The many stories of the Guntur Sannam

Updated: Apr 11

It’s always been hard for me to write something that I haven’t fully experienced. As someone who’s only lived in cities, it was initially quite the task to land on an appropriate topic to talk about nonurbanism. After a lot of internal conflict, it was only natural that I chose something that helped me stand out in a group. Guntur Chillies.

Spice tolerance has been a long standing ‘flex’ for so many Telugu people, both within their geographical spaces and outside of it. Through my research on this spice/fruit, I kept wondering if it was nonurban enough and through this I kept coming back to a story I’ve heard countless times from my maternal Tatagaru (Grandfather), about the chilli farms they used to own. Red chillies were and are till date, more than just a spice in a dish — chillies are a means to an end, they’re political and they’re an identity.

My grandfather, Subbarao Pavuluri, now a retired atheist and Chemical Engineer, comes from a family that owned a few acres of chilli farms in Guntur and its surrounding villages of Thimmapuram & Kovur.

He’s repeated countless times about the pungent smell of the chillies when they were being pounded into a powder (podi) and how that podi tasted when it was mixed with Jonna Annam and some Ghee. Podi is a common Telugu household item, sometimes used as a condiment with breakfast items, but very often eaten with rice/millets and the occasional ghee. Jonna Annam is Sorghum Rice, that looks something like this:

In his younger years — he claims — chilli was the main ingredient he remembers eating. Chilli powder that he thinks has built an immunity that has kept him alive for 72 years. I don’t know how far these beliefs of his are true, but I do know that the confidence will take him a long way.

The Guntur Sannam Chilli, like most other chilli variants (in the subcontinent), has its roots in the first ever introduction of the fruit in India in 1498 — brought to us by the Portuguese traveller, Vasco Da Gama.

It most likely spread to the flatlands of Andhra Pradesh, from Goa or one of the ports in the state, where it found its home in Guntur District; which now hosts and produces close to 48% of red chillies in the country.

If you’re in India (or even outside of it), and you see a red chilli that is long, and lean, then you’re most likely looking at the Guntur Sannam. Sannam being “thin”, in Telugu. Western standards of spice levels say that a Guntur Sannam is 35,000–40,000 Scoville Heat Units, but it sure feels a lot spicier than that when your tongue is alive with a tiny speck of the chilli’s Erra Karam (red powder).

What’s beautiful to me about the Guntur Sannam is that much like the people who grow it, it is all accepting. Hospitable. A flexible fit for most dishes. Aspirational. Strong yet comforting. Guntur Chillies have allowed me to stand out in a group, without making me feel alone.

It’s possible that the crop’s accepting nature is due to all the various weather conditions it accommodates — before it grows into its ultimate form. A warm and humid climate to grow in and exceptionally dry weather for when it needs to mature into a dried chilli.

A Guntur Sannam's growth

The climate in Guntur is such that the chilli can be grown throughout the year, with the harvest period beginning in December and ending in the summer (May). This is perfect because summer is when families and communities come together to make podis and pickles.

I’ve heard stories of how all the women would come together to one person’s house, and get started on making mango and red chilli pickles. They had to ensure that there wasn’t a single water droplet in the vicinity, or any other dirt. The children were asked to play together in a separate place and the men were shooed away to play cards or take long afternoon naps.

Each family from the region will have their own recipe and their own stories about the crop. My grandad’s was that he would walk back from school, wash up and have a plate heaped with Jonna Annam (Sorghum Rice), Red Chilli Podi and Ghee (if there was any).

My Tatagaru’s family, like most others, would also have a millet farm alongside a commercial crop, chillies in this case. And, if they didn’t, there was an organic barter system where families would exchange ingredients/crops with each other. Millets for ghee, or chillies for tomatoes.

The system is defined, efficient and self-sufficient. A lot of the zero waste, sustainable methods of living we try to incorporate in our urban lives are already a lived reality in rural ones.

This hot and pungent fruit, when held with bare hands, will leave your fingers and palms tingling. I attempted to recreate the podi that my grandad used to eat, and whilst preparing for it, I found out that there’s only 2 ingredients that I needed. Dried up Guntur Sannam Chillies and Salt. I was unsure of what it would be like — I mean, I had chilli powder in my kitchen already and it didn’t seem like something you could eat with rice (or any other grain) directly.

That’s before I started roasting the chillies. The smell, once I put them on a pan on high heat, was incredible. My nose was tingling and my fingers were itching to pick one up and bite into it.

Here’s a quick peel into how the red chilli powder is made.

Out-of-focus, matured (dried) red chillies. Pick a handful and drop them into a pan. Make sure to remove the stems, because you don’t necessarily want to eat it.

Turn the heat up for this one, and watch the chillies pop. They will start to turn a dark red/maroon.

Shakey-shake them until they’re dark red on both sides. If not your eyes, your nose will let you know when the chillies are ready to be taken off the heat. Trust your instincts!

Make sure your mortal and pestle is dry and clean before you drop in the roasted chillies.

Add a pinch of salt and pound the chillies in!

This piece of writing isn’t everything that I feel about Guntur Chillies. It’s a journey of taste that I haven’t comprehended yet.

This fruit/crop/ingredient/way of life, has always left me in awe and probably always will. What ingredient/food/crop would it be for you?

Photograph credits: Nidhi Kalavapudi

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