The bright red pepper has a shriveled appearance, as if a bulbous clown nose had somehow wilted into a long, twisted witch’s beak. Between its wrinkly complexion and its nasty reputation, the Bhut Jolokia, better known as the ghost pepper, generates fear and fascination. YouTube is littered with videos of people pumped up enough to eat a whole one – only to crumple to the floor, pounding down milk.
When I cut into my first ghost pepper recently – while wearing food-safe gloves, at the urging of practically everyone who has an opinion on the subject – I was first struck by the aroma. My kitchen was filled with the sweet, tropical fragrance of passion fruit. You quickly learn that the aroma is a trap, designed to entice the innocent and ignorant into tasting the pepper. You will almost certainly regret any attempt to eat the fiery fruit straight up, with seeds and ribs.
I tried a small seedless dice of the pepper, about the size of a pea, and within seconds, my right eye was streaming tears down my cheek, my nostrils were dripping and, worst of all, I began to hiccup uncontrollably. It was as if my head had become a wood-burning oven, lighting up my tongue and the interior of my skull. Milk provided little relief, until the burn began to subside on its own some 10 minutes later.
The Bhut Jolokia is one of a rare breed of peppers: The nonprofit Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, N.M., calls them, without any whiff of comedic hyperbole, “super-hot” peppers. Believe it or not, these freak-show specimens are slowly creeping into some farmers markets.
Lana Edelen, co-owner of Homestead Farm in Faulkner, Md., once had a customer approach her stand at a market and stare at the colorful carnival of hot peppers for sale. “He said nothing was hotter than a habanero,” Edelen recalls. You can almost hear her sigh over the phone at the man’s arrogance.
So Edelen cut open one of her flame throwers and offered a piece to the man, but with a neighborly warning. “It’s hot,” she told him. “I’m telling you beforehand.” He popped a piece into his mouth and told Edelen, “It ain’t too bad. There ain’t no heat yet,” she remembers.
“Then all of a sudden he was looking for something to eat,” she adds. An hour later, she spotted him again and “his teeth and lips were still on fire.”
To some, Edelen’s anecdote would be a cautionary tale. To others, it’s a come-hither “Body Heat” signal of seduction. Know something important: Some of these super-hot peppers can be twice as fiery as the habaneros and Scotch bonnets often used in hot sauces.
To join the elite class of super-hots, peppers must register an average level of 1 million Scoville heat units in replicated, scientifically controlled trials. To give you some point of comparison, a common jalapeno tops out, depending on what source is cited, at 10,000 SHUs. Habaneros and Scotch bonnets can range from 100,000 to 350,000 SHUs.
At present, only a handful of peppers are members of the super-hot class. Aside from the ghost pepper (an average of 1,019,687 SHUs), the other ultra-hotties include the Trinidad Scorpion (1,029,271 SHUs); Trinidad 7-Pot Jonah (1,066,882 SHUs); Douglah Trinidad Chocolate (1,169,058 SHUs); and the mother of all tongue-destroying peppers, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (1,207,764 SHUs), according to the Chile Pepper Institute scientific study. Two Trinidad Moruga Scorpion plants in the study topped 2 million SHUs.
The reigning Guinness World Record holder, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, grown by the Chilli Factory in Australia, was not included in the study, despite being tested at 1.46 million SHUs in March 2011. The owners “would not send us seed,” says Danise Coon, program coordinator for the institute. “We’d like to be nice and say they didn’t have any more seed. I really can’t draw any conclusions.”
But without the ability to test the Butch T pepper under scientifically controlled conditions, the Chile Pepper Institute noted in its study that the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion “can be considered the world’s hottest known measured chile pepper.” Still, as the organization points out on its site, “the Bhut Jolokia pepper remains the hottest pepper that is commercially available.” It was the first pepper to reach 1 million SHUs and was once the Guinness record holder.
Do these carpet bombs for the mouth fit into dishes that are actually consumed by people with functioning palates? Coon thinks “some of these are completely inedible. . . . They’re not for food consumption, that’s for sure.” Then again, she notes that the institute sells a brownie mix, Dr. B’s Bhut-Kickin’ Brownies, made with ghost peppers. You can buy the product online.
Coon says the brownie mix includes only about a teaspoon of ground Bhut Jolokia powder, which is key. To use these peppers in the kitchen, you have to temper their heat and find a way to emphasize their other qualities, like the floral, fruity aromas of the ghost pepper.
My instinct was to push the ghost in the same sweet direction: as a heat and flavoring agent in a pear jam. The resulting spread was chunky and slightly sweet, with a long, hot and strangely cooling finish that tasted as though someone had crossed passion fruit with Sichuan peppercorns. It was, I’d say, about 1.019 million times better than eating a ghost pepper raw.
For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link: