Chilli: Chocolate of the East

By Janet de Neefe
For The Bali Times

UBUD ~ Chilli. The word conjures up an artist’s palette of seductive reds, action-packed flavor and mouth-killing fire: of sun-ripened chilli, intense sweat-frenzied heat and a taste sensation that takes you to Paradise or beyond. Let’s face it, can you imagine a curry without chilli? So join me as I shine the spotlight on one of the world’s most exotic ingredients.

Chilli was discovered in the New World by Christopher Columbus, who apparently thought it was pepper. But don’t imagine this red firecracker was just hanging on a vine begging to be discovered by that ocean-faring hero of the high seas. Chilli has been a part of the human diet in the Americas since around 7500 BC and in southwestern Ecuador there is archaeological evidence that the chilli was already well domesticated more than 6000 years ago. The chilli was a feature on the prehistoric dinner table from Peru to New Mexico and the folk from this region were clearly extolling the virtues of this sensual flavor goddess well before Columbus landed on their shores.

Nevertheless, Columbus popped the red devil into his hand luggage, free of all the modern-day security screenings, and continued on his world mission to find a direct route to Asia.  From there, the chilli was brought to Spain and later, Portugal. It sailed into India around 1560 and the rest, as they say, is history. India is now the largest producer of chilies, with around one million tons per year.

But let me tell you the virtues of this beloved spice. The ripe, red, chilies are rich in beta-carotene, antioxidants, carotenoids, vitamin A and vitamin C. And if that’s not enough, it also contains a chemical known as capsaicin, which is responsible for resulting in a natural high, the addictive kind that greets you during extensive exercise.

Capsaicin is being studied as an effective treatment for alleviating the pain associated with arthritis, psoriasis and diabetic neuropathy. It not only reduces pain, but its peppery heat also stimulates secretions that helps clear the sinuses and congested lungs.

Consuming chilli has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels and studies prove that cultures where it is used liberally have a much lower rate of heart attacks and strokes. It is also claimed to stop the spread of prostrate cancer, boost the immune system, lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and help prevent stomach ulcers. Australian researchers have shown that the amount of insulin required to lower blood sugar after a meal is reduced if the meal contains chilies. Oh yes, and eating chilli helps you lose weight, too. Like a double-edged sword, it is an appetite-stimulant while small amounts stave off hunger (try working that one out). Wasn’t it Deepak Chopra who said eating chilli for breakfast will speed up the metabolism and is equivalent to two hours’ exercise in the gym?

Over the years, my palette has been slowly awakened to the addictive bite of chilli. As opposed to common thought, I believe by eating chilli my taste buds have been gastronomically fine-tuned, thus giving me the power to identify many layers of subtle flavors.  Sometimes my chilli thrill-seeking spirit leads me into torturous territory, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. In fact, chilli really is the chocolate of the east.

In Indonesia, the generic name for chilli is simply cabe. In Bali, there are roughly four varieties, large to small, with the tiny village chilli, tabia krinying, the hottest. Red chilli, as you can imagine, is the sweetest and often the hottest.

In this part of the world, not a meal goes past without the presence of some sort of chilli condiment or sambal. Sambal is the equivalent to salt and pepper that is served with western meals. A handful of chilies mixed with red shallots, garlic and shrimp paste are all you need to make a great Balinese sambal. Not only valued for its heating properties, a sambal stimulates the taste buds and clears the mind and palate. You can see why Indonesians consider western food flat and tasteless.

And there is nothing more pleasing than a freshly cooked sambal with an Asian meal. There are countless variations and all of these are an explosion of color, flavor, texture and aroma. It can be as simple as sliced green chilli with sweet soy or as elaborate as chilli wok-fried with lashings of shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, candlenut and tomato. The essential duo is chilli and shrimp paste, that Asian culinary Romeo and Juliet or Rama and Sita. I always call these the perfect sambal partners, like husband and wife or a tango team, and you can draw your own conclusions as to which one is which.

I have listened to many heated discussions in Bali about sambal. It evokes such passions, where color and texture challenge flavor and aroma. Whether you add extra tomato, shrimp paste or garlic, it should be bursting with vitality and startle all the senses. A Balinese wife knows that hot, steamed rice and a delicious sambal are the key to marital bliss and even my husband, Ketut, is happy when these basic requirements are met. I guess you could call it comfort food.

When it comes to cooking sambals, oil is the essential starting point. To skimp on this fundamental ingredient will create a sambal that lacks life and depth of flavor. Of course, the key is also to use the juiciest, freshest, brightest chilies, the ones that smile at you from the supermarket shelves.

So do yourselves a favor and start eating sambal with every meal. The benefits will far outweigh any vitamin tablet. The following recipe is one of my favorites and is a multipurpose seasoning that can be used as a marinade, pasta sauce or even pizza base. But I love it best served with nasi campur.


½ cup vegetable oil

3 large red chilli, seeds removed

5 red shallots

2-3 small chilis

8 garlic cloves

3 tomatoes, medium

1 tsp shrimp paste

sea salt to taste

2 tbs. palm sugar

3-5 candlenuts

Grind the spices in a mortar and pestle or blend in the container of a food processor until you have a smooth paste. The candlenuts are best ground in a coffee grinder. Heat the oil in a wok over a medium flame. Fry the blended spices, stirring occasionally, until it reduces by nearly a half and the oil rises to the surface, looking separated. This will take at least five minutes. Check seasonings and make sure it is cooked thoroughly.

Top with fried shallots. Serve with slices of lime.

This sambal can be stored in the fridge for a few weeks.

Always wash hands thoroughly after using chilli and avoid touching the face and eyes.

Selamat makan.

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment, The Island

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