One of the distinctive qualities of Indian food is its “hotness”. From Manipur to Bijapur to Bilaspur, across India, you’ll find foods that are spicy in varying degrees.
Several culinary dishes have chilli in them in some form or the other. In a number of Indian homes and restaurants, it is customary to serve raw or semi-fried green chillies as an accompaniment to the main course.
Steaming hot curries, thick sambars with a variety of vegetables, different kinds of bhaaths (rice dishes), mutton rassas, onion pakodas, bhajjis, and hundreds of other dishes just cannot be imagined without chilli in them.
A tempering of red chillies can make even a bland dish look appealing and add zest to it.
Across the world, chillies are known by various names—chile, hot peppers, cayenne peppers, paprika, bell peppers, and capsicum—to name a few. However, in general, chillies are the smaller-sized, more pungent type, while the larger, mild to moderate variety are the different kinds of peppers.
The story of how the chili reached Europe is an interesting one. In the 15th century, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain looking for a spice route between Asia and Europe. In particular, he was searching for what people back then called “black gold”—black peppercorns.
They were considered to be a valuable commodity and he was determined to carry some back to Spain. Instead of finding a spice route, though, he ended up discovering America.
During the course of his voyages, he came upon a spicy plant known locally as aji on the shores of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It’s also called pimiento chile, which Columbus thought to mean chilli peppers. He carried it back to Spain where it grew to be a famous spice and later made its way to various other countries.
Chilli arrived in India in 1498 through the Portugese explorer Vasco da Gama. It blended well in Indian cooking and grew to be popular here. Chillies are now so abundantly grown in India that they are an important item for export. India is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of chilli, sending it to countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, and others across the world.
Today, there are more than 400 different varieties of chillies found all over the world. Some of the “hottest” chillies are grown in India.
The “hotness” of a chilli is due to a component present in it called capsaicin. Unlike what most people believe, it’s not the chilli seeds or flakes that make it spicy. Rather, it’s inner membrane inside the chilli that contributes to the pungency.
The Scoville heat scale is a universal standard that measures the spiciness or the hotness of the capsaicin component in a chilli.
Here are some of the most popular ones—in increasing order of their “hotness” or in official terms, their Scoville Heat Units.
Tomato chillies: Also called Warangal Chappatta because they originate from the Warangal district of Telangana, these chillies are roundish and deep red in colour. They are mild in flavour and used in cuisines for their colour. Also, as they are small in size, they make for good tempering ingredients.
Scoville Heat Units: Zero
Kashmiri mirch: Don’t be misled by the name. These cells are not exclusive to Kashmir, in fact, they are also grown in Himachal Pradesh and Telangana. They are mildly pungent, with a fruity flavour and are bright red in colour. It’s the vibrancy of the colour that’s the USP of these chillies. They can be used in the form of dried flakes or a fine powder or even as a paste.
As Meha Desai, who often experiments with Asian cooking and writes about all kinds of food on her blog, says, “I prefer using Kashmiri chillies for making chilli pastes because they give a nicer, redder colour and are marginally less spicy than other varieties I've eaten. I use them for chilli-garlic pastes that can be used to make a dipping sauce for dumplings or added atop a bowl of ramen.”
Scoville Heat Units: Less than 2000
Reshampatti: These chillies are maroon in colour, short, and broad. They are grown in Gujarat and often used in powdered form in cuisines, as chutneys or as stuffed pickles. The vibrant red powder lends an attractive touch to the food. They are medium pungent.
Scoville Heat Units: 1500 to 2500
Mundu chillies: These are round, yellowish-scarlet red in colour, “hot” and somewhat pungent. They are also known as Gundu molzuka or Ramnad mundu, after the Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu where they are grown. These chillies are often used in Chettinad cuisine. Though not much spicy, their appeal lies in the unique flavour which enhances the taste of dishes.
Scoville Heat Units: 5000 to 30,000
Byadagi chillies: These originated from Byadagi region in Haveri district of Karnataka but are today grown in various other parts of Karnataka as well as Goa.
They have an aromatic, mild pungency. These chillies are used in ripened form—the skin is wrinkled red in colour on ripening.
An integral part of Kannadiga cuisine, their popularity has now transcended the state boundary. They are now noticeable across India in various cuisines. For instance, it’s quite popular in Konkani cuisine.
Seema Chimbalkar, owner of a successful food catering business, swears by Byadagi chillies for her traditional Konkani dishes. Originally from Konkan, she’s now settled in Mumbai.
“You just cannot replicate that distinctive flavour in the dish with some other chilli,” she insists. She sources authentic Byadagi chillies from her trusted local kirana stores.
“You have to be careful. Sometimes, they adulterate the sacks of the original with other chillies and pass it off as Byadagi, “ she says.
An interesting trivia about this chilli is that the oil extracted from it is used in nail paints and lipsticks.
Scoville Heat Units: 8000 to 15,000
Jwala chillies: In many Indian dialects, jwala means a strong flame. The sound of food made with it could fill you with dread—of perhaps being burned by the chilli.
Though grown mainly in Gujarat, they can also be found in other parts of the country. They are initially green, then become orange and finally bright red upon ripening. They are very spicy.
The bottled green chilli sauces that you find in stores use these chillies.
Scoville Heat Units: 20,000 to 30,000
Sannam chillies: Sannam chillies come in many varieties and are grown primarily in Andhra Pradesh (Guntur district to be precise) and in states such as Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. These chillies when ripe and dried are dark red, quite pungent, and impart strong spicy flavour to the dishes. They are rich in vitamin C and protein.
Scoville Heat Units: 35,000 to 40,000
Ellachipur Sannam is the variety of Sannam that is grown in Amravati district of Maharashtra. These are mostly consumed in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Nagpur. Another variety called Sangli Sannam can be found in Kolhapur, Maharashtra.
Guntur Sannam is the variety grown in Andhra Pradesh. The famed pungent Andhra cuisine often uses these chillies.
Madhya Pradesh too grows the Sannam in some of its areas. The MP variety is called G.T Sannam.
Bird’s Eye chilli (Dhani): Grown in the Northeast but available across India, these are tiny but very spicy. Initially green, they can ripen to orange or deep red.
As Desai says, “These are good to add to your Asian salad or summer rolls or pho bowl or dipping sauce variant. I also make a hot sauce with chillies, oil and vinegar that stays good in the fridge for upto three months.”
Scoville Heat Units: 30,000 to 100,000
Kanthari chillies: They are little ivory white chillies, grown in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. These are highly pungent. Besides being used in chutneys and pickles, these are often soaked in yoghurt and salt, and then sun-dried. They are sometimes called “Bird's eye pepper”.
Scoville Heat Units: 50,000 to 100,000
Teja chillies: These are grown in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat. They are small in size and bright red in colour.
They are often used in the form of fine powder, than whole.
Scoville Heat Units: 75000 to 110000
Dalley chilli or dalle khursani: These small round chillies, also called cherry pepper, are grown in Darjeeling. They are popular not just in Northeast but also in Nepal, where they are an important ingredient in chutneys.
One of the distinctive features of this chilli is that it is consumed fresh when ripe and not in dried form. Whether in soups, dals, chutneys or pickles, it is the fresh red chillies that are used.
Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 to 350 000
Naga Jolokia/Bhut Jolokia/Ghost Pepper: Originally grown in Tezpur, Assam, these chillies are popular in Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.
These are often dried, pickled, or used as is by the locals in these Northeastern states. The Naga Jolokia is now officially graded as the hottest chilli in the world. It has a distinct aroma and renders a fiery flavour to the cuisine.
Scoville Heat Units: 85,5000 to 1,041,427
Besides these varieties of Indian chillies, there are some international ones that are popular too.
Habanero chili pepper: These are Mexican chilli peppers often used in sauces, salad dressings, and bottled hot sauces. They offer medicinal benefits, such as lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
Scoville Heat Units: 100,000 - 350,000
Dundicut chillies: These are grown in Pakistan and are small and round in shape. This chilli is an essential ingredient in Pakistani cuisine, earning the moniker “National chilli of Pakistan”.
Besides the local cuisines, it is also used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian cooking especially curries and marinades. The chilli is typically used in dried form. It imparts a mild fruity and yet spicy aroma.
Scoville Heat Units: 55,000 to 65,000
Santaka chili pepper: Grown in Japan, these chilli peppers are small in size but pack a punch with their pungency. They are popular in Japanese and Chinese cooking. They are added whole (fresh or dried) to the dishes or in the form of dried flakes or powder. These chillies are also suitable for making hot pepper oils.
Scoville Heat Units: 40,000 to 50,000
Tabasco pepper: Who hasn’t heard of Tabasco sauce? The crucial ingredient in the sauce is Tabasco pepper. The colour of these chilli peppers is creamy yellow to red.
Scoville Heat Units: 30,000 - 50,000.