Perhaps, the fiercest, fieriest and feistiest chilli in the world!
The mightiest of all the chillies to come out of India, and one of the top three in the world, the Bhut Jholokia is a force to reckon with. These 2 inch long bright red peppers score more than a million units on the Scoville Scale, making them almost 200 times hotter than the average chilli.
Grown across the North Eastern states of India, this pepper has a formidable and revered status amongst the people. Not only is the wildly potent heat enough to take over the tastebuds with liquid fire, it’s smell is so sharp to animals that farmers smear it as a warning scent across their fences to ward off elephants and other wildlife.
The origin of this pepper has several intriguing stories and while it is most popularly translated from Bhut Jolokia to Ghost Pepper in English, where bhut means ghost, several sources also say that Bhut could be indicative of the Bhutanese people. However another version states that the chilli came from Nagaland, and till date, Nagaland has one of the highest cultivations and consumption stats for this chilli. In fact, this pepper is also known as the Naga Chilli and because of its commercial importance, the Nagaland Government obtained the Geographical Indication (GI) of Goods tag for Naga King Chilli in the year (Registration and Protection) Act 1999.
This chilli is as ubiquitous in the kitchens of the North East as garam masala is for North and Central Indian homes. Used to flavour stews, add a bite of condiments or even be scattered over meat dishes, this chilli finds its way into the daily preparations.
Apart from the culinary uses, Ghost Chilli also has a range of interesting applications. Its intense heat has been under consideration as a non-lethal way to control unlawful situations. It can even be used in a pepper spray! What’s more, it is a good additive in food for troops facing the intense cold as it amps up the body’s heart rate.
Conversely, one of the best ways to fight off the summer heat is to feast on these peppers, which will make one sweat, bringing down the body heat.
Some of the other health benefits include relief for asthma patients, treatment of gastro-intestinal abnormalities, enhancing post exercise muscle tone and to alleviate toothaches and muscle pain.
And all these health benefits are possible with the presence of capsaicinoid which is the wonder compound that makes chili peppers hot. The higher the concentration, the hotter the pepper. Capsaicin and hydroxycapsaicin are the two major constituents contributing about 80% to 90% of capsaicinoids and are highly desirable and essential for spice, food, medicinal, and industrial purposes.
Capsaicin is also the active principle which accounts for the pharmaceutical properties of chillies and is useful as a counter-irritant, pain therapy, body temperature regulation, anti-arthritic, anti-obesity, analgesic, anti-oxidant, anti-microbial and anti-cancer agent.
Most chilli varieties cultivated have a capsaicin level of just about 1%, however the Ghost Chilli is characterized by very high capsaicinoid content, ranging from 2.45% to 5.36%. That’s what makes Ghost Chilli more potent than the rest!
The Ghost Chilli is enjoyed best when fresh but due to its short cultivation cycle, it’s dried or pickled and consumed all throughout the year.
It is cultivated widely in almost all north-eastern states of India. There are two main planting seasons practised in different areas across the region which is kharif and rabi. Kharif cultivation starts during February - March mainly in the hilly states whereas the Rabi crop is grown in the plains of Assam during September-October. Ghost Chilli is also grown through Jhum cultivation in the hill areas, which is sporadically intercropped with summer paddy, and it is also grown also in small homestead gardens. The crop is semi perennial but the size of the fruits reduces gradually after three years of growth. In homestead traditional gardens, the farmers prefer to grow the crop in the shade rather than in sunny places as it yields fruits with enhanced pungency. In Jhum cultivation, direct seeding is practiced in paddy fields during February-March and the peak harvest time is between August-September.
The Ghost Chilli is known by different names as you travel across the length and breadth of North East India. In Assam it’s called Bhut Jolokia after the Bhutia people or Bhi Jolokia which translates to Poison Chilli for obvious reasons. It is also referred to as Naga Jolokia meaning the Naga Chilli Pepper. In Nagaland it is called Naga Mircha or King Chilli and people in Manipur call it U Morok, meaning Tree Chilli or Sap Malcha meaning High Ranked Chilli.
No matter what it may be called, to paraphrase the Bard, this chilli by any other name would taste just as hot! Across the length and breadth of the country, and for chilli-heads all over the world, the one thing remains common is that it is the hottest chilli known in the subcontinent and is revered as a demi-god for its indomitable fire power.