Monthly Specials: The Case For Indian Hot Sauce

Bhut jolokia

Nagaland’s bhut jolokia pepper is a popular hot sauce ingredient. Photo: Xaime Mendez via Wikimedia Commons.

I have a collection of about 20 hot sauces from places around the world like New Orleans, Tokyo and Cape Town with names such as Blow Me, Dave’s Insanity, Froggin’s Habanero Hot Thai Me, Kaiminari Super Hot Pepper Sauce, Kiss of Fire the Ultimate XXX and Rick’s Ragin’ Blazin’. My nephews frequently challenge me to eat undiluted spoonfuls. But these are the ones I’d really be excited to have in my collection: Borma Blaze, Bullet & Bugayati, Hot Hungarian Wax, Jwala Pants on Fire and Searing Sadabahar.

I’ve named these fantasy hot sauces after varieties of chillies grown in India. (See the list of chilli names on page 15 of a report by the Indian Ministry of Agriculture and make up your own imaginary brands.) They don’t currently exist. But they should. If we can have hot sauces from around the globe that are named after the primary chilli pepper that gives them flavour – chipotle, habanero, scotch bonnet and, most famously, tabasco – then why can’t we do the same with Indian mirchis that also have very fun names? Why did an American import the bhut jolokia and put it into a sauce before an Indian did? Where are our cheekily-labelled bottles of Agni Agony, Hurtin’ Harmal and Pure Punjab Lal?

Chillies arrived in India in the fifteenth century through Portuguese trade. Today, India is the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter. We grow 36 per cent of global supply. (China is a far second, at 11 per cent.) We have chilli-based pickles and condiments aplenty, from Rajasthan’s stuffed red chilli pickle and Himachali chamba chukh to Maharashtrian thecha, Kerala’s kanthari chillies in brine, and Assam’s jolokia asar. Perhaps because of this, we don’t quite have a culture of consuming hot sauce. Most of our spicy bottled sauces are tomato-based or Chinese-style or poor copies of Tabasco, thickened with emulsifiers and mass produced by multinational food corporations. The Wikipedia entry listing hot sauce styles mentions India once, as an influence for a sauce in Malaysia. The United Kingdom and New Zealand, on the other hand, have a few to their name.

Like me, there are a few people who think it’s time this changed. Indian hot sauces would be an ideal way to educate ourselves and the world about Indian chillies for a number of reasons are delicious, adaptable and travel easily because they’ve been naturally preserved by way of techniques such as fermentation, smoking or cooking, and ingredients like salt, sugar and vinegar. And, significantly, there’s no dearth of choice.

“With the genetic variety available here, India is the second centre of chillies in the world [after Central and South America],” said Nijagunadev Gaddagimath, the managing director and founder of Sarpan Hybrid Seeds in Dharwad, Karnataka. He’s known by farmers everywhere for his three decades worth of research on genus Capsicum Annuum L. aka the common mirchi. “We have over 350 cultivars in India and several variants under each,” he said in a phone interview. “The byadagi, similar to paprika, alone has 150 variants.” Does this mean we have tens of thousands of varieties? Gaddagimath believes that it’s safe to say this. “We’ve neglected the chilli,” he said. “Unlike bell peppers, hot peppers are highly cross-pollinating plants, so we’re losing some of the characteristics of the original cultivars and we have to bring them back.”

Thankfully, over the last few years, a few people have been attempting to make hot sauces using purely Indian chillies, for sale both within the country and abroad. Six months ago, I met Manjusha Barua. She had recently quit her job with a big oil company in Delhi and decided to convert a passion project into an serious enterprise: celebrating the bhut jolokia from her home state of Assam. She’d like everybody to know about this thin-skinned, intensely hot chilli pepper (with a rating of one million Scoville heat units) that is also deeply fruity, smoky, sweet and can be bright green, red, yellow, orange or chocolate brown.

Barua wanted to make a hot sauce for almost every kind of food we eat in India, from samosas and pizzas to salad dressing and as a marinade for fish or meat. To this end, in 2016, she launched East by North East, which sells three kinds: a sweet variant with 4.5 per cent of bhut puree and flakes and garlic puree, all suspended in sugar syrup; a hot variety akin to sriracha with 7.2 per cent of bhut puree; and an extra hot variety with 25 per cent of bhut puree. They’re delicious and I worked through each of them quickly. In Mumbai, East by North East is available at Hypercity in Malad, Foodhall in Phoenix Mills in Lower Parel and some outlets of Godrej Nature’s Basket.

“The tradition here is either chutneys or pickles,” said Alex Sanchez, executive chef at Colaba fine-dining establishment The Table. “At our restaurant, people were asking for Tabasco. As a restaurant that prides itself on making everything in house, it seemed odd and wrong to give stuff out of a bottle.” Sanchez uses what his cooks describe as fresh “chhotta laalwala (small red) chillies”. Four apprentices de-seed them to prevent the sauce from becoming bitter. The staff then ferments the chillies in brine for as long as they can (before the previous batch runs out, typically a month or two). To the ferment, they add vinegar and water and puree and strain it, and then season it. I’ve had The Table’s bright orange hot sauce with their tacos, and I’ve had it at home, poured over khakhra. It’s the stuff of addictions, and it’s often available via food delivery app Scootsy.

Sanchez thinks it will take someone who has lived abroad and has a favourite hot sauce to come here and develop it. That someone could be Sahil Timbadia, self-described chilli-head and co-owner of the bars Jamjar Diner in Andheri and Bonobo in Bandra. A little over a year ago, Timbadia developed a chilli jam for customers, which can also be bought via food delivery app Swiggy on which it’s listed as JJ’s Hot Sauce. It’s made from roasted and caramelised sweet bell peppers, chillies and sugar.

Because, like at The Table, it’s handcrafted, there’s a bit of variation in each batch, the flavour of which depends on the season, the heat level of the chillies and the sweetness of the peppers. Jamjar’s sauce has body. It starts out slightly sweet, and a few seconds later, makes you buzz with endorphins that dissipate into a comfortable warmth. “It has a hit, not a burn,” said Timbadia, using the language of chilli geeks. “In hot sauce you need to balance salt, acid and heat.”

Another person driving the movement for local hot sauces is Devansh Jhaveri, the founder of Mafia Chef. Jhaveri lived in the US for seven years before returning to India in 2008 when he realised that it was impossible to get your hands on a bottle of sriracha here. So he decided to do something about it and launched his own variant of the cult sweet and spicy chilli garlic sauce (sriracha is not a trademarked or copyrighted name) that he called Mafia Chef and sells via Amazon.in and Facebook. Mafia Chef’s sauces are created from a secret blend of three varieties of chillies grown on Jhaveri’s organic farm in Valsad. He says each has a different taste profile so the sauce has a more full-bodied flavour, hitting different notes of heat.

Jhaveri ferments the chillies for a year, and uses sea salt and demerara sugar for seasoning. Next, he’s bringing out sambal oelek (red) and sambal hijau (green), Indonesian sauces made with Indian chillies. Soon after, Mafia Chef will offer a mango bhut jolokia, featuring mangoes from Jhaveri’s farm and pickled bhut from Assam, and a piri piri-style sauce, made with a mix of byadagi and guntur chillies, as well as a green sriracha. A black sriracha is currently being tested, as is a sriracha dry seasoning.

“No purist will accept a tomato-based sauce,” said Jhaveri. “They’ll think of it as an extended cousin of ketchup.” His dream is to have a sriracha festival in India, like the one in Los Angeles. It’s one of dozens of fiery foods festivals around the world. It’s astonishing that we don’t have one of our own. The closest is the Naga King Chilli eating competition at the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland at which men and women try to hold back tears as they eat one raw chilli after another.

HOT LIST
Here are a few hot sauces that can be bought online.

Bhut Jolokia Hot Sauce by Pico
According to this story, Nicole Gonsalves, corporate chef at Pico, developed 30 sauces before arriving at the recipe for this product. Face masks and boiler suits were involved. Unsurprisingly, it delivers a wallop of heat.
Rs99 for 105 grams. Buy it here and here.

Bhut jolokia sauce by Sprig
Sprig’s is one of the few sauces that advertises its SHU rating: 75,000. (Tabasco’s original red sauce is between 2,500 and 5,000 SHUs.). The 1 million SHUs of the chillies are tempered down to this number with vinegar, salt, sugar and spices to make sure it doesn’t blow a hole in our throats.
Rs299 for 100 ml. Buy it here.

Chuka Seriously Hot Sauce Naga Mircha by Zatara Foods
Zatara Foods was founded in Nagaland by Sonam Inoka Khulu, Washipong Longkumer and Sentinaro Alley to produce and market local Naga foods all over the country. They also sell axone (fermented soybean) in chilli oil and a nutty chilli sauce.
Rs198 for 60 ml. Buy it here.

Delectables Fiery Chilli Sauce by Tangerine Co
Tangerine Co’s sauce looks mild – it’s runny, un-emulsified, slightly grainy and has no preservatives. But a few drops of it neat will clear sinuses and keep the middle of your tongue and the back of your throat warm and tingly for about 20 minutes (depending on your tolerance for heat). This is a very good starter sauce.
Rs200 for 250 grams. Buy it here.

Himachilli Chukh by Himalayan People
I don’t know too much about this (yet); my bottle will be delivered in a day or two. The label claims that the pickled cooked paste has been made using a 200-year old recipe that includes Chitrali chillies (named after the district in Khyber Pakhtunkwa in Pakistan) and gulgul citrus, which is a large lemon, described in Emperor Babur’s memoirs as having the shape of a goose egg, the smooth skin of a “sengtereh” and plenty of juice (according to the book The Cultivated Oranges and Lemons, Etc. of India and Ceylon written by Emanuel Bonavia, published in 1838). From the images, chukh looks more like a thecha or sambal-style coarse sauce. I’ll keep you posted on Instagram.
Rs155 for 200 grams. Buy it here.

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