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
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 India
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.
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.
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.
Photo Credits: Manish Swarup, AP
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