Some like it hot

MANY VARIETIES OF CHILLI, differing in size, shape, and colour, can be seen growing in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Seeing them recently, whetted my appetite to write something about these fiery food items and their relationship to Indian cuisine.

JULY 9 chilli

Chilli is widely used in the multitude of different foods consumed in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is most likely that before the 15th century, this hot-tasting food ingredient was unknown in this part of the world.  Before its introduction to India, black pepper was used to add pungency to food. It was the European’s great yearning for valuable spices like pepper that brought them to the shores of the India, beginning with the Portuguese. It was these same seekers of spice who are believed to have introduced chillies to India from far away Latin America.

In early 1994, I made my first of many trips to India. In Bangalore, where I spent most of my time, I discovered the wonderful bookshops that the city still possesses. In one of these, I bought a book that has proved to be a useful mine of scholarly information about Indian food and its history, “Indian Food – A Historical Companion” by KT Achaya. Published in 1994, it cost 750 Rupees (about £12 in those days), which was quite expensive for a book back in 1994, but it has proved to be a valuable and useful addition to our book collection.  Much of the information that follows derives from the pages of this book.

One of the most interesting things I have learnt from Achaya’s book is that in ancient times, the inhabitants of the subcontinent, such as the Harappans and the Vedic Aryans, were keen meat eaters. Achaya wrote:

“No less than 250 animals are referred to in the Vedas, and 50 of these were deemed fit for sacrifice, and by inference eating.”

He added later:

“The abattoirs for domestic animals had specific names, like garaghatanam (beef), and shukarasnam (swine) … In the Rigveda, horses, bulls, buffaloes, rams, and goats were all described as being sacrificed for food… The Jataka tales list the flesh of the pigeon, partridge, monkey and elephant as edible. To this, the Brhat Samhita (6th century) adds buffaloes and lizards. At a shraddha ceremony, use of meat was very meritorious according to the Vishnu Purana (3rd or 4th century), and the meats listed are those of the hare, hog, goat, antelope, deer, gayal and sheep; both priest and performer partook of the meal.”

However, from the earliest of times, there were thoughtful Aryans who questioned the taking of animal’s lives for food, and gradually the trend towards vegetarianism grew.

Returning to chillies, Achaya suggests that they must have entered India quite early, but many centuries after the ‘creation’ of the Vedas. He quotes lines by the south Indian composer of Carnatic music Purandaradas, who lived between 1480 and 1564, which indicate that he was aware of the effects of chilli. The Portuguese, who introduced chillies to India, first landed on the subcontinent (near Calicut) on the 20th May 1498. So, they must have been quite a novelty when the composer wrote the lines (quoted by Achaya):

“I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used … fiery when bitten …”

Chilli was well received in India because, unlike pepper, it could be grown almost anywhere and had a pungency far greater than pepper. Unlike the Portuguese and later European invaders, chilli in its various forms was a welcome visitor to the Indian subcontinent.

Thus far, I have not written anything that is remarkably new to the well-informed. Now, I will describe something that fascinated me most in Achaya’s wonderful book. The author dedicates several hundred words including references to scholarly works about this topic. In brief, there is evidence that the continent of South America was visited by predecessors of today’s Indians long before Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492.

Amongst the wealth of evidence that Achaya describes, here is a sample. Indian deities feature in pre-Columbian sculpture: Ganesha with his rat; Vishnu’s tortoise ‘kurma’; two elephant heads with typical Indian ceremonial trappings; elephants with ‘mahouts’ wearing turbans; and a portrait of the last ruler of the Incas depicts him wearing a sacred thread the way that Brahmins do. A manuscript discovered in the Yucatan (Mexico) was written in the Kavi dialect of Java, which is derived from the Sanskrit and Pali languages. It records that a merchant, Vusulana, explored the coastline of what we now know as ‘South America’ in 923 AD, that is 569 years before Columbus made his discovery and a few years before Leif Erikson landed in Vinland (probably Newfoundland and New Brunswick). If we accept this and other evidence that there were interactions between the Indian subcontinent and pre-Columbian America, then we should not be surprised if the travellers who crossed the Pacific might have brought foodstuffs back to India.  

Some of these pre-Columbian imports might have been members of the Annona family: the sitaphal and ramphal. Convention dictates that these were imported from Latin America via the Cape of Good Hope, but some archaeological findings suggest that they might have been in India long before the arrival of the Europeans. Achaya cites the  discovery of sculptures of Bharhut (2nd century BC) and frescos painted at Ajanta (about 7th century AD) that depict a fruit looking very similar to custard apple (sitaphal), but points out that George Watt (1851-1930), the Scottish physician and botanist who worked in India, felt that it might be native Indian plants that were being depicted.

More convincing than the Annona fruits is the evidence that maize, a cereal that originated in Central America, was also being grown in India in the pre-Columbian age. Some of the evidence for this is the finding of maize pollen grains in ancient archaeological sites in the Kashmir Valley. Another intriguing discovery was made at the 12th century temple in Somnathpur near Mysore, where 92 female sculptures are all holding in their right hands “… an object looking remarkably like a corn cob.”

What I have written is based on a summary of knowledge published in 1994 in one book. It is likely that since then there has been further research on connections between India and America before Columbus, but I have not yet been able to access it.


Intriguing as the possible relationship between India and pre-Columbian America is, there is little doubt that the chilli, like the potato and the tomato,  only found its way into the Indian diet via the Portuguese and other European colonisers of the New World. So next time, you burn your tongue on a chilli lurking in a curry, you know who to blame.

Getting to grips in the kitchen


Just in case you have not got one in your kitchen, here is an implement that is extensively used in Indian kitchens and tea stalls.

The sandasi (pronounced roughly like ‘sun-er-see’ said fast), which is is also known as a pakad (from the verb ‘to hold’ in Hindustani) or a chimta (from the verb ‘to pinch’ in Hindustani), is essentially a pair of sturdy hinged metal (stainless steel) tongs. The handles of the implement are several times as long as the gripping elements. This means that quite heavy things may be lifted with the beaks of the tongs without any risk of them slipping out of their grip.

The sandasi’s long handles also mean that the user’s hands can be kept at a safe distance from the hot cooking vessels that are lifted with this pair of tongs. For example, the tea maker can lift and manipulate with ease the huge pots containing several litres of a bubbling, boiling mixture of milk, tea, and spices. 

I find the sandasi very useful for gripping the edges of large casseroles when I am stirring hot food like stews or curries.

Cooking tongs are, of course, available in countries other than India, but the sturdy construction and long handles of the sandasis have much to reccommend them.

Taking the plunge


The cafetière (or ‘French press’ or ‘coffee plunger’) has been around for 90 years. It was first invented in 1929. It achieved popularity in England much later. I remember my mother bought one in the 1960s. It was then a ‘trendy’ way of making coffee. My mother used this device to make coffee for some time until one evening something awful happened.

Her brother-in-law, my uncle, was preparing coffee in a cafetière one evening, when suddenly the plunger, which usually needs some pressure to force down the coffee beneath the filter, suddenly shot downwards very quickly. As it did so, boiling hot coffee shot up and burnt my uncle’s hand and arm extremely badly. After this unfortunate accident, my mother, who was a very cautious and safety-conscious person, abandoned using her prized plunger, and reverted to making coffee through conical filter papers.

Although my mother would never use a cafetière again, I continued to do so. Many years after her premature death, I had a strange experience whilst plunging the coffee after feeding dinner to some guests. My wife had filled the cafetière vessel and had left the coffee to ‘infuse’. It was my job to take the plunge so to speak. I pressed down the plunger cautiously. It was harder than usual to press it. The plunger descended a little, but when I removed my hand it began rising. I pushed it again, getting it down a little further, but again the plunger rose up towards its staring position. I kept repeating the procedure, and each time the plunger rose a little. Eventually, I managed to get the plunger to remain near the base of the coffee container, and I poured out the coffee into cups.

I was mystified by our plunger’s abnormal behaviour.

After the guests had left, I opened up the cafetière to clean it. Beneath the plunger amongst the compressed coffee grounds, I disovered the reason for the odd phenomenon. Hidden amongst the dregs of the coffee there was a stainless steel tea spoon. Its previously straight stem had been gradually bent into a U-shape whilst I was trying to press down the plunger. What amazed me when I thought about it afterwards was that it was lucky that the glass vessel was tough enough to withstand the pressure exerted by the spoon on the glass while I was inadvertantly bending it.