A seemingly obvious question came into my mind when I first discovered that chili peppers were from South America and not, as I always thought, native to India.
If chili peppers are from South America, then why is the spiciest chili in the world found in India?
That would be the Naga Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Pepper, which is considered the spiciest chili pepper in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The ghost pepper is from India, not South America.
It only grows in the northeastern Indian states of Nagaland and Assam, where they have been commonly used in local cooking, but were, until 2000, nearly unknown elsewhere, even in the rest of India. That all changed when the Indian Defence Test Laboratory found that the pepper has a scoville rating that was off the chart.
First, a little background. The pungency our tongues interpret as spiciness comes from a chemical compound known as capaicin. It was created by chilies to warn off mammals, as their target wasn’t us, but birds who would spread chili seeds far and wide. Birds cannot taste capaicin – they can’t feel spice.
Latin American chilies can pack their own punch. The most well known is the habanero (pictured above), today most commonly grown in the Yucatan region of Mexico, with a scoville score (the most commonly accepted spice-scale) of 200,000. The common jalapeno scores a meager 8,000.
The Bhut Jolokia? The record holder hit a previously unthinkable 1 million scovilles.
Where did the Ghost Pepper come from? What probably happened was that the chili pepper, during its 16 century global trek, arrived through unknown means to northeast India, where it was planted in a unique climate, bred by local hands, and, voila (italic), the spiciest chili pepper in the world. In fact, the Ghost Pepper loses its pungency when it is grown outside of the particular climate of Nagaland and Assam (though 300,000 scovilles vs. 800,000 really doesn’t make a difference to our tongues).
It is a unique pepper, specific to the culture and soil of where it grows. It is an example of how the chili pepper can be uniquely shaped and adapted by each culture that accepts it, partly by the soil, but, more importantly, by the hands of those planting its seeds and harvesting its fruit. It is, in essence, an ideal migrant, assimilating, adapting seamlessly into the culture until it is mistaken as being purely native.
Is it this power, to transform culture, that A Spicy Quest aims to discover.
The Ghost Pepper’s story is not finished, as it is breaking barriers today. Just take a walk into your local grocery store or farmers market. Chances are you’ll find Ghost Pepper product. In just over a decade, it has become an international commercial success, made into hot sauces so spicy, a single drop can create fiery pasta sauces or burning tex-mex chile.
In fact, the pepper has a cult following, with numerous Twitter accounts, websites, and more dedicated to all things Jolokia. A Spicy Quest also aims to look at the modern spread of the chili, and what better candidate than the mighty ghost pepper, unknown just two decades ago, today a global celebrity.
There is another question, of course. Could there be another, more powerful ghost, hiding in the jungles or another country?