The Unbearable Sadness of Cooking Without Chillies

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Finally, the silent crisis has been brought to light. Indian kitchens in the US have been battling this crisis for a while now. It is the sudden disappearance of green chillies from the market. At first, I thought it was a temporary glitch  and  asked about it on Facebook, back came the flood of answers. No, the problem was grave, green chillies were nowhere to be found. Friends from Texas offered to send us some, they were growing them in backyards. But it was not just the solution to my cooking problems I was looking for, I wanted to know what had caused the crisis. At my local Indian store the answer was surprising: the green chillies we prized so much came from the Dominican Republic and had been banned by the US after a invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies in that country.

So, some readers may wonder, why is this such a crisis? The aisles of grocery stores have plenty of peppers and chillies on offer. And yes, we are making do with jalapenos and other substitutes for the time being. But green chillies have a very special place  in the Indian kitchen: on a frozen Pennsylvania morning, the bite of  chillies in my scrambled eggs would bring a little fire into the grey morning.  Even if I was cooking for kids, adding in a chilli for a last simmer would bring in a swirl of flavor that no other spice can replicate. And once in a while I have a craving for a “chilli moment”, where it is the star of the dish and the ensuing tears are markers of delight! Without  them, every cooking session seems drab and incomplete.

This attachment we have to our food, the meaning it holds for us, beyond simply being a source of sustenance, is what makes our food debates so fraught. A practical response to existing conditions is often complicated by our emotions, memories, and habits associated with that food. So, climate change impacting Assam tea is not merely a problem that can be resolved by growing a different variety, it is the sinking feeling that that certain cup of tea shared at breakfast will cease to exist.

Hopefully, the green chilli will continue to exist. For now, we wait in hope that somewhere small emerald green slivers are ripening and will one day come to us to brighten our food and our lives.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

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