The Gut-Wrenching Science Behind the World’s Hottest Peppers- page 1 | Travel | Smithsonian
Chilis being transported to the Nagaland's chili competition. Gloves need to be worn because the chili oils can harm the skin. (Aaron Joel Santos / Novus Select)

The Gut-Wrenching Science Behind the World’s Hottest Peppers

Chiliheads crave the heat that hurts so good, but nothing compares to the legendary superhot that spices life in remote India

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The 17 tribes of Nagaland are united, historically, by an enthusiasm for heads. The Nagas: Hill Peoples of Northeast India—my reading matter on the two-hour drive from Dimapur to Kohima, in the state of Nagaland —contains dozens of references to head-taking but only one mention of the item that has brought me here: the Naga King Chili (a.k.a. Bhut Jolokia), often ranked the world’s hottest. “In the Chang village of Hakchang,” the anthropologist J. H. Hutton is quoted as saying in 1922, “...women whose blood relations on the male side have taken a head may cook the head, with chilies, to get the flesh off.” Hutton’s use of “cook” would seem to be a reference to Chang culinary practice. Only on rereading did I realize the Chang weren’t eating the chilies—or the flesh, for that matter—but using them to clean the skull.

Such is the perplexing contradiction of the genus Capsicum: condiment and industrial solvent, pleasure and pain. I’ve come to Nagaland to confront the conundrum on its home turf at the annual all-tribe get-together, the Hornbill Festival, which includes a Naga King Chili-Eating Competition.

The last known head-taking raid occurred sometime in the last century. (The verb “taking” is preferred over hunting. You do not hunt heads. You hunt people and then take their heads.) Most Nagas are Baptists now. Nonetheless, they appear to have pride in their gruesome heritage. A crossbeam on the front of the Chang exhibit building on the festival grounds is decorated with a row of cephalic bas-reliefs; lest anyone mistake them for family portraiture, the neck stalks drip red.

Men in loincloths stand outside on a break from rehearsing a warrior dance. I hold out a Bhut Jolokia I’ve been carrying in my jacket like a concealed weapon. I want to see who’s tough enough. Only one man steps closer. He points to the chili and uses an English word all Chang men know. “One of the enemy!”

It’s a sensible assessment. The chili pepper does not want to be your friend. It wants to hurt you so badly you turn it loose. Plants cannot bare teeth or run for the hills; they must protect themselves passively. Some are horribly bitter. Others, less forgiving, are poisonous. Capsaicin, the primary active ingredient in hot peppers, falls into the category of irritant, but that’s an insult to its power. (Chemical irritation, or chemical feel, is the third of the chemical senses, along with smell and taste.) Capsaicin in the eyes or airways is disabling to the extent that it is used as a nonlethal weapon—pepper spray. Bhut Jolokia grenades were developed several years ago by India’s Defence Research and Development Organization and used on protesters in Kashmir. (The grenades were shelved because the chili powder is prone to fungal rot.) Both the eyes and the airways are extremely sensitive, far more so than the skin or tongue. This is normally—outside of protests and riots—a good thing, because seeing and breathing are crucial to survival; the sensitivity of these organs and tissues motivates their owner to keep them safe.

Less immediate but no less excruciating are the effects on the digestive tract. As I’m about to see.

***

The Naga “national anthem” is a long song with an unusually vigorous horn section, or perhaps it only seems so to those of us seated in the bleachers right next to a two-story bank of speakers. Today’s Hornbill Festival program begins with a unity dance, in which each tribe showcases its unique cultural heritage and way of being loud. Old-timey muskets are fired. Drums galore. Someone wheels out a gong. The Chang’s warrior dance is accompanied by a maniacal whinnying cry that, even without amplification, can be heard all the way to the parking lot. “Ladies and gentleman, the Naga Pipers!” Somebody, somewhere in Nagaland history, for some reason, presented one of the tribes with bagpipes, and apparently it stuck. I gather what’s left of my hearing and flee.

I wind up behind the main stage just as the chili-eating competition is announced—an hour earlier than scheduled. While contestants take their seats onstage, an emcee recites rules. Competitors have 20 seconds to eat as many chilies as they can. Peppers must be chewed at least three times, to ensure the release of the pain-causing ingredient; the highest concentration of capsaicin is in the lining of the pepper—its placenta—and the seeds. (The chili plant, like any good mother, is protective of its offspring.)

Most of the dozen or so contestants are local residents: Nagas sufficiently tough or needy to endure the agony for a chance at the prize. (First place is $600.) Four are tourists: an Australian man, a man and a woman from Liverpool, and, inexplicably, Pu Zozam, a member of Parliament from neighboring Myanmar. Six teenage helpers in red and green Christmas dresses (it’s December) hand out bottles of water and bowls of Nestlé powdered “dairy whitener.” There is a school of thought that dairy products soothe the burn. It is true that capsaicin dissolves better in oil than in water, and milk (as well as powdered ersatz milk) has lots of fat. They will need whatever help it provides. In various tests carried out at the Indian Defence Research Laboratory and at New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, the Bhut Jolokia has ranged from 500,000 to 1.5 million Scoville heat units (SHU). A chili that scores in excess of one million SHU qualifies as a “superhot.” By way of comparison, a jalapeño is around 4,000 SHU. (The Scoville number refers to how much dilution would be needed to render the heat imperceptible.)

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