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
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,
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
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
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.