It’s impossible to think of South East Asian food without chillies but in fact they aren’t indigenous to this part of the world. The Portuguese brought them from Mexico to India in the sixteenth century. Since then they’ve taken off in a big way and play an indispensible role in the curries, soups, sambals, salads, and sauces of the region. But they are as controversial as they are hot and can reduce the even the most composed cook to tears. They add piquancy to a dish but bite into one inadvertently and your mouth may burn like fury for quite some time. The antidote is not water as you might imagine but something milky (such as yoghurt or ice cream) or even just some plain rice. In the late 1990s scientists isolated the compound responsible for the burning sensation – a substance called capsaicin – which is in fact a tasteless neurotoxin. Our bodies respond to this poison by releasing endorphins (the “feel good” hormones that accompany activities such as sex or exercise), which probably accounts for much of the chilli’s popularity.
Should you use your chillies fresh or powdered, flaked or ground, green or red, tiny or large, dried or whole? Before you feel embattled by the decisions, just remember one thing – there is no perfect chilli but each form of chilli is perfect for a specific dish. Fresh chillies do have a livelier flavour than powdered but there are times when the latter is more convenient. And remember that powdered chilli does need to be cooked out for some minutes to avoid a raw taste and also will lose its pungency if stored for too long. There is a difference between ground chilli powder and chilli flakes, which are crushed flakes only. The latter are stronger and give and intense burst of heat and crunch to a dish while the former are better at heating up a dish overall. Both powder and flakes blend well with other spices in dishes like curry but try to use chopped or sliced fresh chillies in stir-fried salads, pickles, and chutneys. Remove the seeds if you want a milder taste.
Green chillies are actually immature red chillies and people have debated which is the hotter. Usually it’s thought to be red – but as varieties of chilli plant do vary it’s impossible to give a blanket answer. Red chillies relieve congestion and blockages in arteries while green chillies help to manage blood sugar levels and assist digestion. Small chillies are thought to be hotter than larger chillies but again the variety of chilli plays a role here. And the difference between fresh and dried is quite subtle. You will need to re-hydrate dried chillies in water before you use them. According to Chef Devi Nadarajan who teaches at the Tropical Spice Garden’s Cookery School in Penang, dried chillies have a sweeter flavour and a more subtle burn. She also shows you how to de-seed a chilli without burning your fingers on the seeds – by doing it under water. So don’t go to war with chillies but instead find you can find out more about using them and other delicious spices in your cuisine by coming to one her classes – or indeed any of the other distinguished chefs who teach at the School.