CHILLI: AN IMPORTANT FOOD INGREDIENT

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

Feb 27 - Mar 4, 2012

Chilli 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. Chilli is also known as 'hot pepper' and capsicum as 'bell pepper'.

The Portuguese brought capsicum from Brazil to India during the year 1584. Chilli is a fruit of the plants 'capsicum annuum' and 'capsicum frutecens' 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, chillies are used throughout the world as a spice and also in the making of beverages and medicines. If some varieties of chillies 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 chilli, and called it pepper due to the similarity in taste. The chilli 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 chilli production has shifted to Asia. Today, the most sharp and valued varieties of chillies are grown in Asia only.

Soups, stews, sauces, chutney, curry - all can be improved by the addition of either fresh chillies or chilli powder. Chillies can be dried, bottled, pickled, or frozen, although not all types are suitable for all purposes.

Neither drying and cooking nor freezing causes chillies to loose their pungency. Chilli peppers are also used for ornament - either the plant with ripe fruit, or the dried ripe chillies 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, which recommend them to the keen cook.

Everything from sweet bell peppers to fiery hot chillies in a wide range of shapes and colors are found in this group. They generally have a rather sour flavor, which is essential for many Mexican and Indian recipes.

Medium hot chillies 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 chilli season by 6 or 8 weeks. They also freeze extremely well.

There are also much milder varieties, and most, hot or mild, share a distinctive fruity flavour. 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 chilli 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 chillies have black seeds and tend to be of medium heat. Chilli 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 is 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 chilli to be undetectable. At best an imprecise measurement it is also a subjective one, but still useful. As a guide, 10 grams of chillies 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 chilli depends on its degree of ripeness and on the growing conditions.

Chillies 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 chillies is a chemical called capsaicin; pure capsaicin has a Scoville rating of 16 million units. Eating hot chillies 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 flavor 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 chillies not one searingly hot one.

All chillies can be used in their ripe state. Some are also excellent when green. Chillies 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 - so choose varieties, which are the most versatile in the kitchen.

Chilli 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, chillies 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 chilli 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 chillies 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 chilli plant is at its sprouting stage. Harvesting of the green chilli crop is done when the pods are green and matured. The red chilli crop has to be harvested late when the green pods dry up and 80 per cent of those become red.

Both green and dry chillies are produced all over the world. The world production of chilli crop sums up to around seven million tons, which is cultivated on approximately 1.5 million hectares of land. India is the world leader in chilli production followed by China and Pakistan. This shows that the bulk share of chilli production is held by the Asian countries, though it is produced throughout the world. A large demand for chilli comes from several chilli-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 chillies has been increasing and there has been a significant rise in the production level since the late 1990s.

It has reached around seven million tons per year now from the figure of 2.5 million tons in the last decade.

India, the largest producer of chillies in the world, accounts for 11 lakh tons of annual production followed by China (around four lakh tons) and Mexico and Pakistan (around three lakh tons each). The countries that are the major consumers of chillies include India, China, Mexico, Thailand, the USA, the UK, Germany, Pakistan, and Sweden.

The major chilli 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 (eight per cent), Pakistan (7.2 per cent), Morocco (seven per cent), and Turkey (4.5 per cent).