The Spiciest Cuisine in India

In India, it is known that South Indian cuisine is spicier than North Indian cuisine which packs a punch in its own right. And within the south there is a (disputed) king, my mother’s homeland, Andhra Pradesh.

Light on sauces and butter, heavy on dried chili powder and red chilies, Andhra food is the spiciest cuisine in India and packs a punch with every bite. Due to the relative lack of Telugu immigrants and the western palatal preference for heavier, meatier North Indian food, this cuisine is hard to find outside India, except in the kitchens of Telugu families like my own.

It is easy to ascribe all Indian food as being spicy, but that is a vast oversimplification. “India” an a single entity was an invention of the British – no pre-colonial kingdom ever controlled the vast subcontinent, a collection of princely states praying to different gods and speaking different languages. Naturally, diverse cuisines arose, some of which utilized the chili pepper more than others. Referring to a single cuisine as “Indian” is akin to referring to something uniform as “European” cuisine.

Just as Russian borsch and Italian arrabiatti have little in common, similarly unique are Punjabi Tandoori and Keralan fish head curries. Just as Italy and Russia adopted new world food products differently (Russia’s potatoes vs Italy’s tomatoes), Indians adopted the new world chili pepper in diverse, fascinating ways.

The chili pepper arrived in Indian in the mid-16th century, most likely through the spice ports of the Malabar coast in South India, though on the opposite coast as Andhra Pradesh. Malabar was India’s connection the world, often visited by Portuguese and Arab traders.

The question thus is, why did the chili pepper become so popular in Andhra Pradesh? How did it get there from Malabar? Is there something about South Indian culture that made it more open to spicy food, or what it something about pre-existing spice usage?

Unfortunately, most books about chilies have been written by westerners who look at India as a single entity, and assume that, of course, Indians adopted chilies. They fail to explore beyond the surface of what must have been an amazing transformation of a cuisine and culture, and how it was used so differently across the vast subcontinent.

I found it amazing that no book or article I’ve found so far makes any attempt to explain WHY Indian, Indonesia, Koreans, and Thais so readily accepted Chili Peppers, nor explores how they might have done so.

This project aims to overcome generalizations and look at the complexity of a species with thousands of varieties and unique uses around the world. No two places adopted the chili in the same way, and that is as true within India as it is around Asia.

So why is Andhra cuisine in India so spicy compared to nearby Punjab or Gujarat? Why did Koreans fall in love with chilies while their culturally similar neighbors, the Japanese and Manchurians did not? How did the chili transform these cultures, and how did these cultures transform the chili?

There’s only one want to find out. A Spicy Quest.