When people find out I’m the chief spice buyer for McCormick, the first question they often ask is, “What’s the most popular spice?” In the United States, the king of spices is black pepper. However, on a global basis, another hot spice – red pepper – surpasses black pepper tenfold, with an estimated worldwide production of 6 billion pounds! By far, it is the most widely consumed spice in the world.
There are over 200 varieties of red pepper, collectively known as capsicums. They are prized for the color, flavor and heat they bring to a wide range of foods. Generally speaking, the smaller the size of the pepper, the hotter it will be. Larger pepper varieties, such as paprika, are grown for color and minimal heat, while smaller peppers, such as chiles and cayenne, deliver explosive heat. Most red pepper varieties, like Mexican chiles, are in the middle heat range, which is still plenty hot for the average U.S palate.
Indigenous to the Caribbean and Latin America, red pepper was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his journey to find a quick passage to the East Indies to source spices such as black pepper, ginger and turmeric. Seeds from red pepper plants were brought back to Europe and eventually found their way to India, where it became the most prevalent spice. Today, with an annual production of over two billion pounds a year, India remains the largest producer and consumer of red pepper.
To get a good picture of this year’s red pepper crop in India, early spring is the best time for me to visit the growing area. The pepper plants are plentiful, and the harvest season is at its peak. The first harvest comes in late February, with new fruit maturing every 4 to 6 weeks, yielding up to four pickings through early summer. India’s largest production regions are in the central and southern parts of the country, including the state of Andhra Pradesh -- the largest grower of chiles.
Arriving in India, I found myself reminiscing about my first trip here over 20 years ago. I had been working the Malabar coast region and decided to take an all night train to a small town in southern Tamil Nadu, since air travel was very limited. The old, outdated train chugged along at a modest speed, stopping at each local village to take on new passengers, along with vendors selling food and drinks. I dined on Roti sandwich wraps, filled with curried chicken and highly seasoned with spices and red pepper! The train ride was fascinating, and as one can imagine, not a lot of sleep was had that night.
While much progress has been made in the years since my first visit, the growing region remains virtually unchanged. Both sides of the road as far as the eye can see are endless rows of chile plants, laden with red pepper pods waiting to be hand harvested by farmers. This area on the eastern side of the Ghat Mountains is very hot and dry -- ideal for growing red peppers. The red pepper plant, Capsicum annuum, is in the same botanical family as bell peppers and tomatoes, yet very different in flavor. Red peppers are primarily grown for their pungency value, which is the measure of capsaicin contained within the pod. This natural ingredient ignites the heat sensation in the mouth, and is found in the top half of the pod in the inner lining and around the seeds.
The pepper plant grows anywhere from two to four feet in height, and each plant contains multiple pods. Much like tomatoes, the unripe fruit is green, gradually changing to a vibrant red, just before harvest. Unbelievably, all of the chile pods are picked by hand and sun dried. It is very common to see large fields converted to drying areas, with rows of pods piled high. After drying, the farmer bags his harvest into burlap sacks and takes his crop to market.
Murugan, my local expert for over two decades, accompanies me to the marketplace to observe the chile ‘auction.’ The selling of chiles is a captivating process to watch, as the price of each 50 pound bag is negotiated. Spice merchants like Murugan have become our trusted agents, ensuring the best quality chiles from a select group of farmers. Following a time-honored tradition, sellers finish each sale through a hand to hand exchange with the buyer under a large napkin-sized cloth, with the final price being paid in secrecy.
At the end of the day, my host prepared a banquet dinner. The entire extended family greeted me by presenting a lei made of cardamom and marigold flowers. The dishes of food prepared for the evening were some of the best Indian cuisine I have tasted. Lamb and chicken curries and masalas were accompanied by plain yogurt to take away the heat of the red pepper. And, a bread pudding flavored with cardamom was the perfect dessert.
I hope you have a flavourful summer, and look forward to sharing one of my next trips with you soon.