An Indian woman’s struggle to find the flavours from her childhood, in Europe

Image: Reuters/Babu
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Like most Indians, I am addicted to chillies and cannot do without them. At home there is no problem since green chillies come free along with a bunch of fresh coriander when one buys vegetables from the market, but when I have to travel abroad, the scene gets dismal. I can last about three days without tasting a green chilli but after that I am like a demented person searching for anything that will give me a chilli high.

At first I thought this was a family trait confined only to our clan, but gradually I found that there are hundreds of fellow Indians who suffer from withdrawal symptoms when they are in a place where red or green chillies are nowhere to be found. Over the years I have made friends with the unlikeliest of people, the only thing connecting us being our relentless search for a chilli fix. ‘Have you got any left?’ a bank manager hisses in to my ears. I ignore him. ‘Only half but I can share it three ways,’ replies a professor who is more generous than me, furtively digging into his briefcase.

My adventures with the chilli began when I was a student in Moscow during the bleak Soviet period. The only vegetable you saw there was the symbol of working-class pride—the humble cabbage. Huge football-sized cabbages, pale and translucent as jade, were served to us everyday for lunch and dinner, either boiled, baked in lard or burnt crisp. The burnt dish was the best since we could not taste the cabbage at all in the cinders, especially if you added lots of salt and pepper. A bit of tomato ketchup would have helped, but those were the days when the Russians hated all things American and ketchup was a bad word and you could be fined for uttering it.

As I ate this burnt offering which the fertile land of Mother Russia had produced, I would remember my grandmother’s finely shredded green cabbage dish served with hot poories. Tears would roll down my cheeks as I recalled the single green chilli sitting on top of the delicious cabbage like a tiny emerald glittering on a crown. My fellow students thought I was crying because I loved the Soviet cabbage so much and would generously heap more on my plate. Then, one day, I told them the truth.

‘Chillies … you want chillies?’ asked my roommate, a lovely dark-eyed girl from Georgia. ‘I will get you some. My grandmother grows them in the Kalkhos (a collective farm). She is not allowed to, but she grows them all the same.’

It took Elena quite a while to get through to her grandmother since there was no phone in her village and the postal services were erratic. But one day, just when I had given up all hope, a small parcel arrived. The hostel warden, a giant of a woman with a black moustache and mean eyes, called Elena to her office. She took me along for moral support.

‘What is in this packet?’ growled our warden staring at Elena and then turned to smile at me ferociously, looking like the famous wolf in grandmother’s clothes. They had instructions from high above to be polite to foreign students.

‘Chillies, Comrade Galina Petrovna,’ said Elena.

‘Chillies … from where? You know food from outside is forbidden?’

‘They are from my grandmother’s Kalkhos. I want to show my friend from India that we can grow anything we want,’said Elena, thinking on her feet.

There was a brief pause as the warden unwrapped the parcel, tore the brown paper with her huge fingers and then bit the string off with her bare teeth.

There on the white plastic table lay ten chillies—four red and six green. They had travelled all the way from Georgia by train, then by van to our hostel—from one extreme corner of the mighty Soviet Union to another, yet they looked as fresh as newly picked chillies. The warden shrugged her shoulders and let us go. We ran to our room and I sat down at my desk, took out a packet of salted biscuits and ate one whole green chilli as my friend Elena watched me, smiling like a proud mother duck watching her duckling nibble a strand of weed.

My next trip abroad was to France sometime in 2005, and I took a bagful of chillies with me this time. Not a pretty velvet bag like my mother had carried, but a plain plastic one that would keep the chillies fresh. I was going to be there for ten days so twelve chillies would do if I rationed myself strictly. It was not easy, I learnt very soon, to smuggle chillies into a smart restaurant in Paris. The waiters have eyes as sharp as fishing eagles and can spot a tiny speck of unknown substance on your plate from far away.

‘Wat iss theeze?’ he sniffed and pointed to an innocent green chilli lying by my plate.

Everyone at our table stopped talking and stared at me.

‘A chilli …’ I stammered. You are not going to let yourself be intimidated by a French waiter, I said to myself, and thought of my Bengali great-grandmother who had travelled to Shimla in 1920, braving the imperial British Police who were extremely suspicious of native travellers and their assortment of bundles. They threw away the jars of pickles and garam-masala. My grandmother must have carried a bag of red chillies with her.

‘Today is Tuesday, the 12th of July. We Indians have to eat one green chilli on this very auspicious day,’ I said, thankful that there were no other Indians sitting at our table.

Today I can eat green or red chillies with French food brazenly and nobody raises an eyebrow. In fact, very often my friends ask if they can taste one too and I have to grudgingly offer them one. The French have come a long way and now even offer fresh oysters with chilli and garlic.

Chillies too have come a long way since and now you can easily find them all over Europe. London, of course, is the best place to find chillies and even the smallest supermarket will have them tucked away on a shelf next to garlic and fresh ginger. In England there are annual chilli fairs with thousands of people showing off their home-grown chilli produce. You can buy chilli chocolate which is really delicious, chilli ice cream which tastes foul, and chilli biscuits which is the best laxative you can have besides our very own Pudin Hara.

While one part of England celebrates chillies with style and innovative recipes, there are places where no one has ever tasted a chilli.

In the Outer Hebrides which lies beyond Scotland, a chilli is an exotic and almost mythical thing. It is almost like a Yeti—something everyone has heard about but never seen. I discovered this fact when I travelled to this remote area a few years ago. At our hotel, an old and elegant wooden fishing lodge, they had only ever seen four people from India and they had never tasted a chilli. ‘I have seen one growing in my friend’s green house. He won a prize for this plant this year in the rare exhibit section,’ said the girl behind the bar. She must have seen the greedy look in my eyes because she very kindly offered to take me there.

The town, if you can call it that, had about eleven houses, three pubs and one fire station. ‘We have never had a fire as far as I can remember but we like to have the fire brigade. It gives our town something to look at,’ the girl said as we drove through the amazingly beautiful landscape of vast blue lakes and rolling golden hills. There was not a building for miles. I felt I was the last Indian left on earth and suddenly began to get a panic attack. I longed desperately to be in Lajpat Nagar eating chat sprinkled lavishly with red chilli powder.

The chilli plant was displayed proudly on a high table in the middle of the green house. The leaves shone as if polished lovingly every day. Four slender green chillies lurked among the leaves. My mouth began to water. The owner said he had managed to get the plant from Mexico and it had survived three harsh winters. He had also grown a few baby chilli plants from the original mother plant. He showed me these little, fragile green stems, fretting over them like an anxious mother over her new-born baby. ‘Hope they will be all right in the winter. I have a special lamp for them since we do not get daylight for more than four or five hours in the winter,’ he said, frowning with worry.

‘Chillies know how to survive. They are tough plants,’ I said to him in a soothing voice since he looked really distraught. ‘They came to India with the Portuguese who brought them from South America. I have seen them growing happily in flower pots in London pubs.’

‘Yes, but what about our cruel winters? They will die. I hope I can get a new plant and start all over again,’ said the chilli gardener in a gloomy voice and turned his back to me, probably to hide his tears.

Then I did something I will always be ashamed of all my life. I reached out and plucked one green chilli. I quickly hid it in my bag and left the green house.

As all thieves say, ‘I could not control myself. It was a crime of passion.’

As soon as I had swallowed the stolen chilli with a soggy cucumber sandwich, I made a mental note to send six packets of chilli seeds to the unfortunate green-house owner whom I had so shamelessly robbed. A month later, when he replied to thank me for the seeds, he very gallantly did not mention the loss of one precious green chilli from the mother plant.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Chilli High’, by Bulbul Sharma from Chillies and Porridge: Writing Food, edited by Mita Kapur, HarperCollins Publishers India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.