India’s ‘ghost pepper’ chilli is so hot villagers use it to repel elephants. Will Britain be able to handle it?
- The bhut jolokia is India’s hottest chilli – it’s 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce and can induce breathing difficulties in diners
- Ghost peppers are often deployed at chilli-eating competitions, where ambulances wait nearby in case competitors need their stomachs washed
India’s hottest chilli, the bhut jolokia, is 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce and can induce breathing difficulties in diners. In 2007, it was declared the spiciest chilli in the world, a title it held for four years. In July it was exported to Britain for the first time.
Bhut jolokia, which means Bhutanese pepper, is also known as the “ghost pepper”, Naga chilli or Raja Mircha. Grown mainly in the states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, it has a distinctive, pungent smell and has been used in meat dishes for centuries.
In these northeastern states, masalas are less popular than in the rest of the country, so the chilli is used to add extra kick to pork, chicken and fish recipes. Chicken is often cooked with dry bamboo shoots and ghost peppers. King chilli chutney is another staple, made with axone (fermented soybean), Naga garlic and dried fish. It can also be combined with mustard oil to make a fiery dip.
For Papori Bharati, who works in the travel industry in Delhi, ghost peppers remind her of her home in Assam.
“Bhut jolokia is more than just a chilli,” she said. “It’s an emotion for us Assamese people – it’s not only about the level of spice but it’s unique fruity, citrus flavour which is just out of the world. I love it in a pickle with bamboo shoot and mustard oil and it always reminds me of home.
“When you first bite on a small piece it’s almost sweet, after a few seconds the spiciness starts and intensifies for about 10 minutes. The lips, gums and your entire mouth stings with the chilli. But you get used to it.”
Joel Basumatari, a chef from Nagaland who runs a food processing unit in Dimapur, said the chilli’s precise origins remain hotly debated, whether it belongs to Assam or Nagaland.
“Those that grow at a higher altitude have more flavour and pungency,” he said. “As kids we used to have small bites of the raw chilli, with just salt and lime. It is a quintessential element of the Naga kitchen, and because it has a short shelf life we usually dry it to preserve it – either smoked or sun-dried – to use through the year. We are also now trying to dehydrate it to preserve it.”
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Atul Lahkar, an Assamese chef who has gathered more than 400 traditional recipes from the state’s different tribes and communities, also preferred the chilli’s raw taste, “just after harvesting, along with rice”.
“Most hill tribes never used spice as they had no access to oil and this was their main way of adding verve to a dish,” he said. “The chilli differs from region to region in taste and heat. Of course we do make pickles and chutneys with it, but nothing beats the raw taste.”
Capsaicin, which is one of the active ingredients in chilli peppers, causes the brain to produce endorphins and has also been used to treat digestive problems.
Ghost peppers are often deployed at chilli-eating competitions, such as the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, where competitors must devour the chillies along with milk powder. Ambulances wait nearby to ferry competitors to hospital to have their stomachs washed. In 2006, Anandita Dutta set a record by eating 60 ghost peppers in two minutes.
British chefs and diners will soon be able to enjoy to fierce flavour of the ghost pepper, but Basumatari wonders whether they’ll be able to handle it.
“Liking chicken tikka masala and chutneys is one thing,” he said. “But it remains to be seen how the British adapt to this fiery chilli that make faces red and eyes water.”