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Three cheers for Tezpur chilli

MURDER, mayhem and infiltration in Kashmir. Drought in some parts of the nation, floods in others. The failure of economic liberalisation. Climbing inflation. Brigand Veerappan holding two States to ransom. Corruption everywhere. Cricket heroes exposed. No likelihood of medals at the Sydney Olympics. A gloomy picture, isn't it?

But my fellow Indians, don't despair, there's still a silver lining amid all these dark clouds. Do you know that the hottest chilli in the world is an Indian one? My heart puffed with pride when I read that four Indian scientists had discovered that a type of chilli grown in the north-eastern region had the highest scoville units pure capsaicin - a measure of hotness. What more can one ask for?

The chilli has been named "Tezpur chilli" after the area where it grows. In fact, our own Tezpur chilli has beaten Mexico's Red Savina Habanero, widely acclaimed so far as the hottest chilli in the world. Now, it is nowhere. Cry, Mexico, cry. I hope the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is briefed on the issue so that he can mention this remarkable development at the U.N. summit and also brief President Clinton, that India, as the possessor of the hottest chilli in the world, cannot be taken for granted. It is now way ahead of Pakistan.

Normally, I do not write about chillies. In fact, I do not like chilli all that much. As soon as I taste any kind of sambar, rasam or vegetable with a high chilli content, I go to a paroxym of vikkal (hiccups). Tears spring from my eyes and I have to drink tumblers of water to get rid of the burning sensation in the mouth and throat. No, sir, pungent food items are not for me.

Yet, a writer has to acknowledge India's breakthrough on the chilli front. As I began researching for this column, I realised that all varieties of chilli were not so unpalatable. During my early days as a stores clerk in Calico Mills, Ahmedabad, I found that most of the coolies working with me had a staple diet. Thick roti, raw onion and menacing chillies. They bit into the chillies with relish and did not hiccup. One of them offered to share his lunch with me and with trepidation, I bit into a fat chilli. Luckily, it was not pungent at all and had an acceptable flavour.

That opened my eyes to the wonderful world of chillies. As a news reporter chasing stories all over, I came to know that people who did hard labour had a different concept of calories and balanced food. The farmers of Kutch, the inland salt workers of Surendranagar, the weavers of Rajkot, the handcart pullers of Ahmedabad, male and female, had the same kind of lunch and dinner. Roti, onion and raw chilli. And they did hard manual labour from dawn to dusk.

My long years in Gujarat opened my eyes to the versatility of chilli. The region was full of varieties of chilli which were not pungent. Close to Nehru Bridge and adjoining the H. K. Arts College, there was a hawker who sold, "garam, garam, dal vada". This had to be eaten with raw chillies. An occasional chilli did bite and brought tears, but most of them were only mildly pungent and went along very well with the vadas. In Mumbai, the most popular dish, vada pav is also served with green chilli and the combination is terrific.

Of course, the chilli plays a major role in South Indian cuisine. Can you imagine aviyal without the flavour of the chilli? The famous lime rasam is also embellished with this flavour. The big, fat chillies which are less pungent are ideal for making bhajjis and one can relish the milagai bhajjis with hot coffee. Without the flavour and taste of chilli, how can one relish various kinds of pickles?

Even before Chandra Babu Naidu arrived and computerised everything, the Andhra chilli was something special. It left far behind the varieties from the rest of Tamil Nadu. I always ask for additional quantities of water while ordering lunch or dinner from Andhra Pradesh railway stations like Cuddapah. The meals usually sting the palate and if by accident you put some extra quantity of pickle into the mouth, you are quite likely to hit the roof of the compartment.

Never judge a chilli by its size. Often, the gundu (fat) milagai can be reasonably bland, while the tiny, puny oosi (needle) milagai, makes one experience hell! No wonder, a thin, small- built man with a vitriolic temper is referred to as oosi milagai! There cannot be any worse experience than biting into a hot chilli during the course of an enjoyable meal. It upsets the rhythm and harmony of the meal besides drawing tears from the eyes.

Of course, some chilli varieties can be soothing. Try fried thayir (curd) milagai with mor or thayir sadham for a light, wholesome meal. It is the same case with Mor milagai. Whenever I go to Matunga I get packets of thayir milagai' and it has become a family favourite. Chilli products have also established themselves in our daily routine. Can we imagine eating idli or dosai without milagaipodi (chilli powder) and gingely oil? Idlis soaked in milagaipodi and oil, can be eaten at any time, any place.

These days, we often use Kashmiri chilli for making different types of masalas. I don't know if these are actually grown in Kashmir. If the people of Kashmir, at some future date, opt for independence or more autonomy, will they deny us the pleasures of their famous chilli? Any future negotiations between India, Pakistan and Kashmiri leaders should consider this issue too.

With chilli being an integral part of Indian life, one cannot overestimate the impact of the hottest chilli in the world on the nation. I am sure, the much-neglected North-East will now get its due.

Tezpur should be declared a national shrine and foreigners kept away from there. Such will be our national pride on this issue that people who are referred to as oosi milagai can snap back, "So what? We are the best in the world. And the hottest. So keep away from us." General Pervez Musharraf, are you listening?


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