For years, Ismail Ali has been assisting Parveen Robbani in the fine art of making pickles. Naturally, this involves handling chillies. Occasionally, says Ali, he forgets the warning that all chilli handlers are given, about not touching your face without first washing your hands. But he’s so used to hot stuff that he’s unconcerned about ill effects. However, ask if he’s ever touched his face by accident when he’s worked with bhut jalokias, and he freezes. “No,” he says, firmly. “When I’m handling bhut jalokias, I never forget what I’m doing.”
Sitting in the living room of the Robbanis’ Guwahati flat, you know exactly why Ali is so careful. It’s obvious from the pungent reek emanating from the pile of bhut jalokias on the dining table some 10 feet away. It’s evident from the fact that Parveen Robbani wears rubber gloves even when she’s ladling her bhut jalokia pickle into packets for the market, not actually touching it with her hands. It’s clear from the anxiety on Parveen’s husband Arif’s face as he warns you to wash your hands and face with soap even though all you’ve done is lean over the pickle jar to look at the bhut jalokias. Because the bhut jalokia is the hottest chilli in the world. No one treats it with anything less than the greatest respect.
Feel the burn
The hottest chilli in the world? What does that mean? Well, technically, the bhut jalokia measures 1,001,304 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), which means it contains the highest naturally occurring amount of capsaicin (the pungent chemical in chillies) in the world. SHUs are based on the number of times an extract from a chilli must be diluted in sugar water to lose its heat. So the bhut jalokia extract had to be diluted more than 10 lakh times before the testers could declare it heat-free.
Impressive though that sounds, it’s difficult to understand how hot the bhut jalokia can be unless you compare it to something familiar. So figure this out. The ordinary hari mirch measures 15,000-30,000 SHUs, the Andhra Guntur sannam measures 35,000-40,000 SHU, the Kashmiri mirch measures 1,500-2,000 SHUs, and the Simla mirch measures zero SHUs. The reek of the bhut jalokia is so strong that it keeps elephants at bay, and it’s so pungent that scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation announced that it could be used to make the world’s first non-lethal hand grenade.
But till the 2000s, no one had ever heard of it. No one outside the North East of India, that is, where the bhut jalokia, also known as the Naga jalokia, the bih jalokia, the raja mirch and the u morich, has been eaten for 500 years, according to Dr Ananta Saika, professor at the Assam Agricultural University (AAU), Jorhat.
That changed in 2007, when the Guinness Book of World Records recognised the bhut jalokia as the world’s hottest chilli based on tests at New Mexico State University, US, in which the chilli beat the previous record holder, the 577,000 SHU Red Savina Habanera.
Since then, the bhut jalokia has not only been the subject of much excitement amongst the chilli-heads of the world (chilli-heads being people who are addicted to the rush of happy-making endorphins that the capsaicin in chillis release), but also a huge amount of business curiosity from both potential buyers of the chilli and the states that grow it. For instance, with such a high level of capsaicin, the bhut jalokia seems perfect for the health industry, which uses the chemical to make pain-killing creams for arthritis and topical creams for skin disorders. And it’s also useful for pepper sprays for crowd control and self-defence.
Its colour also attracts the cosmetics industry, which uses it for lipsticks. And there’s the food industry. Hot sauces – really hot sauces – are much in demand, and international chilli cultivators are already growing the bhut jalokia and its hybrids and selling its sauces and pastes at supermarkets worldwide.
All of this has made at least two North East states, Nagaland and Assam, realise that their beloved chilli has big money-making potential in the world. And in the country. And even in the North East itself, where people who have always used the bhut jalokia now regard it with awe.
“We’ve always eaten it, but we didn’t know it was the hottest chilli in the world,” laughs Dr Jyotsna Devi, professor of plant breeding and genetics at the AAU. “But since the Guinness certification, we’ve been very proud of it. It’s a great thrill to get letters from people outside Assam, asking for its seeds.”
Some like it hot
It’s a thrill, yes, but it’s also a matter of concern for the Assamese, who worry that this outside interest in the bhut jalokia may cause the North East to lose the chilli just as it has found it. Which is why, in 2008, the government of Nagaland applied for and received Geographical Indicator (GI) status for what it calls the Naga Mircha, and the Assam government is working on the same.
“GI status is vital, because the seeds of the bhut jalokia are available all over the world, and now everyone is trying to cultivate it commercially,” explains Dr Saikia. “If they are successful, we will be nowhere in the picture.” But though the government of Nagaland has patented the chilli, the bhut jalokia is not a Naga property alone.
“It grows wild all over the North East, as well as in the hilly regions of Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Cambodia,” says Ashish Chopra, environmentalist turned culinary historian who’s published a book of recipes from the North East and been a big fan of the bhut jalokia since he was a child trotting after his anthropologist father in the North East.
Cooked in special dishes (primarily by the Nagas and Manipuris, while the Assamese tend to eat it on the side), smoked, dried, pickled, cut into tiny pieces and salted, infused in oil that’s later used for cooking, the bhut jalokia is a big part of North East cuisine where the taste has always tended towards the hot.
“People here don’t like the North Indian green chilli,” says Dr Devi. “Our chillies are hotter than them, and the preference here is for the hot.”
But there’s hot and then there’s the bhut jalokia. Though several types of chillies are grown in Assam, including the mem jalokia (named after memsahibs because they’re white), the Krishna jalokia (purple-black), and the dhan or khud jalokia (tiny chillies, the size of grains of Assamese rice), and all of them are hotter than the hari mirch, none are as hot as the bhut jalokia.
Which means that not everyone can eat the bhut jalokia. While Parveen Robbani struggles to explain why the chilli means so much to her, finally giving up with “I love it because I like it!” and Himanga Sonowal, additional development officer at the Golaghat office of agriculture, offers a bemused “Well, ye-es!” when asked if he eats the chilli, Arif Robbani shudders at the thought of it. And there are gales of laughter at the Gogoi household in Guwahati, when Thagi Gogoi, retired government official, explains why he tries to escape eating anything with the bhut jalokia in it: “It doesn’t upset the stomach, but it does set the mouth on fire and you do feel the burn when you go to the bathroom.”
The heat is on
That’s a point about the bhut jalokia that requires investigation – the fact that though it’s very, very hot, it doesn’t upset the stomach. Its effects are the opposite in fact – it’s often prescribed as a home remedy for gastric trouble. “Recently we even got an order from Poland, where a doctor prescribed one bhut jalokia a day for a patient with stomach cancer,” says Dr Saikia who also consults at Frontal Agritech, a company set up by his wife, food technologist Dr Leena Saika, which has been marketing the bhut jalokia since 2004.
How the bhut jalokia works on the stomach no one knows. In fact, there’s not much about this chilli that anyone knows. It is a complete mystery.
“It’s never been cultivated in an organised way,” says Dr Harshajyoti Barooah, officer on special duty at the department of horticulture, Assam. “It’s always grown wild, or in kitchen gardens. Now we’re trying to cultivate it commercially.” In 2009, Assam’s agriculture minister Pramila Rani Brahma announced assistance of Rs. 13,000 per hectare to farmers willing to cultivate it; now that has gone up to Rs. 18,500 per hectare. That’s possibly because of something no one had realised about this chilli. It doesn’t want to be tamed.
“What we’ve learned about it so far,” says Dr Barooah, “is that if you let it grow wild, it will grow. But if you try to grow it, it demands a lot of attention.”
In its first year of commercial cultivation, the bhut jalokia is behaving like someone in need of psychological help. If you take this analogy further, that’s because the chilli itself doesn’t really know what it is.
“It cross-pollinates easily with other plants, so everywhere it’s a different shape, size, colour, pungency level,” says Dr Mantu Bhuyan of the North East Institute of Science and Technology, Jorhat. “In Jorhat alone I can show you six or seven variations. In the entire North East, there are 40 or 50 variations. It isn’t possible to test every one.”
Since the bhut jalokia is all over the place genetically speaking, researchers at the AAU who have the task of working out a package of cultivation practices for farmers are bemused by the number and variety of diseases the plant is subject to. “It’s also very sensitive to climate and local ecology,” says Dr Devi. “For instance, we’ve been trying to grow a variant from Nagaland at the AAU, but we just haven’t managed to pull it off.”
It’s important to know how to grow the different variants, because if the bhut jalokia is to have commercial viability, its attributes, such as colour, pungency, shape and so on, have to be standardised. If buyers want it for its capsaicin level, then the level had better always be what the buyers need. If buyers want it for its colour, then it had better always be that red. If everything is perfect, the chilli can sell for Rs. 1,000 per kilo, says Dr Barooah. But if not, the price can vary.
Fire down below
But though there is no package of cultivation practices to work with and though the demand for the chilli seems a little vague at present, farmers are turning their fields over to the bhut jalokia.
“It’s a high value crop,” says Dr Saikia. “If it’s given proper care, a farmer can become a lakhpati from one bigha.” That’s what Narayan Bora, a farmer in Assam’s Golaghat district, hopes will happen. His idea was to begin a tea estate, but for quick returns, he decided to give 15 bighas of his land to bhut jalokias.
“I think I’ll make Rs. 10 lakhs from bhut jalokias,” he says. “And next year, I want to give 40 bighas more to the chillies.”
Bora is just one of the 350 farmers in Golaghat who are attempting to grow the bhut jalokia as part of the government’s technology mission, says Himanga Sonowal of the district’s agricultural office. “They required slight motivation to begin,” he says, “But they’re not worried, because there is a demand for it in the local market at least.”
Right now, the local market keeps them going – though you can hear the click of a calculator in Bora’s head when you tell him that the chilli, which is Rs. 10 for six pieces in Jorhat, is Rs. 10 for four in Guwahati and Rs. 10 per piece in Mumbai. But there are big hopes of big national and international orders.
“Already, we are exporting to several countries including Australia and Venezuela,” says Dr Barooah. “And for marketing, we hope to tie up with ITC.”
And the future seems bright at Frontal Agritech. “Now companies in India are also asking for the bhut jalokia,” says Dr Leena Saikia. “In fact, one company has just asked for 5,000 kilos every week.”
What the demand actually is, no one can tell as yet. And whether the bhut jalokia will ever allow itself to be tamed is another big question. But neither the Assam government nor Minakhi Kasari, president of the Ujwal Mahila Samiti, a Golaghat-based NGO for women which has sunk money, time and effort into farming the bhut jalokia, will allow themselves to be pessimistic.
Asked if she worries about the risk, Kasari has only one thing to say. “It’s human nature to hope, isn’t it?”
Much as we’d like to believe that North Eastern chillis at least originated in India, that is not true. Chillis were ‘discovered’ in South America by the Spanish. When the Portuguese Vasco Da Gama came to India, he carried chillies with him, and they spread all over the sub-continent and Asia.
India had always had a taste for the hot thanks to black pepper (kali mirch) and long pepper (pippali). So we reacted to the chillis in a ‘where-have-you-been-all-my-life!’ manner and adopted them at once. “Still, we’ve had the bhut jalokia for 500 years,” says Dr Ananta Saikia of the AAU, Jorhat. “Surely we can call them indigenous by now?”
This year, the British media announced that a UK cultivator had grown a chilli hotter than the bhut jalokia. Called the Infinity (see picture above), it measured 1,067,286 SHUs.
Though he’s waiting for a reply from the Guinness Book of Records, the developer of the Infinity, Woody Woods of Fire Foods, a company that makes hot sauces and pastes, is not challenging the bhut jalokia yet.
“I grow the super-hot Bhut Jalokias, Trinidad Scorpians, Fatalis and 7-Pods. Two of these super-hots crossbred and from that the Infinity grew,” he says. “But we will wait until the next batch of results to confirm the continuous level of heat in the plants.”
Naga Pork Curry
A significant feature of Naga food is its unique flavour; it can be either very hot or totally bland. Raja chilli (bhut jalokia) is an important ingredient in a lot of Naga dishes. Sometimes, it’s the main ingredient. Here is a simple Naga Pork curry with raja chilli recipe, courtesy Ashish Chopra, from his book of recipes, NE Belly.
Ingredients: Pork 1 kg with meat and fat; Garlic crushed 20 cloves; Ginger crushed 50 gms; Salt to taste; One raja mircha fresh or smoked and dried; Tomatoes 400 gms pureed. Serves 4
Wash and slice the pork and set aside, puree the tomatoes and keep aside along with crushed garlic and ginger.
Put the pork in a thick bottomed pan, add salt to taste, add half a glass of water and let it cook until half done. Then add the tomato puree, ginger and garlic and let the pork cook until tender. When it is almost done, add the raja chilli and stir until the pork is cooked and tender. Once done, transfer it to a bowl and serve with steamed rice. It is delicious and the flavour of the raja chilli adds marvels to your tastebuds.