Shaded from both the sunlight and the moon’s glow by leafy branches, the occupied tables scattered outside the Nagaland Kitchen in Dilli Haat are invariably laden with two items: the ubiquitous momos and an innocuous reddish-brown curry served with a bowl of steamed rice. Despite its watery appearance, the dish, Pork with Raja Mircha, a chilly native to the Northeast, is as fiery as the belly of a dragon, which is no surprise given that the raja mircha, known as bhut jolokia in Assamese, is one of the spiciest chillies in the world. People take a bite, gasp, chew, gasp some more, and then keep eating, usually washed down with copious amounts of fruit beer.
It was from these government sanctioned surroundings, that the cult of the raja mircha spread, first to Northeastern eateries such as Nagaland’s Kitchen and Rosaang Cafe, and then appearing in supporting roles at cafes such as Cafe Lota, ranging from traditional curries and roasts to contrivances such as Bhut Jolokia Tandoori Chicken Drumsticks at Oh My God Cafe, Delhi. And now after a finger-licking Raja Mircha Pork appeared on the menu of Delhi’s Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, the first instance of it in an establishment restaurant. With this, the raja mircha has arrived, and it’s been a long time coming.
But first, we have got to thank the Portuguese. Apart from their contributions to the fields of cartography and generally discovering the world, the nation of navigators disseminated a cornucopia of crops across the globe, for example introducing chillies to India at the then Portuguese colony of Goa in the 15th century. After spicing up the beach state, the piquant pod scattered its seeds across the length and breadth of the country, growing and diversifying into a sort of capsaicin kaleidoscope over the centuries, including varieties like the bhut jolokia, and became an integral part of our cuisine, nay, diet.
Meanwhile, a far more recent conquest has been by the piri piri or peri peri, the African bird’s eye chilli, which was brought to the dark continent from South America by, you guessed it, the Portuguese. Like the bhut jolokia in the Northeast, the peri peri became essential to various African cuisines, including that of South Africa. So when South African-based Portuguese restaurant brand Nando’s, famed for their Peri Peri Chicken, opened shop in India a few years ago, it was little surprise that peri peri was suddenly en vogue, graduating to a staple Continental seasoning once Indians found it suitably hot.
Smoke House Deli was one of the first restaurants to introduce peri peri in their menus in Delhi and Mumbai by rubbing it on grilled chicken and preceding Nando’s by three years. Today, a peri peri chicken or white fish is almost de rigueur on any decent European menu.
According to Smoke House Deli Brand Chef Shamsul Wahid, peri peri works because it has just the right balance. “It’s not as intense as a bhut jolokia nor as mild as a jalapeno, it’s somewhere in the middle. It also combines well with garlic and olive oil, which makes for a great marinade. That being said, it needs room to play so it has to be the star ingredient of a dish, too many other elements will spoil the balance,” he says. What makes it most attractive to chefs though is its consistency. “Even buying local chillies is a bit of a gamble because their heat levels vary greatly, while the peri peri is uniform in its intensity, ensuring that dishes maintain their consistency, something vital to restaurants,” says Wahid, “Also, I think people just really like the name.”