CHILI-CULINARY ESSENTIAL

DR. S. M. ALAM
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)

Jan 2 - 8, 20
12

Chili is one of the most valuable crops of Pakistan. It is grown almost throughout the country.

Different varieties are grown for vegetables, spices, condiments, sauces and pickles. Chili s also known as 'hot pepper' and capsicum as 'bell pepper'. The Portuguese brought capsicum from Brazil to India during the year 1584. Chili is a fruit of the plants 'capsicum annuum' and 'capsicum frutescens' that come from the genus 'capsicum', belonging to the family of 'Solanaceae,' which also includes tomato and potato. These fruits are small in size and known for their sharp acidic flavor and color. Currently, chilies are used throughout the world as a spice and also in the making of beverages and medicines.

If some varieties of chilies are famous for red color because of the pigment 'capsanthin,' others are known for biting pungency.

Christopher Columbus, the founder of America, was one of the first Europeans who encountered and consumed chili, and called it pepper due to the similarity in taste.

The chili crop came to the Asian continent as late as the 16th century with the identification of new sea routes by the Portuguese and the Spanish explorers.

It became popular in the whole of Asia rapidly and native Asians started cultivating this crop as well. The south Asian climate suited this vegetable crop, and since then a large percentage of chili production has shifted to Asia. Today, the most sharp and valued varieties of chilies are grown in Asia only.

Soups, stews, sauces, chutney, curry - all can be improved by the addition of either fresh chilies or chili powder.

Chilies can be dried, bottled, pickled or frozen, although not all types are suitable for all purposes.

Neither drying, cooking nor freezing causes chilies to loose their pungency. Chili peppers are also used for ornament - either the plant with ripe fruit, or the dried ripe chilies threaded on a string to make a ristra.

There are many species of capsicum which yield pungent fruits, and most are used in cooking somewhere in the world. The ones listed below are the most important, and have distinctive qualities. Chilies have a sour flavor which is essential for many Mexican and Indian recipes. Jalapeno, Serrano and Cayenne peppers belong here.

Medium hot chilies often with a pronounced fruity flavor, enhance their culinary value.

Capsicum baccatum varieties keep in good condition for a remarkable length of time, either on or off the plant, effectively extending the fresh chili season by 6 or 8 weeks. This is the species that produce the searing hot Habanero and Scotch Bonnet chilies. There are also much milder varieties, and most, hot or mild, share a distinctive fruity flavor. They tend to need a long growing season and plenty of warmth. Widely grown in the Caribbean, each island seems to have its own varieties selected to suit local taste.

The importance of this species lies with its most famous variety - Tabasco. Revered for its hot smoky flavor, it is the basis of the chili sauce of same name. It needs a long growing season and so is something of a challenge in areas, which do not enjoy long hot summers.

The vigorous plants are distinctive with furry stems and purple flowers. The thick walled juicy chilies have black seeds and tend to be of medium heat.

Chili seed should be germinated at around 25 to 30∞C, at which temperature seedlings of most varieties will appear in about 7 to 10 days. They also need warm temperatures for growing on - certainly higher than those required by tomato plants. If the temperature is too low, the leaves will be twisted and mottled with pale patches as if the plant were suffering from a virus. They will, however, recover from this when the weather improves and temperatures pick up.

In the UK, the best crop will be obtained from plants grown in a glasshouse, but they can also succeed as patio plants or in a warm spot in the vegetable garden.

The pungency, or hotness, of a chili is generally defined in Scovilles. This is a measure of the degree of dilution needed for the pungency of a chili to be undetectable.

As a guide, 10 grams of chilies with a rating of 100,000 Scoville units should be undetectable in one ton of food. It should, however, be remembered that the pungency of a chili depends on its degree of ripeness and on the growing conditions.

Chilies grown in the UK with its cool summers and low light intensities may be less pungent than those grown in the tropics.

The pungent element in chilies is a chemical called capsaicin; pure capsaicin has a Scoville rating of 16 million units. Eating hot chilies triggers the release of Endorphins within the body. These are natural painkillers and contribute to the feeling of well being associated with eating spicy food.

For the choicest varieties, it is necessary to go to a specialist seed supplier - but then the choice is overwhelming. Bear in mind that the flavour is every bit as important as the pungency.

The best chili con carne is made with a lot of well flavored mild or medium hot chilies. All chilies can be used in their ripe state. Some are also excellent when green. Chilies, which develop plenty of flavor in the unripe fruit, offer an earlier crop as well as two products for the price of one. Growing one's own means a generous supply.

Chili is a much simpler crop to cultivate. It can survive on different soil types and in several climatic conditions. But, the best output of this crop is obtained when it is grown on deep, loamy, fertile soil with appropriate moisture content. The soil is ploughed properly at the time of planting of the crop.

It has a short duration period of three to four months. As said earlier, in the Indian subcontinent, chilies are produced throughout the year.

Two crops are produced in a year, in each dry and wet season in the country. The dry season extends from mid-March to August, in which the rainfall level is much lower than other parts of the year. That's why chili crop requires proper irrigation in this season. The seeds or the seedlings are planted in April and harvested in the month of August. On the other hand, wet season starts from August and ends in December. This season is accompanied with a good amount of rainfall and the crop is planted as and when the rainfall occurs. Harvesting of the crop takes place in December and chilies start reaching the major markets in February and March. Watering and harvesting are of utmost importance for proper growth of the crop.

Regular and appropriate watering is required when the chili plant is at its sprouting stage. Harvesting of the green chili crop is done when the pods are green and matured. The red chili crop has to be harvested late when the green pods dry up and 80 per cent of those become red.

Both green and dry chilies are produced all over the world.

The world production of chili crop sums up to around seven million tones, cultivated on approximately 1.5 million hectares of land.

India is the world leader in chili production followed by China and Pakistan. This shows that the bulk share of chili production is held by the Asian countries, though it is produced throughout the world. A large demand for chili comes from several chili-consuming countries as it forms a part of cuisines of various cultures and is also used as a coloring agent.

Most of its demand is generated in the food-processing sector. The world production of chilies has been increasing and there has been a significant rise in the production level since the late 1990s. India accounts for 11 lakh tones of annual production followed by China (around four lakh tones), and Mexico and Pakistan (around three lakh tones each).

The following countries are the major consumers of chilies with India again leading the list: India, China, Mexico, Thailand, the USA, the UK, Germany, Pakistan and Sweden.

The major chili exporters along with their percentage share in the world's total exports are India (25 per cent), China (24 per cent), Spain (17 per cent), Mexico (8 per cent), Pakistan (7.2 per cent), Morocco (7 per cent), and Turkey (4.5 per cent).