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Spice Hunting: Curd Chiles

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

I was on the phone with a friend of Indian descent when, on a whim, I rifled through my pantry and asked her if she ever heard of something called curd chiles. I picked them up on a shopping trip and hadn't researched them yet, so I knew next to nothing about them. Her response was beyond enthusiastic—she couldn't contain her excitement. She put her mother (a living Encyclopedia Culinaria of Indian cuisine) on the phone to tell me all about them. They demanded I write about these pods, and after cooking with them I see why. Curd chiles are uniquely preserved—they're dried, marinated, and cured—and are all the more delicious for it.

Curd chiles don't refer to any specific chile, but rather a preservation process. In addition to drying the chiles out for long-term storage, the process alleviates some of their heat and imbues them with a tangy, yogurty, ever so slightly cheesy flavor. Most commonly they top mild dishes as a salty, spicy garnish, or are used in lieu of dried red chiles in recipes.

The curing process itself is like the Indian version of charcuterie, and it's a fine example of the inextricable union of homespun culinary culture and the rhythms of daily life. In the evening the cook prepares the chiles to be cured. Sometimes they're slit down the side, sometimes they're left whole. They're then immersed in buttermilk or yogurt and a fair amount of salt. How much salt, and the option of including other spices like cumin, asafoetida, or fenugreek, is left up to the cook. In the morning, when the sun comes hot and early, the chiles are set out to dry. When the sun recedes, they're returned to the yogurt cure. The process continues for a week or so until the chiles have absorbed as much of the cure as they can and are thoroughly dried.

How to Use Curd Chiles

The most common use for curd chiles is as a topping for curd rice, a classic comfort food dish of cooked rice mixed with yogurt and, if you're feeling fancy, an assortment of oil-fried spices. The chiles, deep fried before serving, add salty crunch, another layer of yogurt flavor, and considerable heat. Some curd chile fans dispense with food pairings and munch them like popcorn, straight out of the frying pan. Take care when frying—they cook in 30 seconds or less, and can burn easily.

Beyond traditional uses, curd chiles make killer beer snacks, and they're way better than wasabi peas. Sneak some in with your bowl of salted nuts, both to keep your guests drink-happy and to moderate thoughtless munching. Or add them to your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe (which is, more or less, the American analogue of curd rice). Minced fine, they can garnish spicy salad greens like arugula or cress, or give piquancy to mild, creamy cheese spreads. You can also just use them in place of the generic dried red chile called for in countless Indian recipes. Prolonged cooking weakens the chiles' unique character though, so they're best added at the end of cooking.

Sourcing Curd Chiles

To make your own curd chiles, use about 2 pounds of chiles for a quart of yogurt and a tablespoon of salt (you can add more throughout the cure—the chiles should taste decidedly salty). You can use jalapeños, serranos, Hatch chiles, or whatever large-ish chile strikes your fancy. Repeat the soak-and-sun-dry process until the chiles have drunk up most of the yogurt and are brittle dry, about ten days, then store for one to two years.

If you don't want to go through the trouble of making them, seek out curd chiles at an Indian grocery. Typically the smaller the chile, the hotter it'll be, so purchase and experiment accordingly. You can also find them online at I Shop Indian, $2 for 3.5 ounces.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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