In the Guntur chilli yard, trading, packaging, and exporting this lucrative produce is a century-old tradition, fuelled with pride and passion for the land and its culture. Chilli is dried in the hours just before sunset, while the skin is still fresh from plucking; this makes the product easier to store. Later, on the same day, based on the Scoville level—the measurement for heat and pungency—different varieties are separated and labelled for export all over the world. In the evening, in the kitchens that constitute the local gastronomy, the bright red skins of these peppers are crafted into exceptional cuisines, and contrary to popular opinion, often mild in taste.
Mirapakaya bajji is just one of the many foods associated with the region. Of course, this place, and neighbourhood townships like Prakasam can also add ulavacharu biryani, kara podi, gongura pachadi and kichdi-kabab to their list. Some local favourites have made their way abroad as well—Guntur-style Ambada Gosht is simmered in a coal-burning just a few blocks from Spencer Street in Manchester.
Over nine days in late April, I immersed myself in Guntur’s chilli culture, indulging in roughly five dishes a day at eateries both modern and remote, cosmopolitan and open-air, perched on the Chennai highway, attempting to understand not only an unexplored set of flavours but also the intricacies of spice in food and ordering it well. Above all, I wanted to figure out why such a simple ingredient—brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century—inspired a geographically limited culinary movement, and to get familiar with Guntur itself.
My accomplice and local guide for much of this spiced-up adventure was Abhi Boini, a 42-year-old plantation worker from Amravati. Slender, sunburnt, and bespectacled, Mr Boini considered himself a “chilli connoisseur”, his sharp, well-built figure a proof of his organic diet that was well-balanced, with an appetite for green chillies. Not that he grew up feasting on such foods in his hometown. It was only in March 2012, after years of noticing the queues outside Ananda Bhavan, a contemporary restaurant in the Arundelpet neighbourhood, that he finally decided to familiarise himself with this cuisine.
Boini believed that a culinary revolution is brimming in Guntur, a quiet in-house movement prepping to make a debut on the international screen. Driven by home cooks and local chefs mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, its motivation is to confront the lack of mainstream representation, followed by an aspiration to represent the chilli in southern Indian restaurants all across India.
Today, Ananda Bhavan’s table remains busy, but Mr Boini’s vision has evolved beyond the restaurant’s serviceable gongura pickle and slightly undercooked pulusu. After Ananda, he turned me to Bilal Biryani, a storefront chain with a branch just outside the Chennai highway, a wild west, often truckers-only zone.
Bilal looks more like an exclusive kitchen-diner than a traveller’s eatery. The dining area is unmarked, its walls pinned up with 16th-century memorabilia, and you place your order not by waving your arm around, as is often standard, but with a torn piece of paper marked randomly, coded for the server, who lets you adjust just how “Guntur” you want your rice. We left our fate to the waiter—who recommended Masāleyukta—and that’s what we got just 10-minutes later, a plateful of par-cooked rice, topped with caramelised onion, with saffron-hued braised lamb peeking from under.
We dug in with our fingers and didn’t stop for the next three hours. In fact, we left the cinnamon and peppercorn-infused hot oil on our plates to flavour an almost requisite extra helping of biryani we’d ordered. The shorba that would sneak up on us wasn’t burning either—broiled and smooth with a hint of star anise, steamed for days until soft and pungent—and the salan were chef’s kiss, but this biryani was all about the chilli, more accurately the Teja variety that grows between Warangal and Prakasam.
After a few days in Guntur, I’d collected several theories why a menu that winds through an internationally recognised region still remains incognito. At Vengamamba—a charcoal-walled supper club done up like a ’60s cafe, with rounded tables for community leaders to sit around and fill up on tea and nibbles—with a series of paintings explaining that in the late ’90s as southern Indian cuisine became industrialised with an upwardly aspiration as kulambu, sambar, kotto attained “gourmet” status, the chilli became a reminder as to what home-cooking felt like. By the 2000s, the nuances of indigenous dishes bowed down to the negative connotation associated with India’s spicy-filed gastronomy and held itself local.
The night Mr Boini and I ate our final meal together at Nawab Shaw’s Kitchen, for example, we found a tribal group with a garden they had proudly inherited from their farmer grandparents. He walked up to a young man, his eyes hopeful with a chance to show me another gem, prove to me that there’s much left of the treasure trove we were exploring, and asked, in Kannada, if they had some gongura for us to borrow, in their satchel. They shared their pickle with us and we ended up having dinner at their home.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.
Sneha Chakraborty is a multimedia journalist and photographer reporting from Western Europe and the U.K., as she continues to travel the region widely, writing at the intersection of culture and food. When she's not working, you can most likely find her running—often towards baked goods.