A patchwork of dusty browns and grays assembled from low-slung corrugated metal slums pockmarked by fatigued half-built high-rises, Mumbai can appear washed out, drained of color. But if you close your eyes and trust your nose, there are bold technicolor pops to be found, an aromatic chaos as delicious as it is overwhelming.
Syrupy heaps of mangos warming under intense sun. Bracing freshness from mounds of cilantro and mint. Wafts of sharp citrus from piles of lemons and limes. Kettles of milky teas simmering with floral cardamom. And my favorite: the gently tingling sweet heat of Kashmiri chilies, northern India’s go-to brick-red seasoning used liberally across the cuisine.
In one small village, that aroma is paired with a rhythmic pounding you feel in your chest. In a shed no larger than a closet, a man stoops before an ancient machine driving steel pistons over and again into the ground, grinding those dried chilies into powder, every thud threatening to take off the man’s fingers. It’s mesmerizing and terrifying.
Those chilies appeared on repeat, perfuming, dying and flavoring so much of what I ate during a weeklong exploration of the city’s food. It was a valuable reminder that chilies don’t need to add heat. The right chilies—or blends of chilies—can instead impart sweet, floral flavor backed by a gentle warmth, a combination that marries so well with so many foods.
My real lesson in this came from Rumya Misquitta, a home cook who taught me chicken vindaloo. This classic dish with Portuguese origins deliciously blends tons of mild chilies with brightly acidic vinegar to create a sauce in which meat—traditionally pork, but increasingly any meat—first marinates, then cooks.
The lesson is simple. In a blender, she purees a host of spices—cumin, turmeric, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves with garlic, a bit of sugar and more than a dozen dried chilies that had soaked in vinegar. The result is a thick paste that is bright red and sweetly aromatic. After the chicken soaks in this, the entire batch—meat and marinade—goes into the skillet to cook.
It’s that simple. It’s on the table in minutes. It’s addictive. The flavors are deep, tasting of mildly sweet chili heat and warm paprika, balanced by sugar and tangy vinegar. The chicken is savory and tender, with cilantro keeping everything fresh and balanced. A one-skillet meal that packs an impossible amount of flavor.
At Milk Street, Misquitta’s recipe was easy to replicate but for one thing: Kashmiri chilies aren’t common in the U.S. The powder is available online, but for ease we developed our recipe using a blend of cayenne pepper and sweet paprika. Less evocative than piston-pounded chili powder, perhaps. But almost as delicious.