On The Chilli Trail Through India

On The Chilli Trail Through India
Assorted Indian chillies enrich the diversity found across the globe, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The Portuguese may have brought the South American fruit to India but the country’s diverse geographical zones have helped the Indian chilli carve out an empire of its own

Uttara Gangopadhyay
July 16 , 2020
10 Min Read

A South American fruit, the chilli was introduced to India by the Portuguese, over 400 years ago. So if you think the adoption of this pungent fruit as an integral part of Indian cooking is a surprise, wait till you discover the journey of the fruit across the Indian mainland. Today, grown across the various geographical and weather zones of India, from Kerala to Kashmir, from Goa to Nagaland, the fruit has acquired distinct characteristics in terms of pungency, colour and flavour, enriching the varieties found across the globe. Even within the region, the same chilli can take on finer nuances of flavour and taste, depending on the method of growing, the soil and the weather. Of the chillies grown in India, several have also been marked with a geographical indication tag.

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Some of the Indian chillies best known for their pungency come from the north-eastern part of the country, the most well-known being the Bhut Jolokia of Assam. Said to have scored 1,041,427 units on the Scoville scale (chilli heat metering scale), it is said to be twice as hot as its peer the Mexican Red Savina and 200 times hotter than the Tabasco sauce. It is also grown in Nagaland as the Raja Mircha (King Chilli) and in Manipur where it is called U Morok. The puny blood-red Dhani, also known as Bird’s Eye chilli grown in Mizoram and parts of Manipur are also known for their fiery heat giving properties. According to home cooks and chefs from these regions, traditionally, these hill states lacked in spices. Hence the fiery chilli was ideal to add the right zing to their meat dishes, pickles and chutneys.


Another fiery chilli is the Dalle Khursani, mostly grown in the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim (as well as in neighbouring Nepal). A ‘thali’ meal or a plate of momo may often come accompanied with a pickle, chutney or sauce made with the ripe fruit with a cherry-like resemblance. But do be cautious if it is your first meeting with the chilli.

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On the other hand, the Kashmiri chilli grown in the valley and the temperate regions of neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, ranks high on the colour scale.

Travel down south and you will soon be bowled over by the varying heat quotient of the chillies grown across the states. The Bydagi chilli grown across the black cotton soil districts of Karnataka, is known for its colour over pungency. The Bydagi Kaddi scores high on the colour scale, and with its cousin Bydagi Dabbi, is used to add colour to a large number of dishes, especially in Udupi cuisine, and to chutneys.

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It is said that is the use of orange-red Ramnad Mundu chilli of Tamil Nadu that gives the unique flavour to Chettinad cuisine.

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Andhra Pradesh (before it was spilt into Telangana), said to be the highest chilli producing state in India, is home to the Sannam chilli, or specifically Guntur Sannam chilli. There are four variants of the chilli, identified by the variation in their red colour among other things. Grown in several districts across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it is known for its pungency, and is the main reason for the heat of the regional dishes – for example the Mamsam Pulusu, a fiery mutton curry. The Hindpur chilli of Andhra is also known for its pungency. A variety of the Sannam chilli is also grown in Madhya Pradesh. Amravati district of Maharashtra is home to the heat-generating Ellachipur Sannam chilli.

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Another pungent chilli that comes from Maharashtra is the Biwapur chilli, grown in Bhiwapur, Umred and Kuhi in the Nagpur district. According to experts, it is the presence of iron, manganese and copper in the soil which gives the red colour to the Bhiwapur chillies while its thick skin endows it with a long shelf life. The chilli grown in Kolhapur is also well known for its spicy quotient.

The light red colour of the Jwala chilli, mostly grown in south Gujarat, belies its high pungency.

The Khola chilli grown in the hill slopes of Canacona in Goa is known for its taste and colour. This bright red chilli is a key ingredient of home-made condiments, including the famous ‘recheado’ paste used as a food stuffing, as well as used in mango pickles and to make red chilli sauce.

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Standing apart from the red and green chillies is the Kanthari (also known as the Kanthari Mulaku). Grown in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu, this small whitish (when mature) chilly has a high pungency, and is a variant of the Bird’s Eye chilli.

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Many of us are aware that capsaicin, which gives the chilli its heat factor, is also used for medicine and making cosmetics and other products. But did you know that chocolatiers in India are using chillies to make artisanal chocolates? Hill Wild of Manipur (headed by Zeinorin Stephen Angkang and Leiyolan Vashum) hit the headlines when they launched their chocolate range that were infused with chillies grown locally. There are also other chocolate makers in Mumbai and Bengaluru who have successfully infused chilli into their homemade chocolates.


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