Chillis (lal mirchi), also spelt chili, chile and chillie are the fruits of the capsicum plant and comes in many varieties.
Technically the fruits are berries but are mostly used as a vegetable or a spice. There are three basic varieties of the capsicum plant - large, mild bell peppers that you would chop and eat raw in a salad, large & pointy sweet peppers, which are more flavoursome and again can be eaten raw or cooked, and small, hot chillis that are the ones used for Indian food.
Within each of these broad classes there are many many varieties, and new ones are being bred all the time.
The heat of the pepper comes from the substance capsaicin, a chemical which binds with pain receptors in the mouth that are normally responsible for sensing heat. The 'hotness' of chillis is measured on the Scoville scale in Scoville Heat Units. Pure capsaicin has a value of 16million SHU.
At the very bottom of the scale is the bell pepper which rate 0 - no heat. We climb the scale through pimentos and Jalapenos gradually getting hotter; cayenne peppers rate about 40,000 or so - still pretty mild. We get to the hot stuff like Habanero and Scotch bonnet and we are getting up to 300,000 or more, the red savina can be over 500,000. But fairly recently a new breed was created called the Dorset naga, also known as Ghost pepper or Bhut Jolokia. This is somewhere round the 1 million mark. (Anyone foolish enough to eat a whole one of these, and I suspect that this is not actually possible, would require medical treatment.)
The moral of this is to beware what you buy; look at the label or ask the shopkeeper. I tend to stick to medium strength chillis for most of the time - you can always use more if you want to spice it up.
I often hear a lot of nonsense about the difference between red and green chillis. Simply they start out green and then they ripen to red. As they ripen they get a little sweeter but they don't really loose their heat as some would suggest. The variety that you use has a far greater influence than the colour.
It is not at all native to India or indeed the east, but originated in the Americas. It is known to have been cultivated for over 6000 years in various parts of South and Central America.
They were discovered during the voyages of Columbus and taken back to Europe; from there they found there way to the East where they were quickly adopted as part of the local cuisines. So in the grand scheme of things they are a relatively recent inclusion in Indian food - a mere 500 years or so.
Chilli in some form or other is used in a great deal of Indian food. It can be bought whole and fresh, either red or green; it can be whole but dried, and it can be bought crushed or powdered. You will find, both on this site and elsewhere, recipes that call for every one of the different forms.
It is most common to use either fresh or powdered. The whole dried form is usualy either crushed or ground before use, like most spices they will keep longer like this than the powder.
There are differences in flavour between dried and fresh chillies; fresh they are primarily hat with some sweetness, the drying process will intensify the flavours giving caramel and smokey flavours.
Whole chillis are often eaten in India particularly in the South. They can be eaten raw (but stick to the milder varieties) or deep fried as a pakora, or fried in oil with spices. More typically they are used as part of a curry dish where they can be chopped or mashed up.
If you want to tone down a chilli then remove the seeds and also the little ribs inside that carry the seeds.
If you use powder then you should always make sure it is well cooked. Never just throw some more powder in at the end to spice up a dish, this will heat up the dish but it will also irritate your digestive system.
If you find a dish a little too fearsome then eating rice or bread will help; these mop up the oils carrying the active spice. Drinking water, beer or wine won't help much but milk will (milk has a protein, casein which absorbs the capsaicin). Cucumber Raita, (a mixture if cucumber, yoghurt, salt and sugar) is also excellent. If you have really overdone it then try a spoonful of sugar.
If you grow your own or happen to buy to many, the best way to preserve them is drying - they keep for years like this with no apparent change and they are ready to use .
I dry chillis (and other things) in the oven - put it on very low (100°C) spread them out on a baking tray and leave the oven door open, it only takes about 10 - 15 mins and it doesn't cook them at all. Bear in mind that sizes of the fruit and type of oven are all factors so check that they are not burning after 10 mins and keep an eye on them every 2 or 3 mins after that. If they are big and fleshy then it is best to slice them in half first, this ensures that the inside dries out properly, if moisture is left in them they may start to rot.
You also may like to consider whether you want to remove the seeds before you dry them. This is much easier to do before you dry them than afterwards.
Chillis are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and are good source of vitamins particularly C, A, K, B6, Niacin and Riboflavin, They also contain Iron, potassium and manganese, and are a good source of fibre.
Capsaicin may turn out to be something os a wonder drug, it is good for blood cholesterol levels and is an anticoagulant; it is also an analgesic which can be used to manage arthritis pain. Research has also shown that it could help diabetics to start producing insulin again, and it has been shown to kill certain cancer cells.
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