Image: Farmer plucks "ghost chili"
Manish Swarup  /  AP file
A farmer plucks "Bhut jolokia," or "ghost chili" peppers from a field at Changpool in the northeastern Indian state of Assam,. Bhut jolokia, a thumb-sized chili pepper with frightening potency, was recently rated the spiciest chili in the world by Guinness World Records.
updated 8/3/2007 8:35:36 PM ET 2007-08-04T00:35:36

The farmer, a quiet man with an easy smile, has spent a lifetime eating a chili pepper with a strange name and a vicious bite. His mother stirred them into sauces. His wife puts them out for dinner raw, blood-red morsels of pain to be nibbled — carefully, very carefully — with whatever she’s serving.

Around here, in the hills of northeastern India, it’s called the “bhut jolokia” — the “ghost chili.” Anyone who has tried it, they say, could end up an apparition.

“It is so hot you can’t even imagine,” said the farmer, Digonta Saikia, working in his fields in the midday sun, his face nearly invisible behind an enormous straw hat. “When you eat it, it’s like dying.”

Outsiders, he insisted, shouldn’t even try it. “If you eat one,” he told a visitor, “you will not be able to leave this place.”

The rest of the world, though, should prepare itself.

One for the record books
Because in this remote Indian region facing bloody insurgencies, widespread poverty and a major industry — tea farming — in deep decline, hope has come in the form of this thumb-sized chili pepper with frightening potency and a superlative rating: the spiciest chili in the world. A few months ago, Guinness World Records made it official.

If you think you’ve had a hotter chili pepper, you’re wrong.

The smallest morsels can flavor a sauce so intensely it’s barely edible. Eating a raw sliver causes watering eyes and a runny nose. An entire chili is an all-out assault on the senses, akin to swigging a cocktail of battery acid and glass shards.

For generations, though, it’s been loved in India’s northeast, eaten as a spice, a cure for stomach troubles and, seemingly paradoxically, a way to fight the crippling summer heat.

Now, though, with scientific proof that barreled the bhut jolokia into the record books — it has more than 1,000,000 Scoville units, the scientific measurement of a chili’s spiciness — northeast India is taking its chili to the outside world.

Exporters are eagerly courting the international community of rabid chili-lovers, a group that has traded stories for years about a mysterious, powerful Indian chili. Farmers are planting new fields of bhut jolokias, government officials are talking about development programs.

‘Tremendous potential’
Chances are no one will get rich. But in a region where good news is a rarity, the world record status has meant a lot of pride — and a little more business.

“It has got tremendous potential,” says Leena Saikia, the managing director of Frontal AgriTech, a food business in the northeastern state of Assam that has been in the forefront of bhut jolokia exports.

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Last year, her company shipped out barely a ton of the chilis. This year, amid the surge in publicity, the goal is 10 tons to nearly a dozen countries. “We’re getting so many inquiries,” says Saikia, whose name is common in Assam, and who is unrelated to the farmer. “We’ll be giving employment to so many people.”

For now, at least, transport issues and a tangle of government regulations mean most exports are of dried bhut jolokias and chili paste. But, Saikia added, the paste can be used for everything from hot sauces to tear gas. Because the heat is so concentrated, food manufacturers in need of seasoning can use far less bhut jolokia than they would normal chilis.

A troubled area
India’s northeast, a cluster of seven states that hangs off the country’s eastern edge, is a place where most people are ethnically closer to China and Myanmar than the rest of India. It’s a deeply troubled area, often neglected by the central government in New Delhi, where more than two dozen ethnic militant groups are fighting the Indian government and one another. Many areas remain largely off-limits to foreigners and few days pass without at least one killing.

In Assam, the wealthiest of the region’s states, the long-dominant tea industry is facing falling prices and rising costs, and one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. Attacks by the state’s main militant group, the United Liberation Front of Asom, and retaliatory government crackdowns, have brutalized the region.

“Maybe this bhut jolokia can help change things here,” says Ranjana Bhuyan, a high-school teacher shopping for vegetables in the Assamese town of Jorhat on a recent evening. Like most people here, she normally mixes bhut jolokias into sauces, or pickles them as a sort of spicy relish, but also likes to eat tiny pieces raw, enjoying the flavor and the sharp jolt.

“People have been eating this forever,” she says.

Only in the past few years, though, has the rest of the world even heard of it. The first reports filtered out in 2000, when the government’s Assam-based Defense Research Laboratory announced the bhut jolokia as the world’s hottest chili. But their tests, reportedly done during research on tear gas, took years to be corroborated.

Scientifically spicy
The confirmation came earlier this year from New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, where spiciness is a religion. The institute got its first bhut jolokia seeds in 2001, but it took years to grow enough peppers for testing.

Image: farmer reacts to pepper
Manish Swarup  /  AP file
A farmer reacts after eating a "Bhut jolokia," or "ghost chili" pepper during his lunch at Changpool in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
Their results, backed up by two independent labs and heralded by Guinness, were astonishing.

A chili’s spiciness can be scientifically measured by calculating its content of capsaicin, the chemical that gives a pepper its bite, and counting its Scoville units.

And how hot is the bhut jolokia?

As a way of comparison: Classic Tabasco sauce ranges from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. Your basic jalapeno pepper measures anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000. The previous record holder, the Red Savina habanero, was tested at up to 580,000 Scovilles.

The bhut jolokia crushed those contenders, testing at 1,001,304 Scoville units.

Ideal environment
While small amounts of bhut jolokia are grown in a few other places, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (and a similar variety, the Dorset Naga, in England), horticulturists say the gentle sloping hills, heat and humidity of the Indian northeast make it the ideal greenhouse.

The pepper is known by any number of names across India’s northeast. It’s the “poison chili” in some areas, the “king of the chilis” in others. Just to the south of Assam is Nagaland, it’s eaten in nearly every meal. As a result, it is often called the Naga mircha — the “Naga chili.”

Still, getting your hands on a fresh bhut jolokia is difficult except in a handful of northeastern towns. A few specialty companies in the United States and Britain sell dried chilis and seeds, but the plants are painfully fragile, susceptible to many pests and diseases, and very difficult to grow.

So it may take a while before farmers outside this region are able to grow the bulbous, wrinkled pepper on a large scale.

For now, outside of a few exports, the bhut jolokia will remain with the people who have eaten it for centuries.

Said Saikia, the farmer. “It has become a part of our culture.”

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