Monday, 9 July 2012

The Truth about Chillies

I'm not sure if you have noticed this, but I regularly use two different spellings of "chilli". While I am certainly not immune to inconsistency or typos (I once spelled "dairy" as "diary" in this very blog), the chilli thing is intentional.

The word chilli, however you spell it, comes from Nahuatl, like a great many other names for Mexican ingredients or dishes. In Spanish it became chile (plural chiles), just as Nahuatl <i>molli</i> became <i>mole</i>. I love Spanish and I'm pretentious enough to make a big deal of replacing everyday words with their non-English root words (you should see me when I get going with German). On the other hand, some of the food I write about is either Indian, some nouvelle-cuisine-ish creation of my own, or a hybrid of the two, in which cases it doesn't seem as appropriate to insist on using the Spanish word.

Therefore the compromise I reached with myself was that, when referring to Mexican food or something firmly rooted in Mexican cuisine, I would use the spelling "chile/chiles"; for everything else I would use "chilli/chillies". Like Rick Bayless, I avoid using "chilli pepper" because peppers, which get their great from a substance called piperin, are unrelated to chillies (Latin capsicum), which get their heat from capsaicin (which is what the Scoville units measure).

As a personal aside, piperin might as well be candy to me, and while I am most certainly affected by capsaicin, I have never had a chilli I didn't want more of. But mustard oil, produced by the breakdown of sinigrin in horseradish, wasabi, and (of course) mustard, completely floors me. It is my hotness Achilles' Heel.

Anyway, because I had done it a few times, I assumed I pretty much knew how to reconstitute dried chillies. Well, it turns out I still have more to learn.

I had bought some dried chiles de árbol ("tree chiles", though they don't grow on trees) from Lupe Pinto's. I was very excited about them, because I've never cooked with them before, and they are meant to be the second-hottest chile in Mexico (coming just behind the mighty habanero).
But what to put them in? I read recently - in a guidebook for Mexico, that when chiles are used in Mexican stews, marinades, and other dishes, they tend to be on the mild side, whereas the chiles in side salsas and other condiments tend to be hotter than hell.

While I have not found this rule spelled out in any of my cookbooks, it does gel with my experience of cooking Mexican food. In the mole, for instance, two of the three types of chile were mild, and the other was only medium. Even in the burritos al pastor, which used chipotles (technically also medium, but on the hot side of medium), the amount of chile used was limited so that it didn't become overpowering.

As if in confirmation of this tendency, I was unable to find a Mexican main course that includes chiles de árbol. Instead, all the books wanted me to make salsa picante ("hot sauce" - because standard Mexican salsa isn't "picante" enough, apparently). This sauce is made with the árbol chiles, and is by some accounts like a much better version of Tabasco sauce.

I have every intention of making salsa picante. But in the meantime I really wanted to try using chiles de árbol as an ingredient in a main course.

I also remembered that it had been a while since I chilled Indian food, so I grabbed Madhur Jaffrey's book and looked up "chillies" in index. I was on the verge of making vindaloo when I discovered a recipe for spicy baked chicken. The recipe called for a mixture of paprika and cayenne pepper, but I said fuck that and substituted five árbol chiles.

Which is where the FAIL! comes into it.

Dried chillies can be divided into two groups: wrinkly-skinned and smooth-skinned. Most of the dried chillies I have worked with before have been wrinkly-skinned, which means you have to press them down on the pan to get them to toast properly. Not so with smooth-skinned chiles. Apparently they can just lie there; they already have sufficient surface area exposed to the heat.
Also, most of the chillies I have worked with before have had fairly thick, meaty flesh. Chiles de árbol, however, have smooth, paper-thin skin. And lastly, I may have had the pan on too high a heat.

So what happened was I seeded and deveined my chiles, popped them in the hot pan and pressed down with my spatula as usual.

Instantly a black, acrid smoke rose up, making me and my entire family choke (my wife and daughter actually had to leave the house; there must have been a lot of capsaicin in the air).
 Worst of all, the chiles were already charcoal! Completely unsalvageable.

(Actually, the top halves which hadn't touched the pan yet were okay, but just over 50% of the chiles went down the drain as fine black powder.)

So I started again, this time lowering the heat and continually tossing the chiles until they slightly darkened in colour. Them I covered them with just-boiled as usual and all was well.

The Indian dish I was making turned out brilliantly. I've so far never been steered wrong by Madhur Jaffrey.

One of the things Jaffrey writes about is the technique if dropping whole spices into hot oil, which she says is characteristic of and peculiar to Indian cooking. (Mexican cooking would certainly use the asar technique.)

I dropped whole cumin seeds into hot oil for the rice and dal that accompanied the spicy baked chicken. The moment those seeds hit the fat my kitchen was filled with a beautiful smell that I have previously only encountered in Indian restaurants. It was amazing, and not unlike the time roasting ("asar-ing") tomatoes unlocked the secret of authentic Mexican salsa for me. It was one of those moments that drive home what I love about cooking. In fact, loved it so much I've started doing it for other rice dishes as well.

I haven't made the salsa picante yet, but I will definitely write about it when I do, even if I ruin it. In the meantime, here's a photo of the Indian dish I cooked using Mexican chiles:
Masaledar murghi with masoor dal and tahiri (Hindi must be an awesome language).