Saturday, June 12, 2010

The heat of Naga chilli Times Of India Crest June 12, 2010

The Naga chilli has a wonderfully fruity flavour. But to taste it, you have to survive its incendiary spice!

Ever since the Naga chilli scorched its way to world fame as the hottest chilli in the world, dethroning the selectively bred Red Savina, it has been the hot favourite of cooks and foodies. But there's much more to the Naga chilli, also known as the Naga jolokia and Raja mirch, than its heat. I had the good fortune to discover the Naga chilli when a friend and fellow food writer, Theyie Keditsu, presented me with 12 chillies.

This fiery number, however, first caught my eye when I was interviewing Chef Vivek Singh of London's Cinnamon Club restaurant a couple of years ago. He was in the news for having created the world's hottest curry. A curry so hot that diners were asked to sign a disclaimer before daring to sample it. That curry contained six Naga chillies along with other hot peppers.

Naga chillies clock in at over one million units on the Scoville scale (the measurement of spicy heat). That's more than double the spice quotient of the Red Savina pepper, 100 times spicier than jalapeƱo pepper and 20 times hotter than cayenne pepper. The only thing hotter is pepper spray that's used as a weapon in chemical warfare and used to fend of assailants. Which is probably why India's military is set to harness the Naga chilli's firepower to combat terrorists, immobilise criminals and quell riots.

When Theyie, who is Naga, delivered her precious gift to me, I just looked at my treasured bounty at first. What a riot of colour. Who can forget the glorious colours, from lemon yellow to raging orange, deep to almost fluorescent green, and every imaginable shade of red from glowing auburn to flaming crimson. . . If only we could make a salad of these beautiful chillies, but it would be a killer since a single chilli can season a full pot of curry, I thought.

I needed to get an idea of its intrinsic taste, so I decided to taste a tiny bit. Slicing the tiniest corner of the tail end of one of the chillies (the most potent bit of a chilli is towards the head, where the seeds are located) released a distinctly viscous, sweet scent that gave way to a sharp grassy after-note as the tiny sliver reached my tongue.

Heat is the natural defence mechanism of chillies, in fact almost all spices. So it was but natural that this little thing would hurt me back. But once the pain of the heat had flared away on my tongue, I was left with a far deeper flavour that was sweet, juicy and savoury all at once. It was well worth the pain.

The fruity flavours suggested that the chilli would do well in a sweet-spicy chutney. So I concocted an apple and Naga chilli chutney and had Theyie taste it. Her eyes widened and a smile appeared, along with a purr of delight. Theyie explained, as she dug into the chutney with a spoon as if it was an ice-cream, that in Nagaland the chilli is taken very seriously. Mostly eaten in chutneys or preserved as pickles, the chilli's formidable heat is always the highlight of dishes to which it is added. Priced between Rs 1, 000 and Rs 1, 500 a kg, the chilli is expensive by local standards. It's a matter of prestige to offer dishes containing Naga chillies, and hosts make sure guests know what they're eating. So my chutney was cheeky after all, as it allowed chilli connoisseurs like Theyie to rediscover the flavour of the pepper that is often overpowered by its heat.

Now I needed to preserve the rest of my chillies so I could savour them for longer. First I sliced one chilli and dropped the pieces into a glass jar. Then I heated 250 ml of rice bran oil till it was hot, but not smoking, and poured it over the sliced chilli. Since the aroma of the Naga chilli is quite overwhelming, I could already smell the whiff rising from the oil. I discovered its real aroma when I opened the bottle a few days later. Sitting on my shelf, the oil had turned a pale orangey-red and absorbed the fragrance and heat of the chilli, becoming a great condiment in itself. Fruity, spicy and delicious, it was great to drizzle over soups, add to salad dressings and dress grilled meat.

I got almost similar results from dunking one of the chillies into vinegar. It worked beautifully in tandem with my Naga chilli oil and as a pre-cooking marinade for meats. The vinegar also gave me the idea of a Naga chilli vodka. And since good ideas should never be ignored, I sliced up two chillies and tossed them into a bottle of vodka. They are doing well there if the last whiff I got of them is anything to go by. I am looking forward to deliciously warm winter tipples this year.

To focus on heat as the sole merit of the Naga chilli is to do it an enormous disservice. But then, one must be clueless about an ingredient to widen the scope of its use.

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