Saturday, 10 March 2012

India

I've never walked into a room and had someone come up to me and say "Would you like to try the hottest chili known to humankind?"

Until Saturday. On an innocent trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, my wife noticed a stall near the entrance with a sign that read "Want to know about spices?"

The stall was part of an advertisement for the forthcoming Biodiversity Library Exhibition. It featured lots of spices, including cloves, ginger, etc, but the part that captured my attention was the row of chilies, ranked in order of piquancy ("hotness" or heat) in Scoville units.

For those who don't know, the Scoville scale, named for its creator, measures the heat of chilies in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). To test a chili, you take an extract of it and give it to a panel of usually five lucky tasters. If any of them can feel the burn, you dilute the chili extract and taste again. The number of SHUs is the number of times you have to dilute the chili extract before none of the five tasters can detect any heat.

Bell peppers have zero. Common black pepper has like 50 or less (or would, if it contained capsaicin). A jalapeño has between 2,000 and 3,500. The mighty habanero has from 100,000 to 350,000.

The chili they were offering me at the stall was the infamous bhut jolokia pepper, also called the naga king pepper or "ghost chili". The hottest pepper in the world. 855,000 SHUs.

The ghost chili is a hybrid, but one of its parents is in the habanero family, and habaneros are a good friend of mine.

The lady at the stall said that so far no one had dared try the bhut jolokia. Whether this was true or not, I had no intention of passing up the opportunity. So they got me a plastic teaspoon and I took a small amount.

The first thing I noticed was that it didn't smell spicy. This could have been because it was in powder form, but no tiny particles of capsaicin floated up to tingle my nose. Instead it had a pleasantly aromatic bouquet with an earthy undertone.

When I put out on my tongue, it took a few seconds for the heat to start kicking in. I love slow-burn chilies. Firstly, they give you time to savour the distinct flavour of the chili (no two kinds taste alike, you know) before the burn kicks in. Secondly, rather than having it all up front, the growing burn is something to look forward to (I know that probably sounds twisted). And finally, it usually means the chili experience will last longer. I find that, the quicker the burn peaks, the quicker it fades.

As I stood there savouring the burn, another guy at that stall took my picture for posterity. All the while, people kept asking me "Is it hot?"

Of course it was hot. It had 855,000 Scoville units. But there are a couple things to know about me and chilies. I tend not to lose my head, no matter how hot the chili, because I know that it cannot do any lasting harm (unless you're actually allergic to capsaicin, which I am not). Also, I actually like the burn. Again, I know that probably sounds twisted, but it's true none the less.
My wife once mentioned that I must have reached the point where chilies don't burn anymore. "Oh no," I said, "They definitely still burn. I don't expect they'll ever stop burning. But I like the burn. I want them to burn."

It then occurred to me that a fondness for chilies may be a form of culinary masochism. But I'm not sure I can be bothered addressing that.

So how hot was that chili powder? Well, it was pretty fucking hot, and I hope my zen-like calm didn't lull the un-initiated into a false sense of security, because if you're not really used to capsaicin (the acid in chilies that makes them burn), you could easily be in a lot of pain. I mean a lot of pain. Blind panic style pain.

But on the other hand, when my wife asked me if it was noticeably hotter than the habaneros I was so used to eating. I couldn't really say. I guess so, but did it really feel nine times hotter? It occurred to me that there may be an upward limit to how much capsaicin the human tongue can actually detect before it just becomes "really fucking hot."

But more worrying was the fact that this was not actually the most uncomfortable I've ever been while eating chilies. That honour goes to a vindaloo I had on Brick Lane in the summer of 2007. It could be down to the amount of chili on my tongue (I may be a chili fiend, but I'm not an idiot. I respect the heat and I only took a little taste), or the unusually warm weather that year in London, but the Brick Lane curry had me sweating and gulping lassi. The bhut jolokia did not.

This is not definitive evidence of relative hotness, however. In fact, the vindaloo was probably made with the bhut jolokia chili.

The bhut jolokia pepper was developed in Asia, and so far all the food I've mentioned in this post is Indian.

In the UK, Indian cuisine occupies the same niche that Mexican food does in America: a non-native but culturally connected cuisine that makes copious use of chilies (the ability to eat which often becomes a source of manly bravado). Though all chilies come from the Americas originally, Asia has embraced them with the same fervour that the Mediterranean embraced that other Mexican export, the tomato.

And because Mexican food in Britain is only now becoming more than a cruel joke, North American expats have had to develop a taste for Indian food to get their chili fix.

This naturally has relevance for my book. When he first comes to Edinburgh, Esteban goes to work in an Indian restaurant. This means that I have to learn to cook Indian food.

Which is not a problem, by the way. I am fascinated by Indian food for the same reason Esteban is: ingredients. How have two countries on opposite ends of the Earth managed to depend on such similar flavours when cooking?

I began my Indian cooking adventure with the shahi korma, which differs from the more familiar korma because it uses ground almonds rather than coconut milk, and was a million miles away from the sweet gloopy yellow stuff you get from most take-aways. And on Saturday the adventure continued with a biryani.
Biryani is my favourite Indian dish. Whenever I try a new Indian restaurant, I order the biryani. If they can't get that right, I don't go back.

My homemade biryani


It's interesting that I chose to cook something so involved so soon after my mole odyssey. Altogether, the biryani took me just over three guy hours to prep and cook, and used some very similar techniques to the mole. For example, I once again had to drop raisins into hot oil and fry them until they plumped up. And there was grinding nuts and spices into a paste, and then frying that paste until it browned.

I'm not going to go into detail about the recipes here, because this isn't an Indian Food blog, it's a Mexican food blog, and also because in both cases I just followed Madhur Jaffrey's recipe. Her book is on the sidebar menu, and if you're at all interested in cooking Indian food, I highly recommend it.

What I would like to do, though, is go through the ingredients to see just how similar they are to Mexican food.

Lamb: Both Indian dishes were lamb dishes. Lamb is one of the most traditional meats in British cuisine, but is not actually common in India or Mexico. In both countries, these dishes would probably be made with goat. I have no qualms about eating goat. It's just that they don't sell it in Tesco.

Garlic and onion: The Indian dishes made noticeably more use of garlic than the Mexican dishes. However, the amount of onion was comparable. And seriously, where would savoury food be without onion?

Ginger: In Western cuisine this is often used in sweet dishes. When it appears in savoury food, it screams "Asia". Because it comes from Asia. So this is definitely more indicative of Indian and than Mexican cooking.

Almonds: We saw almonds in the mole. Nuts are found elsewhere in Mexican cooking, but it tends to be pecans, walnuts, or that North American staple the peanut (not a true nut, by the way). So this ingredient is definitely more Asian than Mexican.

Fat: The cooking technique of frying things in fat was imported into Mexico by the Spanish. Mexicans usually use lard, and if you want to get super-traditional, you should use "homemade" lard render from the fat of something you cooked the night before. I have, for instance, fried quesadillas in lard I rendered from chorizo. Delicious. However, I can't bring myself to buy a pack of lard from the supermarket. I don't wanna die, at least not in my 30s. So I use vegetable oil. Madhur Jaffrey's recipes called for vegetable oil as well, though a more traditional Indian fat is ghee, or clarified butter. I love frying things in butter, but again, I wouldn't recommend doing it all the time, for your arteries' sake. The point is, Indians and Mexicans both fry food, but they use very different fats.

Spices: By which I mean things that aren't chilies. Indian food from cheap take-aways is defined by thick creamy sauces and/or a lot of chili. Proper Indian food is defined by its masterful blending and balancing of spices. The Indian dishes used cardamom (can't get more Indian than that), clove (which is used in moles, but otherwise is rendered superfluous by the native allspice), cinnamon (which has definitely been embraced by Mexico, though it is originally Asian), ground coriander (which, though equally associated with Indian and Mexican cuisine, tends to be only the fresh herb in Mexico, rather than the ground seeds), and cumin. This last is one of my favourites, and one of the trio (along with chilies and coriander) of ingredients that prompted me to compare Indian and Mexican cuisine in the first place. As it turns out, cumin is more common in northern Mexico than elsewhere, which makes sense, as northern Mexican cooking (with its beef and flour tortillas) is what informs most Mexican food available in the US.

So far, then, only two and a half ingredients unite these cuisines after all. My investigation, however, is by no means finished.

On a final note, I am aware that the bhut jolokia had been replaced as the world's hottest chili by the naga viper chili. It's still pretty fucking hot, though.