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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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Burns regularly eats hot Thai, Indian and Mexican food. That she had sought out a Fireball Chili to try while visiting the nearby state of Sikkim suggests “chilihead” proclivities. Which raises the question: Are there people for whom searing oral pain is a positive experience, or are chiliheads simply people who’ve destroyed so many pain receptors that a superhot, to them, is like a jalapeño to you and me? There is also, Bryant points out, huge variability to what one defines as pain. “And then there’s the macho aspect,” he says, such as denying the pain to impress your dinner companions: “I don’t know how many people eat hot peppers in isolation.”

Food science has a theory called “dynamic contrast.” It holds that the human tongue likes variety and surprise. It likes a little salt with its sweet, a little crunchy with its creamy. Though technically an irritant, chili adds spice, literally and otherwise. Psychologists have other ideas on the topic. Some have explained the chili pepper’s popularity by way of the “risk-taking personality”: superhots as the edible version of sky diving. As a thrill seeker and a hot sauce fan, I’ve been looking forward to sampling the bhut.

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The best Bhut Jolokia in the area are said to come from Zhadima, a village a half-hour outside Kohima on a gutted dirt road. The peppers grow on an untilled hillside amid a scramble of other greenery. The farmer who shows me around is a member of the Angami tribe. He smokes a hand-rolled cigarette and carries a machete that resembles a scaled-down dao—the traditional Naga implement of head-taking (and, in calmer moments, men’s haircuts). I tell him I want to try a freshly picked Bhut Jolokia, and he wraps a half dozen in a banana leaf for me. Walking back from the field, he leans down to pick a large three-sided pod with sharply serrated ridges. In Nagaland, even the peas look like they can hurt you.

I present the peppers to our host in Zhadima, a soccer coach named Roko. One I set aside to try. Roko takes me inside his mother’s cookhouse, sets the pepper on a wood counter and slices a sliver barely bigger than a cooked grain of rice. He ladles a cup of drinking water from a crock, salts the chili to reduce the heat and then steps back.

The Bhut Jolokia is unlike any pepper I’ve experienced, but the shock has nothing to do with the heat, which is easily bearable at so low a dose. It’s the flavors—a gorgeous vibrating chord of lemon, cut grass and florals. Roko cut it small because he wanted me to be able to appreciate it. With peppers this hot, the flavors get trampled by the pain. And that would be a shame.

Earlier this year, the Chile Pepper Institute measured the Scoville heat units of a variety of superhot peppers. Since growing conditions—soil, rainfall, temperature—play a part in the fruit’s heat as well as its lineage, all were grown in a plot on the institute grounds. The Trinidad Scorpion took first place, surpassing the Bhut Jolokia by as much as a million SHUs. Maybe I’m biased, but I can’t help thinking: Had the Bhut Jolokia been grown in Zhadima rather than New Mexico, might its fruit have been hotter? Perhaps the dry New Mexico climate conferred an advantage to the Scorpion and a handicap to the Bhut Jolokia. Even in Assam, the state adjacent to Nagaland, you can plant Bhut Jolokia seeds and wind up with a pepper mild enough that you can, as the director of the defense lab there said, “take it as a vegetable.”

That’s the pepper I’d want to import. Because, really, other than the chiliheads and the specialty food companies that cater to them, who wants a superhot chili? Who cares which one’s hottest? “Once you hit 1 or 1.5 million Scoville heat units,” allows Danise Coon, a researcher at the Chile Pepper Institute, “it all feels the same.” Bryant agrees. “For most people, that’s a saturating pain.”

Roko talks about a curry he plans to make with a pheasant shot the night before and four or five king chilis. With his knife, he points to the remainder of the pepper on the counter. “We Nagas, if we don’t eat this one, we aren’t satisfied.” And now I understand.

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