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Some folks eat them raw, while others are considering using them in anti-riot weapons.


The bhut jolokia pepper, which is farmed in the northeast part of the country, was plucked from obscurity last year when the Guinness Book of World Records declared it the world's hottest. The standard measure for such things is the Scoville Heat Unit, or SHU, named after Wilbur Lincoln Scoville, a chemist who in 1912 developed a method of assessing the heat given off by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Jalapeño peppers measure about 5,000 SHUs. The bhut jolokia tops a million.


"When you eat it, it feels like dying," touts one online retailer. Even packaging the stuff is a pain. "Our workers wear goggles, face masks, head cover and protective clothing," says Ananta Saikia, whose firm is the pepper's sole exporter. "They look like astronauts." He and his wife have started shipping tons of dried bhut jolokia around the world, including Germany, England and the U.S. Annual sales, he says, are expected to jump 500% this year.


Locals here in Assam and the neighboring states of Manipur and Nagaland add fresh chopped chilies to the pot when cooking curries. The hardiest eat them raw as a condiment. Dried pepper powder and flakes are sold online in the U.S. and abroad.




500x hotter than scotch bonnet?


Dave's fiery foods


Food scientists speculate that hot chilies have an unexpected side effect that boosts their popularity. A publication of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York described it this way: "When capsaicin comes into contact with the nerve endings in the tongue and mouth, pain messengers, called neurotransmitters, are sent to the brain in a panic. The brain, mistakenly perceiving that the body is in big trouble, responds by turning on the waterworks to douse the flames. The mouth salivates, the nose runs and the upper body breaks into a sweat. The heart beats faster and the natural painkiller endorphin is secreted. In other words, you get a buzz."


It's similar to a runner's high, says Bruce Bryant, a researcher for the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which specializes in analyzing taste. That may explain why plants shunned by starving animals end up in party bowls next to the chips. "We're about the only species who like hot peppers," he says. "You can't even train a rat to like them."


The chilies are so loved in Assam that locals brighten at just the mention of bhut jolokia. "I've been eating them for 25 years," says Indrajit Karayan Dev, a filmmaker in Guwahati, Assam's capital. "I have two plants near my garage and every morning I pluck one for lunch. We eat them raw, pickled, in vegetable stir-fries and in chicken soup." Hoihnu Hauzel, the New Delhi-based author of a cookbook on northeast Indian cuisine, says her mother keeps her stocked. "I grew up in Manipur," she says. "Now, whenever someone comes here from home, my mother sends me some."


Besides its heat, the bhut jolokia departs from other peppers with its distinct flavor. Raw, it has a strong vegetable smell. Cooked with pork in a curry, it gives the meat a perfume-like sweetness. "It doesn't just make the dish spicy," says Ms. Hauzel. "It enhances the flavor." Bhut jolokia chilies look like jalapeño peppers and redden as they ripen. Some devotees chop a single chili for a pot of curry; others use a half pepper to accompany a meal. "Our whole family can share one chili for an entire week," says Mr. Saikia.


Although it's been eaten in northeast India for centuries, the bhut jolokia pepper would still be undiscovered by the rest of the world if not for scientist R.K.R. Singh. He works at the Indian government's Defense Research Laboratory, which occupies a tree-shaded campus in Assam, outside the city of Tezpur. Seven years ago, Mr. Singh, who loves bhut jolokia, got curious about its heat quotient. "We knew it was hot, but no one knew how hot," he says. He asked for a lab analysis, and the results were submitted to a scientific journal.

[Pepper heat chart]


Word of the tests reached the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University, which is widely regarded as the final arbiter of all chili questions. The institute is headed by Paul Bosland, a 54-year-old horticulture professor. "I put all my chilies in one basket," he says of the 22 years he's devoted to studying hot peppers. "It was always a poor sister to tomatoes in terms of research."


Mr. Bosland grew bhut jolokia from seed in the desert climate of southern New Mexico and discovered, " 'Oh my gosh, this is hot,' " he recalls. A panel of tasters used to rank chilies. Now a process called high performance liquid chromatography does all the work, with results given in Scoville Heat Units. The peppers yielded a reading of 1,041,427 SHUs, twice that of the California red savina pepper, the previous record-holder. An SHU is the amount of dilution needed before the chili is undetectable. A drop of bhut jolokia extract needs a million drops of water.


The Saikias expect their company, Frontal Agritech Ltd., to sell 25 tons of dried chilies for the fiscal year ending in March. Mr. Saikia, 45, a horticulture professor at Assam Agricultural University, says the couple started their export business in 2004, knowing "we had a unique thing here." Shipments are certified by the Spices Board of India, a stamp of approval that allows entry into most overseas markets, he says.


Among their customers is Tom Beasley, of Merritt Island, Fla. He started buying powdered bhut jolokia six months ago and sells it at his Web site, burnmegood.com, with the promotion, "It's so hot, you can't even imagine; when you eat it, it's like dying."


The market for bhut jolokia, while growing, may be limited by the very quality that's put it on the map. "I've never even had a bite of bhut jolokia," says Mr. DeWitt, despite his career promoting hot foods. "I've reached the level I really like, and there's no reason to exceed that level." The head of India's defense lab, Mr. Srivastava agrees. "I'm from New Delhi," he says. "It's too hot for me."

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  • 5 years later...

You know what happens when you pick up some interesting looking chilis in the market, cut into one and test it against your tongue?


Hilarious to watch, I'm sure.


Anyway, they're really very hot, with a habanero-ish aroma, I think I'll make chili oil as I just can't think of any other use for more than a tiny bit.

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Didn't know, and they don't look anything like Habaneros or other extra hot chilis I've had before. Also, peppers here except ones sold in Korean markets are usually bred to be not hot at all (even ones you'd think would be pretty hot tend to only have a hint of heat) so it was a bit of a surprise. Only took about 10 minutes to stop running around making funny noises, but I can imagine how bad it would be to bite into one.

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Forgive me for referencing these people, but on some of Guy Fieri's shows this past week (DDD, I think), he hit a couple of places that used ghost peppers in their sauce for chicken wings. Unless it was one place he spotlighted and another that the idiot from Man vs. Food was at. The only satisfaction was that Guy and his goons and Adam What's-his-name were all gasping for breath after eating the stuff. [Yes, when I am on vacation, I take advantage of having a television to watch the Food Network/Bravo/Travel Channel crap shows. I had my standards, though; I switched off Semi-Ho.]

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Where'd you get it? It was near impossible to find jalapenos much less any kind of "serious" chile when I lived in Japan. National Azabu? The market in the basement of that building in Ameyoko-cho? (the only place I ever found plantains, btw)


Yes, that's why it was such a surprise. There's a new-ish market in the basement of ShinQ, I think it's called Natural Market (ナチュラルマーケット) but is really operated by Meidi-ya. Good selection of the usual Japanese fruits and vegetables, square watermelons and everything, and then this. Go figure.

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Meidi-ya did have some interesting stuff sometimes. I noticed stores would have the most random things for brief periods of time, then you'd never see them again. Hankyu depachika (the one in Nishinomiya, anyway, which wasn't chika but on the main floor) sometimes had stuff like rhubarb and rutabaga (for very high prices).


If you ever need chiles of normal spice levels, that market in Ameyokocho had thai bird chiles. Frozen, but they still worked.

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