I love chillies – but not in an immature “How hot can I take it?” way. I tried a Phal in a Pakistani restaurant 20 years ago and couldn’t see the point. My favoured chilli sensation is when their heat and combination with other spices begins to make the scalp tingle, without blasting the taste buds and masking any other flavours. The kick and warmth they give to a dish can be such a satisfying, and variable, experience it surprises me they didn’t really make their presence felt in the UK until the 19th C. Ginger, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, yes, for centuries. But not chillies. Perhaps someone knows why.
Whenever I see a batch on the reduced shelf in the supermarket I grab them, any that don’t get used before they begin to soften being pickled or put in a big pan of pasta sauce to be frozen.
The pickled chillies in the shops over here tend to be the Anaheim or banana varieties, long, tapering fruits, not too fiery, that can be eaten as a snack or with a salad. (I’m not including jalapenos – just a personal thing). I prefer to pickle bird’s eye, or Calcutta, chillies as they’re smaller, stronger and better suited to cooking.
2 or 3 handfuls bird’s eye chillies
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
A few black peppercorns
200ml cider vinegar
Trim any long stalks from the chillies. While the other ingredients are gently simmering for 10 minutes or so, cut a small slit in each one and pack them fairly tightly – they float – into still hot, sterilised jars with, optionally, a peeled clove of garlic, a bayleaf and maybe a sprig of your favourite herb. I’ve used thyme, fresh and dried, with equally good results. Another option is to add a teaspoon of coriander and/or black mustard seeds to the vinegar, but I’ve kept this simple.
Pour over the hot pickling vinegar, including the peppercorns, screw on the lids and leave for three or four weeks to mature.
I use them in curries when I’m out of fresh chilli, as a pizza topping alongside pickled mushrooms, in pasta sauce or salads, anywhere you might use fresh chillies.