Most people are attracted to Indian food for two reasons. Lots of flavor and lots of heat. Most of my cooking focuses on flavor, but if you want to get the heat, you should know a thing or two about chilies. There are all types of chilies to choose from but I wanted to see what is commonly found in the Indian stores. So I took a trip over to the Indian stores in my area and they sold three types of chilies: Jalapeño, Serrano and Thai chilies, all of which look somewhat similar.
Typically, the smaller the chili, the spicier it is. I like to use Thai chilies when going for lots of spice, which happen to be the smallest out of the three. When I just want the flavor of chilies without the heat, I like to use Serrano chilies. I never use Jalapeños in Indian cooking unless I’m sprinkling them on top of pizza. It can often be hit or miss when using chilies. Sometimes you’ll buy a batch that isn’t very spicy and sometimes they are eye-watering. You can usually tell by the smell of the chili, it should smell, well, spicy.
Dried Chilies & Chili Powder
There is also dried red chilies, which can be bought whole or as red chili powder. I’ve recently discovered that red chili powder comes in two forms at the Indian store. One is labeled “Red Chili Powder” and the other is labeled “Red Chili Powder – Extra Hot”. I bought a small bag of the extra hot just to see how it was and they are not kidding, it is seriously spicy. So do keep an eye out for which kind you are buying, you could be buying more than you bargained for.
Once you’ve got your chilies, there are a few ways to prepare them. The spice of a chili is concentrated in the pith, the inside of chili. Not the seeds but the membrane that holds the seeds. Of course, the seeds and outer skin are spicy but the inner membrane packs most of the punch. If I want to add the flavor of chili without the heat, I’ll scrape out the membrane and just use the outer skin.
One time I made the mistake of scraping out the membrane with my fingernail and for the next two days I had to try to ignore the burning that emanated from under my nail. So I recommend using a spoon.
Types of Chilies
Jalapeño peppers are rarely used in Indian cooking, but since they are available at Indian stores I thought I would add them here just so you know what they look like compared to the others.
Serrano chilies are Mexican chilies and I used to cook with these all the time before I discovered Thai chilies. Serrano chilies are smaller than Jalapeño peppers but larger than Thai chilies.
Thai chilies are what I use most often, I usually use only two or three in each recipe for some mild heat. One chili will add just a hint of chili flavor and more than two or three will pack quite a punch!
Does anyone know the type of chili used in Mirch Pakoras (Chili Fritters)? I know it’s got to be a more mild chili and my Indian store doesn’t seem to carry them. Are they only available in India?