I have often wondered about the phenomenon of the chilli in subcontinental food, and its conquest of our palates. If the Europeans conquered half the world but failed to stomach the chilli, what made South Asia, South-East Asia and some parts of the Orient take to it in such lascivious abandonment? Historian and food writer Lizzie Collingham says: “No Indian had ever seen a chilli, let alone cooked with it, before the Portuguese came to India in the early 15th century."

Therein hangs a tale. It is well known that before the advent of the chilli, the heat in Indian food came from the Piperaceae, or the pepper family of plants: black pepper (Piper nigrum), the fruit of a climbing vine native to the Malabar region, and predating that but belonging to the same genus, the long pepper (Piper longum) or pippali, growing wild and used widely in Ayurvedic medicine. Pippali was more pervasive, growing freely in hot and humid climates, and apart from the Deccan region, we find evidence of it in the eastern belt of Bengal and Odisha. These two cousins gave India its taste for the hot and pungent, and possibly an inbuilt mechanism to raise the bar right through South-East Asia, thanks to maritime trade.

However, a niggling doubt about a missing link made me continue with my search for that third elusive ingredient which would explain, for instance, the Thai inclination for the fiery or the mystery of why certain regions of undivided Bengal (including what is now Bangladesh) seemed to enjoy a much more fiery taste than regions that now fall within the purview of West Bengal, drawing a clear line between the two cuisines.

That was when I stumbled upon a third spice, called choi jhal or chui jhal (jhal means hot), referred to by culinary experts as the horseradish of South Asia. While the black pepper remains the undisputed king and the long pepper struggles to survive in the Indian spice pantheon, the once celebrated choi is poised to disappear very soon from culinary memory. Known botanically as Piper chaba or Piper retrofractum, this flowering vine too belongs to the Piperaceae family that once grew in profusion in the south-eastern and southern wetlands of West Bengal, Tripura, south-western regions of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Closely related to the pippali, this creeper spreads on the ground or grows around large trees. The leaves resemble those of the betel plant and the elongated fruit is similar to the long pepper. And like the long pepper, it has a distinct place in Ayurvedic medicine as gujj pippali.

However, the similarity ends where its use in cooking in West Bengal, Bangladesh or even Thailand is concerned. While the fruit of choi is not used in Bengal—unlike the pippali or black pepper, where the fruits or peppercorns are— Thailand and Malaysia do use it.

Red chillies, an integral part of Indian cuisine, were introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters
Red chillies, an integral part of Indian cuisine, were introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters

Time and again, social narratives in Bengali medieval literature mention it as a prized taste enhancer, with various parts of the entire plant being used in different dishes. These descriptions, however, stop suddenly and the trail goes cold. Modern cookery books or social histories make no mention of this spice in Bengali or other Indian cuisine, relegating it to the realm of alternative medicine.

Holding on to the belief that a once commonly used regional spice could not have vanished into thin air in a few hundred years, I continued to comb the trail, and finally struck gold. Persistent enquiries revealed that pockets of this tradition remain in the Howrah and Midnapore districts of West Bengal, and perhaps the Sundarbans. On the other side of the border, Bangladesh’s Khulna district is known as the last home of choi, though it’s also used in the Jessore, Bagerhat and Satkhira regions. A relatively expensive spice today owing to its exclusivity, the taste is similar to horseradish mingled with a pungently hot, fragrant lemony flavour.

Persistence paid off and I finally managed to get my hands on some, and decided, but naturally, to cook it with fish. What I had gathered was that the roots and the portion of the stem directly above it were the spiciest and most aromatic, the pungency coming down as it travelled up the stalks and twigs. The leaves are not eaten but they are are used medicinally in the form of a paste mixed with mustard oil, rubbed on newborn babies suffering from colic pain.

I proceeded to chop up the thick stem into small matchstick-sized pieces, as directed in the Mangal Kavyas, a large corpus of narrative poetry written between the 15th and 18th centuries in Bengal. Poet Dwja Bansidas describes how the choi stem was ground and added to mustard oil with turmeric, cumin and quartered brinjals along with rohu fish roe. Poet Vijaygupta offers yet another recipe: In it, choi was cut into small thin strips and stewed with turmeric, cumin and an eel-like fish called bain. Other recipes included venison, turtle or goat meat along with choi roots, stalks and twigs, or a simple vegetarian version of only tender choi stalks, which apparently had guests on fire at Behula and Lakhindar’s wedding, as described in medieval narrative poetry.

Armed with these recipes, I reached out to Khulna-born Tahmina Khan, 52, a consultant with the Asian Development Bank in Dhaka. Not much seemed to have changed. The only modern additions she made to the fish curry were onions and coriander powder. Brinjal, turmeric, cumin and choi were added just as they were five centuries ago.

Says Khan: “Add choi according to the level of fieriness that you want. And never add ginger because it interferes with choi’s very distinct flavour." She recommends a thin curry because, as she says, the fun lies in relishing the complex flavours of choi. The best thing about choi, she adds, is that even if just a little is added, the sticks become soft during the stewing, and sucking on its juices gives you the kick that you want. Unlike fiery chillies, however, the choi heat factor is momentary.

In Thailand, where choi goes by the name of dee plee, it is still in use in both its fresh and dried forms, being added to a variety of Thai sauces, curry pastes and soups to counter strong fishy flavours. Unlike India, Thailand also makes use of the orange-red fruits, both fresh and dried.

Choi has multiple medicinal properties. Research has isolated two major metabolites of the fruit—asaranin and sesamin—which together control hypertension, inflammation, and promote immunity and anti-carcinogenic activity.

A perennial plant once it takes root, Khan likens choi to the tea shrub, adding that it lasts a lifetime. The best time to plant a choi creeper is the monsoon.

While heat tolerance then seems stamped firmly into our DNA, a small incident some years ago made me realize why choi has disappeared from the Indian culinary lexicon. My sister and I, roaming the streets of London, stopped at a fancy delicatessen. Having chosen our breads and fillers, we had just settled down at a little table when my sister rummaged through her coat pocket and took out a ziplock bag. To my utter embarrassment, she calmly extracted a couple of fresh green chillies and proceeded to munch on them in between bites of her rye and roast beef sandwich. Seeing my shocked expression, she said: “Plain pepper just does not do it for me. I always carry chillies in my pocket wherever I go."

Well, choi needs some effort. As life became more complex, the advent of the easy-to-use, all-purpose chilli may have made it easier for the harried housewife to deliver a capsaicin fix over the piperine. It may have worked, but we lost some delicious flavours and some wisdom in healthy eating.

Fish curry with ‘choi’. Photo: Nayana Sengupta Afroz
Fish curry with ‘choi’. Photo: Nayana Sengupta Afroz

Fish curry with ‘choi’

Recipe from the 15th century narrative text ‘Mangal Kavyas’ by poet Vijaygupta. In the absence of the Bengal eel, it is possible to use ‘tangra’, which belongs to the catfish family.

Ingredients

1kg ‘tangra’ fish

40g turmeric

30g cumin paste

1 medium brinjal

200g ‘choi’ stalks

50ml mustard oil

Salt, to taste

Method

Clean the fish and marinate in 20g turmeric and salt. Slice the brinjal lengthwise. Cut the ‘choi’ stalks into longish strips.

Heat mustard oil and add the remaining turmeric and cumin paste. Add the ‘choi’ sticks. Fry till all the water has evaporated and the oil separates. Add salt and water to taste. Let it cook till the spices are blended and the ‘choi’ sticks have softened.

Add the brinjal slices and the fish. Cover and cook till the fish and brinjal are done.

Serve with hot steamed rice.

With inputs from Nayana Sengupta Afroz in Bangladesh.

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