For certain people, finding and triumphing over the world’s hottest chile is one of those captivating, extreme pursuits like climbing Mt. Everest or running an ultramarathon in Death Valley in July. Even for nonparticipants, the spectacle of the quest is amusing. Until recently, the hottest chile available at local farmers markets had been the relatively common habanero, so it was a bit surprising to see the fabled Bhut Jolokia, a heat championship contender, displayed quite casually at the Santa Monica farmers market the last two few weeks.
The Bhut Jolokia, also called the Naga Jolokia and the Ghost chile, has long been grown and prized for its ferocious pungency in northeastern India and adjacent regions. In 2000, Indian scientists reported the variety’s heat at 855,000 Scoville units, more than any other chile, on the standard scale used to measure pungency. This status was confirmed in 2007 when an article in HortScience by Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University, measured the Bhut Jolokia at more than 1,000,000 Scoville units, based on replicated field trials and reliable analytic methods; the standard orange habanero rated some 357,000 in his tests. (Jalapeños, which taste quite hot to most people, rate a mere 2,500 to 8,000 units.)
Guinness World Records certified the Bhut Jolokia as the world’s hottest, and chileheads and gardeners scrambled to obtain seeds, plants and pods, which originally were scarce here. Last year, Butch and Burma Baselice, who run a spicy foods business called Red Hot Foods in Santa Paula, started 12,000 Bhut Jolokia plants to grow at five locations in Ventura County. They had some plants left over last spring, and it was getting late in the season for planting, so they gave them to Phil McGrath of Camarillo-based McGrath Family Farm, with the agreement that they would share the harvest.
The Bhuts that McGrath planted in the field grew poorly and did not yield much of a crop, he says, but others in a greenhouse did better and started bearing in late December. His employees sold the pods at the Santa Monica market the last two Wednesdays for 25 cents apiece, or five for $1, and plan to offer them there, and possibly at the Hollywood and Beverly Hills markets, for an additional week or two.
The peppers look like orange-red, somewhat elongated versions of the common lantern-shaped habanero, with green stems and very thin walls. The standard orange habanero has a distinctive fruity, floral aroma, but McGrath’s Bhuts have an earthier taste; they are coruscatingly hot, but not noticeably more so than a habanero.
Moreover, both of the Bhut’s claims to fame — its origin in remote Nagaland, and its title as world’s hottest — are in question.
To understand the controversies, some background is necessary. Chile peppers originated in South America, and a species with affinities to the Bhut Jolokia, Capsicum chinense (which includes such types as habaneros, scotch bonnets and goat peppers) abounds in the Caribbean region.
When first studied, the Bhut Jolokia was considered to be of a different species, C. frutescens, which includes Tabasco and Thai hot chiles. However, molecular marker studies by Bosland and his colleagues have shown that the Bhut is actually more closely related to C. chinense, but has some genes from C. frutescens. Most likely it’s a natural hybrid of the two species, backcrossed to C. chinense, said Bosland.
Dave DeWitt of Albuquerque, author of more than a dozen books on chiles and arguably the world’s leading expert on the subject, has proposed on his website that a British governor of Trinidad, Lord George Harris, brought the pepper later known as Bhut Jolokia from that island to India in 1854, when he was transferred to Madras. In support, he quotes a source from the time that reads, “One species called ‘devil’s pepper,’ introduced by Lord Harris, from Trinidad, is so intensely hot that the natives can hardly manage to use it.”
Once the Bhut Jolokia was crowned the heat champion of chiles, several other contenders emerged, mostly hybrids of or possibly related to the Bhut, such as the Trinidad Scorpion, the Naga Morich, the Dorset Naga and the Naga Viper. Because the environment in which a pepper is grown can greatly affect its heat level, and multiple studies are required, no one has yet come up with conclusive evidence.
This raises the question, does it really matter, except for bragging rights, how hot a chile is? My friends make fun of me because I carry habanero powder with me everywhere I go to sprinkle it on food, but I’ve never once said, “this powder would be better if it were hotter.”
DeWitt, Mr. Chile himself, says of the super-hots, “I don’t taste any of these. They’re just too hot for me. They’re painful and unpleasant.”
Orange habaneros are famed as much for their fruity, floral aroma as for their heat, but DeWitt finds it difficult to distinguish the flavor of the super-hots, saying, “as the heat increases, your perception of taste decreases, because you’re so damn distracted because your mouth is burning.”
On the other hand, Jim Duffy of Superhot Chiles, who grows a wide range of the fiery pods in Lakeside, east of San Diego, and sells the seeds, plants and pods, says that some of the other new super-hots are much more flavorful than Bhut Jolokias, and more productive to boot.
He’s starting a venture with DeWitt and another partner, Marlin Bensinger, to grow super-hots. Because these peppers are so high in capsaicin, the compound responsible for the heat in chiles, they are well suited both to making outrageously hot sauces with an outlaw allure, and to manufacturing industrial products, such as sprays to ward off bears and muggers.
Meanwhile, Uesugi Farms, based in Gilroy, south of San Jose, started growing Bhut Jolokias last year and marketing them through specialty produce distributors such as Frieda’s. The plants proved exceptionally difficult to grow outdoors, very likely because they are adapted to tropical areas where it stays warm all day, all year, said the owner, Pete Aiello. They did very well in a greenhouse in Salinas, however, and the farm will be growing them again next season, with the first chiles expected in June.
If you do choose to eat a super-hot chile like Bhut Jolokia, you can try nibbling little pieces of it just for the experience; after that, a better use is to add small amounts to sauces and stews, which will add not only heat, but also flavor. If you overdo it and end up writhing in agony, remember that the most soothing antidote is not water (which exacerbates the heat) but dairy products such as yogurt. Also remember not to touch your eyes or other sensitive anatomical parts.