Mexican jalapenos, Sichuan mala peppers, African kambuzi — mere child’s play.
Although many places claim to have the maddest, baddest chile this side of Hades, northeast India’s “ghost chile” is scientifically recognized as the hottest commercial chile pepper on the planet, 200 times spicier than jalapenos. The peppers are so hot that workers handling them wear goggles and gloves to avoid burns.
“One chile goes a long way,” says Thoudam Anand, a thirtysomething government worker in Imphal, in Manipur state, who grows ghost chiles in his garden. “It’s ulcer material.”
Fall is peak season for this deceptively innocent looking, thumb-sized devil, which has different names in various parts of northeast India, including bhut jolokia, meaning ghost chile, and umorok, or tree chile.
Anand and his wife, Meena Longjam, settle down for a leisurely lunch under their gazebo as a fresh breeze wafts from the nearby jungle.
The carefully prepared meal starts with a dish of raw vegetables mixed with fragrant umorok fresh from the garden. They’ve toned it down for a visiting foreigner who thought he could handle chile.
But the chile quickly shows who’s boss, creating a ribbon of fire from lips to tongue to newly upset stomach. The discomfort lasts several hours.
A few days later at the Imphal airport, a few souvenir umorok are confiscated as a potential hijacking weapon. “No Manipur chile allowed,” a policeman says gruffly.
The plump red and green chiles with wrinkly skin, which have grown naturally in northeast India for hundreds of years, are believed to be the result of a relatively rare natural mutation that strengthened their bite.
Here in Manipur state, most are grown by individuals and sold in local markets to spice up curries, sauces and pickles. In nearby Assam state, they are cultivated on commercial farms for export.
Chile peppers — native to Latin America and the Caribbean and believed to date back more than 8,000 years — were taken to Europe and then transported to Asia by traders hoping to build up Asian spice markets.
“It found its way to the Eastern Hemisphere by Christopher Columbus, who was looking for a new trade route to India,” says Danise Coon, the Chile Pepper Institute’s program coordinator. “Columbus mistakenly thought it was related to the black pepper, which is why it’s called chile pepper.”
The ghost chile in northeast India emerged from relative obscurity after the Chile Pepper Institute, at New Mexico State University, grew dozens of plants, used liquid chromatography to assess the capsaicinoids, or heat, molecules and submitted its findings to Guinness World Records in 2006, which certified it as the world’s hottest.
The ghost chile clocks in at 1.1 million on the Scoville heat unit scale, a measure of spiciness, compared with the jalapeno’s mere 5,000.
“Mexico gets all the attention for its chiles,” says N. Tomba Singh, an agricultural scientist in Imphal. “But the real fame should go to Manipur.”
Once a world record-holder, the ghost quickly became a darling of rabid chile heads, who meet at “hot lucks” worldwide to show off their fire-eating skills.
Being the hottest chile translates into big bucks. India’s Frontal Agritech Ltd., the world’s largest ghost chile producer, expects its exports of powder, paste and flakes to the United States and Europe to increase this year by more than 30% to about $600,000, helping produce tens of millions of dollars’ worth of commercial salsas, marinades and sauces.
In March, a new chile was rated by Guinness as the world’s hottest, the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” out of Australia, at 1.4 million SHUs. That’s about 40% hotter than ghost chiles. Though not yet produced commercially, it’s already sparking trouble in chile-land, with suggestions of trickery and sleight of hand.
Selecting the hottest chiles on a plant, cross-breeding, or de-veining samples all can boost readings. Purists grumble about “Frankenstein” samples, and some chile lovers even envision the danger of a “chile nuclear arms race.”
“It becomes more about the person submitting it than the chile,” said John Hard, head of Ohio’s CaJohn’s Fiery Foods. “There are so many ways to cheat. Forty percent higher? I doubt that happens overnight.”
Marcel de Wit, co-owner of Australian gourmet food maker Chilli Factory, which grew the new record holder, says its testing methodology, using a private independent company, is sound.
“We don’t have time to play games,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you doctor the stuff, it comes back to you.”
For now, ghost chiles remain the world’s hottest produced in significant commercial quantities.
In recent years, they have brought pride to northeast India, an area more often associated with civil strife, unemployment and armed secessionist struggles.
At the market in Imphal, women spread out umoroks in piles, each claiming theirs are the finest. “This is the real stuff,” says Maibam Mani, 60. “I’ve got the best, from up in the mountains.”
Residents of northeast India say their revered ghost chile springs from the same soil as their tough, sporting people.
Most people here start “playing with fire” around 11 or 12 when their taste buds have sufficiently matured or when classmates play a cruel joke. But maturity isn’t always enough.
This month, two women participating in a jolokia curry-eating competition reportedly bled, vomited and fainted after eating it. The pair were hospitalized, and half of the 20 participants dropped out after watching the first 10 pant, sweat and collapse.
Anand’s initiation took place years ago when friends secretly laced his food with umorok. Unbearable pain, panic, arm flapping and teeth gnashing followed, he recalls, until an elderly neighbor suggested a local antidote: Go forth and eat mud.
Anand dutifully dashed to the nearest pond. “I would’ve swallowed anything to cool down,” he says. “And since I had no taste buds left, the mud tasted just fine.”
Recently, says Abdul Haque, vice president of a local student union, he gave umorok to friends in New Delhi, who claimed to have intestinal problems for two days.
“We’re much stronger people than those lightweights in the capital,” he said. “They can’t handle the smoke from the ears.”
Ghost chiles have many uses. S. Chand, forest conservator in the northeastern state of Assam, encourages farmers to plant them around their fields to stop marauding elephants. Most of the time, pachyderms will turn and run the other way.
Practitioners of Ayurveda, or Indian traditional medicine, use them to stimulate blood circulation, reduce inflammation and shrink tumors. They are popular for weight loss and to fight summer heat. And ghost chiles are also highly recommended if your goat has canker sores.
At the Defense Research and Development Organization’s lab in northeast India, researchers are testing grenades, sprays and gas made from ghost chiles to fight terrorists, manage unruly crowds and help women defend themselves.
“It’s all-natural,” lab director Lokendra Singh says.
Ghost chiles — reportedly named because they can scare ghosts away — are firmly embedded in the local culture.
Eating too much can produce dark spots on your skin or cause traffic accidents or miscarriages, people here say. In one Manipur-made film, a boy whose affections are spurned tries to commit suicide by eating ghost chiles. His love relents after watching him suffer and they live happily ever after.
Despite the pain of consuming the red-hot peppers, fans say they hardly eat a meal without them.
“It’s a kind of addiction,” says Longjam. “You know you’re going to burn, even risk an ulcer, but you still love it.”
As the leisurely lunch wraps up, Longjam’s friend Ibungochoubi Ningthoukhongjam ponders the region’s love affair with the ghost.
“It’s a bit like loving your wife despite her drawbacks,” he says, before taking another bite. A small bite.