In Search of the Mathania Chilli

Tracing the history of the Mathania chilli; eaten freshly plucked, dried, ground, whole, powdered or in paste form, this is certainly the most evocative of Rajasthani spices

In Search of the Mathania Chilli
Mathania chilli garnishing on ker sangri, a staple of Rajasthan’s flavourful cuisine
Indranil Bhoumik

A few hundred years ago, Rajasthan was blissfully unaware of the South American fruit that would sooner or later come to dominate its cuisine. Mistaken for Indian pepper by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, the chilli was later introduced to Indian shores by the Portuguese at the turn of the 16th century. It is believed to have made its way up north, in all likelihood, with the Mughal-battling Marathas sometime in the 18th century. It turned out that Rajasthan’s dry, hot climate made it ideal for chilli cultivation, and within a short span of time, Mathania, a sandy little village north of Jodhpur became synonymous with a fiery long red chilli. Eaten freshly plucked, dried, whole, powdered or in paste form, these locally-grown chillies went on to effectively replace the indigenous peppercorn as the main source of heat, especially in desert foods.

A vegetable vendor in Mathania sells a variety of chillies
Indranil Bhoumik

As things stand today, it is a rare Rajasthani dish that will show up on the table without the Mathania mirch making its pungent presence felt. While it doesn’t quite set the Scoville scale afire, its powerful aroma imparts a distinct flavour and colour to the food, and you will notice its underlying sweetness garnishing several Marwari specialities like ker sangri and panchkuta. It is chopped up or used whole in gatta curry, kadhi or dal; or pulverised into the ubiquitous garlicky chutney often relished with butter-dripping bajra rotis. The chillies are also soaked in mustard oil while fresh, and consumed as a pickle. Above all, they are the defining ingredient that put the laal in that most famous of Rajasthani dishes, laal maas. Their use is said to have successfully masked the gamey taste of wild boar meat that, pre-hunting ban, was the preferred animal protein for this dish.

Dehydrated mathania chillies, one of Rajasthan’s most popular condiments
Indranil Bhoumik

Eat Your Way to Better Health: While Mathania chillies may have elbowed pepper off the kitchen shelf in Rajasthan, they, like most chillies, mimic and provide similar benefits when used right. Several varieties are believed to boost the immune system, stimulate digestion, aid weight loss, and also ensure a healthy heart by thinning blood. The fiery ones often work as natural painkillers, stimulating the brain to release endorphins as a reflex action to the stinging.

Ker Sangri, gatta subzi and kadhi, deemed incomplete without the fiery red chilli
Indranil Bhoumik

Visual Treat: Mathania’s surroundings take on a brilliant red hue in February, when post-harvest, farmlands are carpeted with the moisture-heavy crop laid out to dry in the sun. A matchless visual treat that no self-respecting shutterbug should miss!

Jodhpur, 40 km north of Mathania, is the closest airport, rail and road head.
    Best Season:
Winter (photography: January/February)