consuming heat would also rob you of the credit of presenting an ‘expensive’ dish, an extravagance in reverse.
So much is said about how hot the Naga King chilli is that it is easy to think we only eat it for the same reason. The assamese name for this chilli, ‘bhoot jholokia’ meaning ghost chilli goes to show that its heat is unparelled in the land of the living or the dead. While heat could very well be the fifth sense of taste for Nagas, what with our intimate relationship with chillies (My village Chiechama grows a fragrant red chilly which when sun dried and crushed makes a profoundly complex and aromatic and yes, hot chilli powder). But to focus on heat as the sole merit of the Naga King chilli does an enormous disservice to it. The first thing one should do when you ‘encounter’ a fresh Naga King chilli is to smell it. A distinctly viscous sweet scent gives way to the sharp smell of grass. This aroma is quite persistent and one of the simplest things done is to cut fresh Naga King Chillies and douse (pun intended) them in vegetable oil. As its sits on your shelf, the oil takes on the fragrance and heat making it a great condiment in itself.
The taste of this cherished chilli is also sensational - sweet, juicy and savoury all at once. So worth it, that the devoted are willing to face the heat and battle it in order to get to this taste. This is particularly challenging given that a single chilli can season a full pot of curry. A word of caution to the uninitiated and curious, take it one tiny bite at a time and wash your hands after.
And the colours, who can forget the glorious colours, from lemon yellow, mellow to raging oranges, deep to almost fluorescent greens, and every imaginable shade of red. If only we could make a salad of only these beautiful chillies. Such a salad being impossible to consume, the next best thing is that Naga King chilli plants are used for ornamental purposes. Case in point is the photo above taken at a friend’s house. And of course, bottles of whole pickled Naga King chillies also make for great kitchen and dining room decoration.
But your pickle has made me rethink what is possible with the Naga King chilli. I am especially intrigued that it goes so well with fruit. And in this dosage, the experience doesn’t have be a masochistic one.
I can’t wait to see how my parents will respond to your pickle and to the new idea(s) it poses. Who knew a small jar of pickled wild apples and Naga King Chillies could be so much food for thought? I can only wonder what other concoctions you’ll conjure up once you reach Dehradun.
Well, I'm going to have breakfast now. Hot tea, toast and your pickle as spread. Nothing like a little chilli to warm you up on a cold winter morning.
Merry Christmas! Do write and let me know about your food capers as will I.
With much affection,


The knife said...

wow the Naga chilly really sounds hot... and the right colour for christmas too

Rebecca Varidel said...

Cooeee from Australia! Thanks for the great blog Rushina, and for sharing the letter.

I'm looking forward to learning more about your cuisine.

Happy New Year!

? said...

Hi, Stumbled upon your blog and onto this Chilli post...loved it!