Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Magical Mystery Chilli Revelation (& Why You Should Adjust Recipes *To Taste*)

Welcome to Chilli-Town, Population Burnt

Chilli and Chillies - I love them! But lately, I've been very confused by them. I've gradually been thinking that I've becoming a spice-sook, because everything I make has been seeming too hot. For quite a while, we haven't eaten many spicy dishes, because it seemed like every time I did, I had my mouth blown off. Up until then, I'd always thought that chillies' adjustment to your tastebuds was like riding a bike - even if you didn't do it for a while, you'd still have the skill/taste.

Little did I know, it was my meticulous following recipes to a T that was the problem. In the past, I've followed chilli (the dish)  recipes that were "kid-friendly", with notes like "we like this a little mild, so this doesn't have too much of a chilli-bite" and I've thought to myself, "Wow, cookbook authors have kids that love insane amounts of heat in their chilli", but it's been tolerable/delicious, and we've been fine. All that changed recently.

My favourite chilli (the dish) recipe is Dreena Burton's Sweet Potato Lentil Chilli (recipe here). The lentils make everything tomatoey-creamy thick and filling. Definitely try that one out, especially if you're new to chilli.

Sooner or later I had to enter the grown-up chilli world. HOLY MOLY these people like it hot. For example, in the delicious Isa Chandra's "Classic Black Bean and Vegetable Chilli" (from her book called Appetite for Reduction), it called for THREE TABLESPOONS OF CHILLI POWDER. Now it is a delicious recipe, but that nearly killed me flat. So I've been making it with ONE tablespoon of chilli, and even that's been a little on the hot side. So I searched the internet - everyone said it was amazing, lovely, with just the perfect amount of spice, etc. This confused me to no end.

Finally, the moment of aloneness ended. Someone posted on The Post Punk Kitchen forums that they made the above dish, and like me, they like chillies, and like me, they found it insanely hot - like Vindaloo. I finally felt vindicated, like I belonged somewhere, like there were other chilli-sooks like me who thought they liked chillies, but were wrong, and were forever doomed to be alone, listening to Tori Amos covering Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", whilst crying into our super-mild Indian takeaway. But no. It was not to be. Finally, someone clarified something.

Let me allow "radish sandwich" from The Post Punk Kitchen's forums to explain:

"In the U.S. at least, chili powder is a not-very-spicy blend based on ancho chiles, but with other spices and often salt added. My understanding is that in Europe and Australia, it's just straight up chiles, so 3 tablespoons would be a LOT. Check out this thread for some past conversation on this and a recipe for chili powder. If you are using the right thing, then maybe what you've got is just really spicy?"

So it turns out that in Australia, our "chilli powder" is what you would expect - chilli blended into a powder. In the US and other places, it's often much, much milder, and contains other things. This is just like a bunch of other American things that confuse us all by being called different things in different countries - i.e. arugula in the US - rocket in Australia, aubergine in the UK - eggplant in Australia. I'll be doing a post on crazy-name differences, soon.

Previously, I've been a meticulous recipe-follower, and I don't think this is a bad way to start out (though I've been stuck there 5 years!) I'm starting to adjust seasonings, and learn flavours a little bit more, so that things like this don't happen again. I suppose it's actually true that we all have individual tastes, and recipes are often just the pop music that will appeal to the masses. Maybe in secret, the authors do the recipe as a punk song, or a classical song (adding crazy spices, or even more!)... and it's there to be "covered' by us. What an awful metaphor. I saw the movie "Black Swan" last night, so I'm feeling particularly dramatic. Forgive me.

So I'm not a spice sook. I can get on with my day.

And now I realise I have been staring at the word "chilli" for so long that it has somehow lost all meaning, and I wonder if it's an actual word, and if it is, have I spelled it right? Or have I written an entire post about something that doesn't exist? Oh gosh, apparently it is spelled (US - SPELT IN THE UK!) "chile" and "chile" in the US. Please excuse me while I go have an aneurysm and give up on life.


  1. Yes, yes, yes. I've had exactly the same issues when I've seen several tablespoons of chilli powder included in recipes by Terry or Isa. I won't let more than a TEASPOON of the chilli powder we own near a pot of food.

    These couple of US->Oz conversion posts you've written are an excellent idea, and will hopefully safe a few cooks from disastrous meals. :-)

  2. Ahhh this explains a lot, I just presumed that people in the us had much better tolerance for spice than us. Thanks for clariying regarding chilli powder. However, I did follow a use recipe once asking for chipotle chilli which was also far too hot!

  3. This is so interesting and explains a lot. I often see US recipes with what I think to be insane amounts of chili powder. I just thought I was always too weak!!!

  4. I remember learning this lesson the very painful way. Oh, my burning mouth.
    So, really, we are not chili wimps... THEY are chili wimps. We take our chili powder straight up!

  5. That is interesting to hear that Australian chilli powder is far stronger than that in USA - I am a chilli wimp and I know it because my partner always adds tabasco sauce to his dinner (even if it is spicy because he never checks) but I now just put in what I think is a reasonable amount of chilli rather than what a recipe says

  6. Wait, you call arugula eggplant? Then what do you call eggplant? Clearly a clarifying post is called for!

  7. Hi Guys.. You are all the best for commenting! Thanks!

    You're all right, *they* are the chilli wimps, not us.. and i'm glad i'm not alone in having being burnt!

    Johanna, I think hot sauce goes to a different place, a bit like dessert is still possible, even if you're full from dinner! :P It adds a different heat, so I add it to too-hot things.

    Sorry Megan - for clarification, I'll put some semicolons in... Arugula is Rocket in Australia. Eggplant is Eggplant in both US and Australia, but is called Aubergine in UK. So confuse!

  8. I learnt about chilli in US recipes the hard way too! I made a soup recipe that Isa posted earlier this year which contained a hefty amount of chilli. I halved the original quantity and it was still so hot that you couldn't appreciate any of the other flavours. My experience is posted here which has some helpful comments on the subject -

  9. Ah, the same thing happened to me when I was writing a post the other day that happened to include the word "chili" multiple times. Halfway through writing the post I thought the word totally wrong and then I forgot how to spell it! It must just be one of those words...

    Ps-that particular lingistic oddity is called "semantic satiation".

    Pps- I think only the dish of beans and tomato sauce is called "chile" in the US - as far as I'm aware chili peppers are spelled "chili". Oh god, now I need to take a break. I think I'll go water my chillies...

  10. Louise.. James (The Academic) is going to be so excited that you said that - he's a linguist!

    I checked my sources! Apparently it depends on what part you're from, but there are a few variations used in different places. Why doesn't someone invent better words that are clearer?

    My landlady used to steal my chillies..


    So proud.

    I'm mainly just grateful that Matt realised this, as now we can actually taste the chilli dishes that we eat, rather than nuking our tastebuds :P

    Landlady has apparently had enough of stealing chillis (because there are none left?) and has instead resorted to taking kale. Tough job.

  12. ...And I just noticed that I spelled the word as "lingistic". Spellcheck, fast-type fail!

  13. Don't stress; I can't tell you how many times I've typed "I'm a linguistics" :P

  14. I think we should add a sticky about this subject in the Australian section of the PPK forum. I too, learnt the hard way! My boyfriend and I enjoy spicy food but even we struggled with 3tbsp of chili powder. I now order spices from Herbies and make a chili blend of my own using ancho, pasilla, chipotle, paprika, cumin, oregano and garlic. It's much tastier than straight chili powder!

    Danielle (LittleChicken on the PPK)

  15. I wish I had read this earlier.
    I substituted chilli powder for cayenne pepper in a Mexican hot chocolate recipe and suddenly found myself transported to the fiery depths of hell.
    Never again.


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