* The Byadgi elevated my cooking in unimaginable ways. One, food finally held that unique Konkan flavour I seemed to be chasing. Two, the colour was the familiar flaming red that Byadgi is known for
Ten years ago I landed in Singapore with two suitcases and a brand new husband. As foodies, we spent the first few months exploring the local cuisine, hawker centres and Asian flavours unknown to our taste buds. We were like kids in a candy store. But soon the novelty of “something new” wore off. The heart and soul craved home food and the comfort it promised. A quick trip to Mustafa (mecca for Singapore’s desis) later we were beaming with hope at the sight of freshly purchased ingredients essential to a Konkani meal — fresh coconut, coriander seeds and chillies. I followed mom’s recipes to the tee, but something was still missing. After several long-distance SOS calls home and umpteen rescue attempts in the kitchen, I thought my cooking skills were falling short. I then decided to park my aspirations of retracing my food memories of growing up in Majali, the port town of the Karwar region in Karnataka.
Six years ago, with a kid in tow, we decided to head home and attend Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. After giving Ganapati Bappa a send-off, my dad called me to the verandah and told me that my uncle, who runs a kirana shop in Majali, had a new shipment of chillies. I don’t need dried red chillies, I replied; I buy them from Mustafa. “But you won’t get Byadgi,” he said. I’d heard dad talk about Byadgi as though it were a magic ingredient that transforms the way food tastes, looks and feels. It is what he uses generously in the chicken xacuti he makes. If Michelin ever gave a star to home cooks, my dad deserves one for his xacuti . I gave in to him, walked up to Navadurga Stores and flew a whole kilo of chillies to Singapore.
You know something about dads — they’re often right. As I started to introduce Byadgi into my cooking, I noticed an instant change; the food started to taste like my mom’s food. It took me back to my childhood Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations where my cousins and I would sit lined up on the floor under a shamiana, with a fresh green banana leaf laid out in front of us. And an army of uncles and aunts would serve us a plethora of dishes, seasoned with love. Starting from the salt and pickle, to fried bajjis , happala (papad), payasam , khat-khate (vegetable stew), gashi (a coconut-based curry), rice with ghee, and moving on to Byadgi-laden dishes such as rasam, sambar, ambe sasam (mango curry) and more sprightly red-coloured curried items. We polished every drop of the food till our leaf plates were a spotless green.
The Byadgi elevated my cooking in unimaginable ways. One, food finally held that unique Konkan flavour I seemed to be chasing. Two, the colour was the familiar flaming red that Byadgi is known for. The bisi bele bath , fish curries, ghee roasts, the simple garlic chutney looked red hot but none of it made my family and guests jump at the glass of water. The spice level was just right. The Byadgi is hotter than Kashmiri chillies (which I earlier used for colour) but milder than the Guntur variety (which amps up the heat). But best of all, the chillies were, for me, a time machine that always transported me back to a past I hold dear. And it felt gratifying to be able to recreate the magic of those days for my Malayali husband and my children. Eventually, every India trip that followed had me lugging an extra suitcase only to make room for the Byadgi on my way back.
I started to read up on the chillies that are grown in the town of Byadgi in Karnataka’s Haveri district. The Byadgi has a GI tag. And its shade of red isn’t just celebrated in food. Oleoresin, an extract in the chillies, is sought after by makers of lipsticks and nail colours.
Fast forward to today, Covid-19 has stopped my travels and my access to this beautiful ingredient. As I pulled out the last few Byadgi chillies from the box, I had to make a tough choice — what do I do with them? Should I dry roast them with fenugreek seeds and make a tambli , a cooling concoction for the hot Singapore days, or should I make a fiery chicken sukka . When two options are put head to head, chicken sukka always wins. And this is how I enjoyed the last 10 Byadgi chillies.
Amrita Kamat is a food blogger based in Singapore
- 500g chicken
- 1 cup coconut scrapings
- 10 Byadgi chillies
- 1/2 cup coriander seeds
- 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 10 garlic pods
- 1-inch piece of ginger
- 1 cup of sliced onions
- 1/2 cup chopped tomato
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- Salt to taste
- Roast the red chillies in a little oil. Keep aside. Then fry the coriander and fenugreek seeds in the same pan until you get a lovely toasted aroma.
- Grind the roasted chillies and seeds along with ginger, garlic and a portion of the coconut scrapings to a fine paste (with water if necessary). Add the rest of the coconut scrapings to the paste and run the mixer for a few seconds more. The idea is to keep the second portion of the coconut scrapings coarse.
- Heat coconut oil in a kadai. Add the onion and fry until it turns light brown.
- Add the chicken pieces and fry lightly. Then add the masala to the kadai. Wash the mixer jar with water and add that too. Add salt to taste and the chopped tomato. Cover and cook till the chicken is cooked through.
- Simmer for about 5-10 minutes or till the water evaporates. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve hot.