Harish Bhat

Hot and happening!

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 04, 2017

BL05_CHILLIIC   -  The Hindu

BL05_CHILLIMANGOES   -  The Hindu

Heat is cool Chillies are hotter than ever, giving ice-creams and chocolates an edge, just as they do traditional fare such as raw mangoes. LINDT: ROMAN SAMOKIN/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM   -  Lindt: Roman Samokin/shutterstock.com

Why these red and fiery chilli peppers are becoming such a rage



A few months ago, Maggi launched its spicy new range of noodles, called Maggi Hot Heads, for hotheads who love lots of chillies and spice – just like many of you, and me. I quickly made myself a piping hot bowl of Hot Heads Green Chilli noodles, and soon had tears in my eyes, as well as the most pleasurable hot sensations in my mouth. Other flavours in this spicy range include Chilli Chicken and Barbeque Pepper. A picture of a long chilli on each pack indicates the level of heat consumers should expect. My neighbourhood kirana store in Parel, Mumbai, tells me that Maggi Hot Heads have been super-hot sellers this season. Clearly, Indian consumers are loving their chillies.

Chillies are everywhere

My visits to several stores reveal that many other brands and categories have got onto the “chillies are hot” bandwagon. Here are a few examples:

Lay’s has launched Maxx Macho Chilli potato chips. In handsome red and black packs that radiate spice and heat, these premium chips make the telling point that chillies can mark a sharp point of difference in a highly commoditised category. In addition, I have discovered at least five local brands of snacks and chips in Mumbai that have promptly created “hot chilli” variants of their products. Where a trend is catching on, can local players be far behind? Two weeks ago, at an upper middle-class departmental store, I stood silently, watching women shop for cooking sauces and ready-to-cook foods. I was surprised to see that virtually all shopping baskets contained Szechuan or other sauces, with brands such as Ching’s Secret leading the list. These bottles display three chillies on their labels, with one or more chilli coloured in bright red, to indicate how hot the sauce is.

If you thought cookies were generally sweet or mildly savoury, think again. Unibic, amongst the fastest growing brands of cookies in India, now markets ‘Chilli Butter’ cookies which feature chillies, onions and garlic for a spicy twist. They are delicious.

Chilli flavoured ice-creams have been popular for some time now, and are gaining new ground in several ice-cream shops. The most famous I have come across is the Green Chilli ice-cream at Bachelor’s, the iconic parlour at Chowpatty Sea Face in Mumbai. In my home town of Mangalore, the Choco Chilli ice-cream at the legendary Pabba’s parlour tingles your senses equally well. The sacred bastion of sweet foods, chocolates, has also been breached by hot chillies. For instance, Lindt offers chilli dark chocolate and chilli-intense chocolate, which contain spicy red chilli peppers. A pack of gourmet chocolates which I received as a gift for Diwali last year contained several pieces of hand-made green and red chilli dark chocolates. This combination of chilli and dark chocolate was unique and memorable.

Why people love chillies

Why are chillies profilerating so rapidly across so many categories, and why is there a near universal preference for chillies? To begin with, we need to understand that, unlike sweet or salty or sour, the spiciness of chillies is not really a taste or a flavour. Instead, it is a spicy sensation caused when capsaicin, the naturally occurring chemical substance in chillies, activates pain receptors on our tongue. Capsaicin is an irritant which causes a burning sensation on any skin tissue that it comes in contact with. It is this “burn” of chillies that we love. Psychologists say that people love this burning sensation because most human beings derive pleasure from negative events and some degree of pain if these events cause no real harm to us. This is why people love horror movies which cause great fear and anxiety as we watch them, or tragedies which make us break down and weep. This is perhaps also why people love the bitter taste of coffee, or the near-death falling sensation of bungee jumping. As Jason Goldman, a developmental psychologist, says: “People seem to enjoy, and actively seek out, many sensations that are otherwise undesirable but ostensibly safe.” As long as this fundamental human truth prevails, people will always seek out chillies. And in today’s age, as consumers hunger for experiences rather than merely products, the need for such “negative but safe” experiences will only grow, making chillies even more universally popular.

Heat and adult endurance

Another reason why we Indians love chillies is our climate. The love for chillies has always been very high in hot, tropical regions, such as Mexico, India and sub-saharan Africa. This is why Mexican jalapenos and Indian Guntur chillies are often regarded as the last word on hot and spicy. This is also why the hottest areas of India, such as Telangana, love lots of chillies in their daily diets. The scientific basis for human preference for chillies in tropical areas appears to emanate from the fact that chillies are very good at killing bacteria such as salmonella, which are associated with food poisoning, and such bacteria thrive in the heat of the tropical sun. Will this mean that, as global warming picks up, and India becomes even hotter in the years ahead, our desire for chillies will also rise? Is the current growing preference for chillies across categories already a first sign of this trend?

I think consumers also love chillies because eating a chilli is considered a sign of “adult endurance”. There is a certain macho feeling associated with easy consumption of hot and spicy food with no expressed discomfort at all. By extension, when children eat hot and spicy food, this perhaps also provides them a very desirable “adult” feeling.

Finally, there is also a growing preference for hot chilli and sweet sugar blended together, as in ice-cream or chocolate or Paper Boat’s Guava-Chilli drink, because these opposing flavours tend to create wonderful complex sensations on our taste buds. As our taste buds grow sophisticated, we seek complex flavours and the addition of chilli to conventionally sweet dishes readily provides this complexity.

With so many fundamental reasons supporting the growing consumer preference for chillies, marketers should consider how they can leverage this very hot and spicy trend. Many more varieties of chilli-flavoured cookies, ice-creams and pasta? Chilli-flavoured honey, perhaps? What about chilli-infused coffees, teas and fruit drinks? We should not rule out chilli-flavoured toothpaste or cooking oils, either. For now, I am off to eat my Maggi Chilli Chicken noodles, and will soon be sighing in satisfaction.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons and author of The Curious Marketer. These are his personal views. [email protected]

Published on May 04, 2017
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