The Hottest Stuff in the World

In September 2000, a military laboratory in the garrison town of Tezpur in northeastern India announced that it had identified the hottest chili in the world. After some disputing claims and questions of authenticity, it was scientifically proven by New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, where spiciness is a religion. The Guinness Book of World Records also heralded the discovery.

The Hottest Chili

Bhut Jolakia2 The chili is known as “Bhut Jolokia” (translated as “Ghost Chili”), or “Naga Jolakia”, after the Naga warriors from Nagaland in northeastern India. The hotness of chili is measured using the Scoville scale. For a list of Scoville ratings of different chilies and sauces, see this. For a quick summary: Classic Tabasco sauce ranges from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. Your basic jalapeno pepper measures anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000. The previous record holder, the Red Savina habanero, was tested at up to 580,000 Scovilles.

The Bhut Jolokia crushed those contenders, testing at 1,001,304 Scoville units.

Eating Bhut Jolokia

The news is few months old, but was revived recently by an Associated Press reporter who dared to eat one full bhut jolokia (read the full experience, it would be unjust to read just a snippet). Incidentally, another news broke out last month of a 17-month old toddler, who happily devours a handful of them at a time, without batting an eyelid – since he also smears his eyes with them. Fortunately, his illiterate parents do not wish to send him to make world records, unlike some other highly literate ones.

While all this has been making the news rounds, my interest in this story came from multiple angles.

North-Eastern Region of IndiaBhut Jolakia

For a change, there is some good news from and for North-Eastern India. For complex reasons, the people from this region are not treated at par with others in the rest of India. The world record status has given them a sense of pride.

The economy of the region is precarious, with tea-making on a steady decline. There are some hopes that the exports of this hot chili will help – not in a revolutionary way, but any help is good news for now.

Globalization

What? Aren’t we talking about chilies? Yes, we are. Remember, LIFE Magazine included the discovery of the potato in the 100 Most Important Events of the past 1000 Years. Similarly, some interesting facts from a nice article in Time:

  • The remarkable spread of the chili is a piquant chapter in the story of globalization. Few other foods have been taken up by so many people in so many places so quickly.
  • In terms of keeping billions of people fed, the chili can hardly compare to rice or corn or even potatoes, of course. But by adding spice to such staples, by making even the poorest food rich in flavor, the chili has become one of the most important ingredients in the world. For hundreds of millions of poor, chilies are the one luxury they can afford every day, a small burst of flavor in the slums of Asia or the parched grazing land of West Africa.
  • Chilies are native to South America, where people have been cultivating and trading them for at least 6,000 years. (Six thousand years?!)
  • In 2001 UK’s then Foreign Minister Robin Cook called chicken tikka masala the country’s national dish.
  • In the US, Mexican food is ever more popular; salsas and chili sauces have outsold tomato-based ketchup since the early 1990s.

Science

Why do we like chili?

The heat in chilies turn on the pain receptors in our mouth and on our tongue. It’s essentially a defense mechanism designed to stop (us) animals devouring the (chili) pod. Our body reacts as if it’s a poison.

At a very low level, our body’s nervous system releases endorphins, a type of mild natural opiate, to ease the sting. It’s that mix of pleasure and pain that makes eating chilies such a wonderful experience.

No, eating chilies cannot become an addiction. And if you still have questions, here’s a Chili FAQ.

Photo Credits: Manish Swarup, AP

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  • Mahendra,
    Don’t even mention US-Mexican chillies in the same breath! The US chillies, soaked in sweetish vinegar, are a joke!
    While it is good to have chili as part of your spice-dose in your food, there are countries and groups of people who consume chili in excess and have a predilection to developing cancer of the esophagus and the stomach. In India, Andhra Pradesh is one such group, while Iran and the belt extending to China is a high risk area.

  • It looks so harmless.

  • I remember reading about this (Naga Jolakia) a couple of years (?) ago in the Chicago Tribune. Felt strangely proud that an Indian chili should hold the record for spice. Seemed apt but now of course it seems childish and silly :). Besides, chilli-pepper isnt even indigenous to India. I am still yet to convince some of my colleagues that this is the record holder – they still only believe the “old news”.

    I can handle spicy stuff but have had trouble with some extra spicy habenaro based salsas. This one sounds way too deadly but yet tempting ;).

  • One of my very good friends is Indian and she makes this amazing lamb dish that is, by far, the spiciest thing I have ever eaten. I wish I could remember the name.

  • Rambodoc: Iran, belt extending to China? I knew Thailand, but Iran and China as chili lovers is news to me!

    Arunk: yes, strangely proud is a nice way to put it, and yes, how amazing considering it isn’t indigenous! Regarding convincing, yes, I also wanted to highlight how the Guiness Book of World Records lends tremendous credibility and acceptance to a fact, over and above multiple scientific tests.

    Aikaterene: anything that red and and chili-shaped doesn’t look harmless to me at all! 🙂 I do not know which lamb dish it might be, there are so many Indian spicy dishes…and from what I’ve tasted of Greek cuisine, yes, it must be the spiciest you’ll ever eat!

  • haha, you are right, Greek cuisine is not known for ‘spicy’. My friend has made many lamb dishes, I wasn’t expecting anyone to know. I am on the second day of my yearly three week fast, so I was just hungry. I am still hungry.

  • An interesting utility of this Chilli might be to stuff it into Gol Gappey or Pani Puri and Feed it to the person you hate the most…. (In one Gulp, he would experience what has been described above….)

  • Ha ha ha, that would be a real killer! Shall we call it Bhut Puri?! 😉

  • Hmm…… Call it Garam Lal Chilli Mirchi Pathaka…… Thats as far as my Vocab goes…. Add some more words to intensify the term…….

  • Anil,
    What you are talking about is already available. it’s called the Hyderabadi Mirchi Bajji. To merely call it spicy would be like calling the current American President intellectually challenged.

  • Krishashok –

    That was funny. I laughed.

  • Aikaterine: Krish and Rambodoc always makes me laugh. And laughter is a great ingredient in my otherwise serious, unquiet blog. In case you didn’t read it before, Krish considers me as his twin brother. His blog is quite Indian and Tamil-centric, but it packs such a great deal of humor that it’s like a monthly anti-unquiet shot at once. Unfortunately most of his humor is Tamil and Indian centric, so as a Maharashtrian, sometimes even I miss out on the fun!

  • joshua

    I am a northeasterner and yes, the NE people are treated differently by the rest of India in one or the other ways. There are a couple of things I’d like to mention about my personal experiences after staying in bangalore for 8 years. Yes, one reason why a lot of people isolate themselves from the northeastern people is because of the oriental/asian looks that we possess. Another reason that is partially true which is the language barrier… Pls do not misunderstand me….majority from the northeast are reserved by nature(lol) and therefore, a lot of other indians think we can’t communicate with them at all… Try us… we can speak English….or HIndi for that matter… Also, I’ve had people asked me where’s nagaland, manipur, or darjeeling, mizoram or even Assam for that matter… At that point of time, my only response would be… get back to high school and you’ll get all the informations… Majority of Indians from the mainland will agree with me.. that is.. if you take one step toward a northeasterner, he/she will take 2 steps to receive you…This proves and shows our hospitality… The truth of the matter is,people rarely try us which is ofcourse sad…So, the next time pls take the initiative to befriend(positive term) a northeasterner and see the result…..
    last but not the least, I’ve also had a lot of friends from down south say that people from the north are generally haughty and by that they meant to say the Delhites.. and again, pls Delhites don’t take it in other sense…it’s just vice versa… the delhites think that people from the south are haughty..you know it goes on…Therefore, to every indian I’d like us to open up our minds and thoughts and take the initiative in being hospitable to everyone..After all, we are all humans and we need friends and not enemies… We are all strangers on this planet.. which means all of us have to go one of these days(death)..
    Hi guys, thanks for sharing all your views,ideas and thoughts which really makes me happy because atleast the norteastern people are talked about here….If this note seems funny or if it has angered you pls forgive me…

  • joshua

    I am sorry.. to add this again since I made a mistake up there…. majority of mainland Indians who have association with the northeasterners will agree with me that we are hospitable people and friendly too…As I’ve just mentioned in the above note, give us a chance and we will prove our friendliness and goodness too…. Pls those of you reading this I encourage you to tell more about the NE people and our culture to your friends and family members( make them aware that we are very much part of India though the indian government avoided us for so long, long time..

  • Joshua: I would normally dislike comments that are not directly related to the post topic, however, in this case, I’m glad that you’re using this forum as a means to express yourself.

    I was going to redirect you to Nita’s blog and article on how mainland India tends to neglect the North Easterners, but then I saw that you have already posted the same comment there too.

    I very much empathize with you. From whatever limited interactions I have had so far, I found North Easterners to be quite friendly, and warm. I myself don’t understand why they’re treated differently. Just having Oriental looks is a ridiculous justification. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.