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.