Stuffed peppers come pickled, baked, or fried. They function as hors d’oeuvres, sides, even entrées. In short, they’re a versatile staple the world round, from the peperoni ripieni of Italy to the gochujeon of Korea. But there are two versions in particular that don’t, in my opinion, get their due in the United States—the first a lesser-known street food of India, the second a homegrown guilty pleasure.
Actually, there isn’t just one version of the Indian chile fritter commonly known in Hindi as mirchi bajji. Throughout the subcontinent (especially the southern regions), hyperlocal variations abound, as do the names they go by. Pushpesh Pant’s comprehensive 2010 India: The Cookbook alone lists three: all involve flour-coated and deep-fried peppers, but the mirchi vada from Rajasthan contain mashed potatoes, the milgai bhajiya from Tamil Nadu an onion-chile paste, the molagai (also from Tamil Nadu) no filling at all. To complicate matters further, the vast majority of English-language recipes I’ve studied both online and in print (including Pant’s) call for fresh chiles without specifying the type. Then again, perhaps the omission actually simplifies matters, suggesting that—at least in this case—what’s available is what’s appropriate, be it bhavnagri or banana peppers. (In the 2004 cookbook Indian Home Cooking, authors Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness expressly permit readers to use “any hot green chile you find in your supermarket” for their recipes.)
Mirchi isn’t readily available in Denver, but a fine example comes from the Tech Center outpost of national franchise Paradise Biryani Pointe. Here, the “cut mirchi” resembles what you’d find in the state of Andhra Pradesh: The chiles are fried in a mixture of chickpea and rice flours for a shatteringly crunchy-yet-light-and-airy shell, halved lengthwise, and topped with chopped red onions dressed in tamarind juice and masala spices. The result is addictive—at once salty, vegetal, tart, and invigoratingly piquant.
By contrast, jalapeño poppers are generally as awful as they are widespread. But they don’t have to be—after all, technically speaking, they’re just miniature chiles rellenos. Certainly you can take Wisconsin-based frozen food manufacturer Anchor Food Products’ claim to have invented them with a grain of salt (or better yet, with the salty retort of Taco USA author Gustavo Arellano when I asked him about it on Twitter: “That is the most bulls**t bulls**t I’ve ever read”). Although Anchor did trademark the popper as a cheapo mass product in the early 1990s, the likelihood is that Tex-Mex cooks were the first to make the leap from egg-battered poblanos to breaded jalapeños. Well-known blogger Lisa Fain of the Homesick Texan, for one, traces the similar armadillo egg back at least to the 1970s.
Today, poppers are a staple of the Great American Sports Bar—and when made with care, they’re irresistible. At Lincoln Park’s Stone Pony, for example, the green fruity flavor of plump, blistered jalapeños shines through the bacon wrapping, and a mere sprinkling of breadcrumbs and interior dab of melted cheese serve as simple salty accents. No greasy gut bombs, these—they’re proof rather that pub grub is as legit as any other culinary tradition.
Try It: In addition to the aforementioned version at Paradise Biryani Pointe (9678 E. Arapahoe Road, Greenwood Village, 303-247-9264), you’ll find mirchi halved or whole at fellow Tech Center franchise Bawarchi Biryani Point (11001 E. Arapahoe Place, Centennial, 720-799-5666). Meanwhile, both Jai Ho (1915 28th St., Boulder, 303-444-5151) in Boulder and its Lone Tree sibling Khazana (9234 Park Meadows Drive, Unit 700, 303-993-8335) offer the fritters as chilli bajji.
As for the jalapeño poppers, seek out the Stone Pony (1301 Santa Fe Drive, 720-398-8885) for the version I highlighted above. And while poppers don’t generally don’t benefit from gourmet twists, house-made pimiento cheese elevates 5280 Burger Bar’s (500 16th St., 303-825-1010) take on the classic. I also admit to a late-night soft spot for Barricuda’s (1076 N. Ogden St., 303-860-8353) basic style.
Now, let’s hear from you. Is your favorite jalapeño popper at the Cherry Cricket? My Brother’s Bar? The Berkshire, whose rendition was recommended to me on Twitter by the ever-reliable @denveronaspit? Leave your answers in the comment section below, or tweet them to us @5280Magazine.