Chillies, Hindi name Mirch/Mirchi, are from genus Capsicum. They are known by many different names around the world, not always meaning the same. This creates a lot of confusion. Some of the names that are used for chillies are; pepper, chili, chile, paprika and capsicum. In Indian cuisine, capsicum generally means green pepper/sweet pepper/bell pepper, not a hot chilli. In some countries, paprika may mean hot chilli, but in an Indian recipe, it generally means sweet chilli/capsicum powder, used for colour only. The word ‘pepper’ used on its own usually means black pepper and not chilli pepper in Indian recipes.
Chillies are probably one of the most commonly recognised vegetable/spice in the world. They are said to have originated in Southern America, but are now grown and eaten worldwide, gaining huge popularity in UK in the last 50 years. Western chefs often ask you to remove seeds when using fresh chilli. To my mind, seeds and the membranes are the best part of a chilli that give it its heat and flavour. Why eat chilli, if you can't stand the heat? In India, chillies are rarely known or sold by their proper names, people guess their heat by their size, look and feel. Generally speaking, smaller, thinner and firmer (more tightly packed with seeds) a chilli is, hotter it is. The large, hollow, milder ones are often used for making various ‘stuffed’ chilli dishes like pickles, pakoras and bhajies.
There are countless varieties of chillies worldwide.
Varieties: There are hundreds varieties of chillies. Some well known ones are Naga Jolokia, Birds-eye or Dhani , Byadagi , Kashmiri, Jwala, Habanero, Jalapeño, Tabasco, Hindpur, Kenyan, Cayenne, Chipotle, Bangalore, Torpedo.
Heat of chillies: Their heat is measured in Scoville units, a measurement of the amount of capsaicin contained in that particular chilli. Mild ones will be around 5000 units and the hottest-Naga or Bhut Jalokia, about 11-16,000,000 Scoville units. Green or Bell Pepper has no heat at all and is around zero on this scale. The Hot Pepper spray to deter attacks supposedly has 500,000 – 530,000 units. So beware and handle it carefully, if you carry it! The heat of a chilli is due to a chemical called capsaicin, which is mostly located in the white membrane and rib that runs down the middle of it’s entire length. People generally reach for a glass of water or cold drink if they accidentally eat a very hot chilli. However, capsaicin is not water soluble, so drinking water to reduce the fire in your mouth does not work. Milk, yoghurt, ice-cream, sugar, banana, starchy foods like bread and rice may help. As chillies ripen and turn red, their heat goes down somewhat.
Medicinal uses: Chillies irritate mucous membranes and skin but, paradoxically, an ointment containing capsaicin, rubbed on the skin of painful joints, has an analgesic effect. Fresh chillies are rich in Vitamin C, over 300 times more than the citrus fruits, niacin (one of the B vitamins) and beta carotene-a precursor of Vitamin A, specially when dry. But it would be difficult to eat enough, to get your daily supply! They aid digestion, because they are strong stimulant of digestive juices, but bear in mind that taken in large quantities, they can be a strong irritant. They soothe sore throat, boost immune system, help to clear sinuses and even help to combat cancer.
Growing chillies:Although a plant of hot countries, it is easy to grow chillies in UK too, especially in southern UK. You do need a greenhouse or a conservatory to start them off, taking the plant out during June-August. I often bring the plants in from late September, to get a continuing supply until December-January. In UK, it is an annual plant, grown fresh every year. In India and some other hot countries, the same plant may give you chillies for a few years, growing like a small bush. I have grown chillies successfully in UK from seeds out of my spice box, not knowing the variety I was sowing when I started! I have had a great supply of chillies this way. You can get seeds of many varieties from UK seed suppliers, though they can be quite expensive, often containing only 6-8 seeds to a packet.
Drying Chillies: In India, and other very hot countries, ripe chillies are simply spread out on the ground in the intense heat of the sun, and they dry within a few days. I dry mine in a hot conservatory, spread out on a newspaper. I sometimes make a hole in each chilli using a very sharp, pointed knife. This helps to dry them faster. They can be threaded or tied on a string to make a Ristra, then hung to dry in a warm and dry place, where there is some air circulation. Ristra is a hanging bunch of chillies or onions or garlic, threaded/tied into a bunch with a string, to hang for drying and storage. It looks like a whole head of bananas somewhat. If any chillies begin to look mouldy during drying, simply pull them off the ristra. There are many ways of making a ristra, look on the web. Commercially, some countries use solar or fan dryers to dry chillies. It is not recommended that you powder chillies at home, unless you have a sealed grinder. Chilli powder is a strong irritant to the mucous membranes of eyes, nasal passages, lungs etc.
If you have a surplus of chillies, you can freeze them. Wash and towel dry them overnight. Spread them out on a tray, cover with 3-4 layers of cling film or a thick plastic. This will minimize freezer burns. Once frozen, store them in a plastic box. When needed, take a few out and chop them while still frozen.
Chopping fresh chillies for cooking/pickleng
If you have kitchen scissors, cut chillies with them, without touching the cut surface. Alternatively, cut on a chopping board, using a sharp knife, with as little contact with your fingers as possible. Accidental touching of eyes after handling hot chillies is something you want to avoid.If you are not used to them, either wear gloves when chopping or use scissors. If your fingers have touched them, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Eating chillies the Indian way:
Chillies can be eaten fresh-green/yellow/red or dried. In most Indian recipes, seeds and membranes are not removed.
Eating raw:You can eat them fresh with Indian food, biting a small piece at a time, with mouthfuls of food.
In salads: They are especially nice thinly sliced and mixed with various mixed salads. Use only a 1 green chilli approximately with 1 cup of other ingredients. Some examples are: a) Mooli Salad and Mooli Salad, b) Onion salad. c) Tomato Salad. I add them to normal green/other mixed salads also, to give the salad that extra 'kick'.
As a Garnish: Chopped chillies are great as a garnish on dals, beans, chick-pea and many spicy Chat dishes and curries.
Adding to dishes: You can add them whole or chopped to curries, dals, pizzas omelette, or numerous other dishes during cooking. Added whole, a person has a choice to leave it on one side of their plate, if they don't want to 'bite' into it.
Preserving: You can preserve them in many ways. There are many chilli pickle and sauce recipes on this site, take a look.
Cooking:You can cook them stuffed;
You can add them to various raitas.
This article is based on some personal knowledge, information available on the internet and in books.