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Why chilli in summer makes perfect sense

With everything from a food festival and spicy cocktails to a new hot chicken brand launch, all paying obeisance to the chilli, summer 2023 is poised to be a hot more ways than one

Hangry Bird’s Nashville-style hot chicken burgers; and (left) The Gunpowder at Foo combines gin with green chilli tincture.
Hangry Bird’s Nashville-style hot chicken burgers; and (left) The Gunpowder at Foo combines gin with green chilli tincture.

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While we may be just about teetering over the threshold of summer, here in India, over the past weekend, the temperature went up to a soul-scorching hot 38°C in Guntur. And it probably won’t be the last time this season, either.

No wonder, then, that this district in the state of Andhra Pradesh is infamous for being one the country’s hottest. But there is also one more equally searing hot reason: the Guntur mirchi.

Hot logic
Apart from the Kashmiri chilli—known mainly for its bright red hue, not heat—it is the Guntur chilli, that, most of us here in India, and around the world where it is exported to, refer to as the de facto “Indian chilli”. The main trading place for it being the Guntur Mirchi Yard, which is Asia’s largest dried chilli market. Only recently, have we also seen the super hot, tiny Mizoram bird eye chilli being exported to places like the US. But more on that a little later.

Interestingly, Andhra Pradesh is also known for its fiery curries and spicy roasts that always have the Guntur chilli at the forefront. This of course—along with tropical countries like Thailand’s (bird eye chilli) and Mexico’s (habanero, jalapeño, ancho, Poblano chillies) obsession with chilli—prompts the question “why do the spiciest foods come from hot weather cultures?”

The simple answer is one that is moored in pure logic. Spicy foods make us sweat, which actually cools us off more efficiently than that ice gola or tall glass of cold shikanji ever could.

Hot days ahead
Interestingly, over the last few weeks we have been seeing a whole host of practical applications of this logic by a few of India’s F&B players. With everything from food festivals and seasonal menu overhauls to new fast food brand launches, all pivoting around the axis of the chilli.

Back this year with their annual Fiery Edit Menu, 2023 No Chill edition, Mumbai’s Pan Asian restobar Foo claims this April-only menu to be “an unforgettable experience for those who crave that spicy kick in their food”.

“We love spicy food and so, every year, we introduce The Fiery Edit as a month-long festival at Foo,” says Keenan Tham, Foo’s managing director and co-founder. “Our endeavour year on year has been to up the flavour, and make the menu as varied as possible.”

To that end, one finds 14 dishes, two desserts, and four cocktails imbued with chillies from India, Mexico, and Thailand. These include the bhut jolokia, habanero, and bird eye in dishes like the ghost pepper salmon roll, fire fried rice, and even in desserts like the strawberry and habanero ice cream.

Cocktails like Gunpowder that combines gin with green chilli tincture, and Firecracker that features whiskey, orange-wasabi marmalade and a hint of bird eye chilli tincture, seek to deliver liquid heat.

Speaking of which, each item on this menu has a corresponding ‘Scoville Scale’ for measuring their spiciness, allowing diners to test their limits.

Goblets of fire
The chili cocktail truly seems to be the drink of the season with several iterations abounding. Goa-based artisanal rum brand Maka Zai’s brand ambassador, Abhirup Bhattacharyya recently came up with a spicy cocktail called Pepper Ridley. “This one sees our white rum with a yellow bell pepper cordial, jalapeños, and carbonated water. We balanced the (spicy) favours with a subtle smoky finish,” says Bhattacharyya.

It is this balance that is vital in crafting a good chilli cocktail say experts. RCB Bar & Café, Bengaluru’s Tito Santana Sour created by ace mixologist, Delhi-based Yangdup Lama is another example of a careful blend of chilli flavours followed by a sweet finish that perfectly balances the heat. Here, Jose Cuervo Tequila is infused with jalapeños, while the tart tamarind and sweet-sour passion fruit offer a refreshing contrast. An optional egg white adds a layer of creaminess.

“This sour is a great example of non-traditional flavours being celebrated in cocktails. While spice has always been enjoyed in food, it’s a flavour that can often be difficult to hone when it comes to cocktails,” says Justin Dias, head mixologist at RCB. “Today, it’s great to see cocktails no longer being limited to sweet and fruity flavours. We are increasingly incorporating more savoury and spicy elements, which have always appealed to Indian palates.”

From the west
And while our palates are all too familiar with home-grown chilli variants and even a few foreign ones like the Thai and Mexican one, the US and Caribbean ones like the Carolina reaper and the scotch bonnet have eluded them. Thus far, that is.

Introducing us to another kind of chilli heat (that of the cayenne pepper kind) this summer, is the recently launched, Mumbai-based Hangry Bird’s Nashville-style hot chicken burgers. These have spice levels ranging from mild to searing hot, using our very own Indian bhut jolokia and Guntur chilli along with cayenne pepper.

“The reasoning for this launch was that a place like Mumbai never had any real hot chicken place. Something that is very common all over the world,” says Suvraj Bhurjee the co-founder of Hangry Bird.

As an advocate for the reverse, i.e. bringing Indian chillies, techniques and cuisine to global light is Radhika Khandelwal, the chef-owner of Fig & Maple restaurant. A champion of the Mizo bird eye chilli, she has begun incorporating it into her menus at the restaurant’s Goa and New Delhi outposts recently when a kitchen colleague got some back from his hometown in Mizoram’s Siaha District. “When the Mizoram bird eye chilli obtained the GI (Geographical Indications) tag, the initiative to export it to the US expanded the market and increased income for small scale farmers, which is always great,” says Khandelwal.

Talk about generating the right kind of heat that our chillies do in more ways than one.

This Summer’s ‘Hot’ List

· Lotus Stem in Thai Sauce at Taki Taki, Mumbai: Here lotus stem is fried and tossed in a spicy sauce which is an amalgamation of prik noon chillies and bird eye chillies, both from Thailand, and topped with coriander and fresh bird eye chilli.

· Devil Guava Chilli at Brassa, Bengaluru: This cocktail is made with guava juice, fresh coriander, lime juice and served with a spicy peri peri chilli rim.

· Habanero Chicken Popcorn at Donna Deli, Mumbai: The habanero is used in a sauce made from ketchup and oregano into which, crispy chicken popcorn bites are tossed.

· Spicy Tantanmen at The Fatty Bao, Kolkata: This ramen is made by using the paste of the byadagi and Guntur chillies simmering in a creamy broth.

· Guntur Chilli Chicken at Shy, Mumbai: A tender leg of spring chicken, cooked in spicy Guntur chilli, brown onion and curry leaves.

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