When I was growing up, I heard the same thing over and over again from my Maa. She said “it’s not good to eat a lot of red chilli powder” and she added green chilies to everything she cooked, reserving the red chili powder for the unavoidable dishes. The theory was, too much of it can rip off your stomach lining and cause ulcers. I never asked Maa how much was too much, as at the time I was quite uninterested in cooking myself. Recently I heard the same thing from one of my friends; suddenly I thought about reading up on the truth about red chili powder and deciding based on fact rather than hearsay as to whether it is indeed harmful.
Chilies (which Americans call chili peppers although chilies are not peppers), are originally from the South America and are an indispensable item in South America and Asian cuisine. Although introduced to India and Asia much later by the Portuguese, chilies rapidly gained extreme popularity across all of Asia. Indeed, I cannot imagine my kitchen without having my stock of fresh green chilies and also a jar full of red hot powdered red chilies.
Chilies, both fresh and dried, are rich in nutrition. The main component responsible for the fumes which come out of your nostrils and ears after you consume chilies is called capsaicin. Capsaicin is responsible for releasing endorphins (the pleasure hormones), maybe explaining why some people (like my husband) are quite addicted to hot foods. From a medical perspective, capsaicin has long been used in rubs and ointments as an analgesic and pain killer. Further, capsaicin is known to have anti-bacterial component and believed to be anti-carcinogenic for certain types of gut cancers. It also helps in digestion if eaten in moderate quantity. This resolves the apparent paradox that Naga jolokias, the world’s hottest peppers, are used by some tribes in Northeast India as a cure for stomach ailments. Apart from capsaicin, chilies in general are rich in antioxidants like Vitamin A and contain a large amount of Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C.
Coming back to where we started- why do chilies have such bad reputation then? Why are my Maa and my friend so cautious about using it? Looks like they had no clue what they were talking about. It’s one of those things which you learn from your mother which she learnt from her mother and the theory goes from one generation to another without being exposed to the scalpel of rationality (knowing the adulteration culture in India, red chili powders are contaminated with inedible/harmful ingredients like colored saw dust, the warning from my friend, my grandma and my mom might have a background there).
First myth: Green chilies are healthier than red chilies: Wrong. There are no significant differences between the two (although the vitamin C content might reduce while drying). The dried chilies are dehydrated, hence more concentrated in terms of heat. The drying changes the flavor as well.
Second myth: Red chili powder is bad for you: Wrong. If you are familiar with the word ‘moderation’, you are more likely to benefit from it than being harmed. So, turn up the heat and enjoy the endorphin release, just don’t go overboard. Too much of anything is bad, even water. So, don’t blame the harmless chilli powder – blame your measuring spoon instead. And yes, did I tell you how easy it is to make your own chili powder? It takes just a few minutes and you can be certain that there is no adulteration.
Organic, free range chicken: around 2.5 lbs.
Tomatoes: two medium, vine ripened, chopped
Garlic: three medium cloves (a little more will add extra flavor if you are a garlic lover like me) very finely minced
Preferably mustard oil: 2 tbsp. (replace it with olive oil if you do not have mustard oil)
Red chili powder/cayenne pepper powder: 1 tbsp. or more if you like it to be hot (the tartness of the tomatoes will cut back on the heat a lot)
Turmeric: ½ tsp. (optional)
Water: 11/2 cups (adjust to your liking)
Salt to taste
- Heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot/kadai. If you are using mustard oil, do not let it smoke, it will destroy all the nutrition. Let it heat up on medium flame. This is a very important step.
- Once the oil is hot, remove the pot from the fire and add the garlic. Let the garlic sizzle in the warm oil for 10-15 seconds. Put the pot back on fire.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and add a tea spoon of salt. Mix it well. Let the tomatoes sweat a bit and then break the tomatoes with the spoon a little bit. It will help the tomatoes cook faster.
- Add the red chili powder/cayenne pepper and the turmeric (if using). Again mix them well. Keep stirring the paste every so often until the raw taste of the tomatoes is almost gone (around 5 minutes).
- Add the chicken (try to tap the moisture a bit) and mix them well with the spices. Turn the heat to high and stir the chicken very often to dry up the water released from the meat.
- Once you see that the excess water is gone and the spices have taken a paste like consistency and hugging the meat, you know you are ready to add water.
- Add around a cup of hot water, add salt and give it a good stir.
- Let the whole thing come to a boil and reduce the heat again to medium. Cook it until the meat is done and the gravy has reached almost its desired consistency.
- Let the chicken rest for at least 15-20 minutes before serving (if possible). That way, the meat will absorb the flavor and the gravy will come to its desired consistency.
- Serve piping hot with roti or any bread of your choice (can be eaten with rice but it will taste better with bread). Dip the breads in the gravy and enjoy.