Raghu Nandan Dhar profiles the unknown Mirchi Seth of Mumbai and also brings out another well-kept secret: one of the world’s finest malt whiskies is made in India!" />
Chilli King
It is hot. It is red. It is burning. With 400 known varieties around the world, chilli is the dominant spice in any Indian’s daily diet, thanks to Vasco da Gama.

Everyone who remembers elementary school history knows that Vasco da Gama discovered the spice route to India. It is never mentioned that he brought chillies along, thereby adding awesome firepower to the culinary variety of the sub-continent. And, today, we have the hottest chilli variety (on the Scoville scale) in the world growing in Tezpur, Assam called Naga Jolokia or Tezpur mirchi.

In a teeming metro like Mumbai, which is a melting pot of cultures, chillies are in ‘hot’ demand, all the time. Green chillies are probably the most-used ingredient in any Indian recipe, followed by red chillies which are widely used in powdered form. Such is the demand for red chilli powder that several unscrupulous traders have gone to jail for mixing red-coloured sawdust into it to beef up volumes and weight and earn a few extra bucks. In Mumbai, the chilli trade is mainly controlled by a person called Mirchi Seth. A native of Udupi, 58-year-old Mirchi Seth began his career as a waiter in an Udupi restaurant in Mumbai. He also doubled up as a carrier-boy for transporting vegetables from the Byculla market (in central Mumbai) to the restaurant. As the story goes, he seemed to have a special feel for green chillies and could pick the best of them by touch. The owner of the restaurant entrusted him with the purchase of vegetables, especially green chillies. Of course, Mirchi Seth then was called Gasper Serravo.

Serravo soon started getting better and better at selecting and buying chillies for his master. Soon, an entrepreneurial spark was lit. He teamed up with his brother and started selecting and supplying green chillies to several restaurants. Along the way, he realised that there was no single source of green chillies. Chillies came from different regions in different seasons. The popular cultivation areas of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra were used as seasonal sources to keep the chillies supplied to the ever-growing population of Mumbai and its extended suburbs.

Serravo’s big break came when the wholesale market shifted from Mumbai to Vashi. It was here that Serravo was able to come into his own because of the availability of storage space. Besides, he could pick up the entire crop from farmers and dump it into the godowns of Vashi and Navi Mumbai and then manage the demand from there. It also enabled him to book chillies directly from dealers across various states and supply them to a range of customers – from restaurants to vegetable vendors – thereby covering and capturing the entire value chain.

He even branched into the restaurant business and now owns the popular Hotel Navratna in Vashi. Serravo has been donating liberally to various charities, educational institutions and religious organisations but prefers to remain anonymous. Even today, his focus is chillies. They conjure up a magic for him. Now, like Harry Winston was to the global diamond trade, Serravo has achieved cult status in Mumbai’s chilli trade. It is said that, besides Maharashtra and Gujarat, he is supplying chillies to several southern states as well.

From South America to India, chillies have journeyed through exciting times. Christopher Columbus brought chillies to Portugal and mistook it for pepper because he had set out to discover India and trade in pepper and mistook chillies for the pungent black seeds. But today nearly a quarter of the world’s chilli produce comes from India. Besides, Indians are the biggest consumers as well. It is a journey well made from chilli to mirchi and from Serravo to Mirchi Seth.

Himalayan Malt, among the World’s Finest
Ever since Japanese distilleries won the top three spots in a ranking of the 20 best malt whiskies in the world, Indians have got a chance. Nikka’s Yoichi (a distillery) was chosen as the best single malt this year in England. Suntory, a Japanese distillery, has a label Hibaki, all of 18 years old, as the prize winner. Yamazaki, another label from Suntory, sells 20 times more cases in Britain today than it did just four years ago. Suntory was set up 80 years ago.

Can Indians ever, ever make the best bubbly? Of course, but it will not be called Champagne. Nor should it be called Pimpagne, as one highly imaginative wine-maker tried to label his wine made in Pimpalgaon, Maharashtra! It bombed. Better still, we could make malts. If the Japanese can, why not we? We do have fine brewing and distilling traditions and historians will always tell you about soma ras. Now, let us talk specifics. Can any distillery in India make the world’s finest malt whisky, which can, of course, compete with the traditional Lagavulins and Glenmorangie and also take on the Japanese as well as the rest of the world? It is not that India lacks the technology. The various malt-producing country manuals list about 14 active distilleries in India, while Japan has only about nine. Besides, Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh has one of the best traditional Pots and Column distillery. It was set up in the 19th century and is now owned by Mohan Meakins. The region is mountainous, spring water is said to come from melting glaciers and the grain too is said to be of great quality. The result has been a product called Solan No. 1. People who have had Solan No. 1 swear by it. They say it is among the best malts that can be had anywhere in the world. But, it is not readily available. Most of it is consumed by our defence forces and very few cases even make it from Kasauli to New Delhi. Why is it such a secret, when the world has decidedly converted itself into malt drinkers? And even some of the conservative distilleries in Scotland have been marketing and advertising their malt products across the globe. The coyness of Solan No. 1 is inexplicable. At least in wine, we have seen a determined and planned aggression. But a 19th century distillery up in the mountains, having an enviable track record in making malt, does not even have landmark bottles, like a 21-year-old single cask. Even the solitary distillery at Murree in Pakistan has started marketing its 21-year-olds and 18-year-olds across the globe. Pakistan? Yes. Sadly enough, Indians are lagging. Thankfully, beer makers do not suffer from such reservations, otherwise the brewing and distilling industry in India would be a well-kept secret. There is a need to compete in the international market and be acknowledged by peers. When you combine a rich tradition and a redoubtable product, a great label is born. Add a little bit of design and Solan No.1 would be jostling with Jura and Oban, at the world’s glitziest duty-free shops.

It is not just a bottle, but a part of a tradition, part of locale, tourism, and of craftsmanship that is being hawked. Indian malt ranking among the finest malts in the world is certainly do-able. It requires passion and imagination. To ignite that, sit back, take a bottle of any Indian malt, pour a drink, take a sip and then let the magic potion called the malt take over. The liquid gold can fire any dull sense into ecstasy. The rest is easy.

A veteran journalist Raghu Nandan Dhar has an easy knack of seeing everything in a different light.

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