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Scoville Superstar

Pain is weakness leaving the body. – US Marine recruiting propaganda

Don’t be fooled by Anandita Tamuly’s colorful sari, forehead bindi, and overall exceedingly sweet disposition; this is a woman who by all outward indicators, was born with the rare ability to withstand untold levels pain.

What kind of pain, you ask?  The kind that is inflicted by the bhut jolokia, or ghost pepper, indigenous to the hills of Assam in Northeastern India.  The fiery bhut jolokia has earned a place near the top of the Scoville Scale – a measurement of the spicy heat (or piquance) of a pepper – right above the habanero and just below law enforcement grade pepper spray.  One account compares eating a single bhut jolokia to downing a cocktail of battery acid and ground glass.  Tamuly defies the laws of reaction the average human body has to such an instrument of suffering, making a career out of entertaining her devoted fans by chowing down on up to 60 raw, whole bhut jolokias in a span of two minutes.  Not impressed?  Her next trick is to take a puree of the pepper and rub it up and down her arms.  After that, she takes the puree and pours it into her eyes, without so much as a whimper or wince.

The Scoville Scale measures the heat of a pepper using a scientific method known as High Performance Liquid Chromatography, or HPLC, which separates and measures the pepper compounds.  A mathematical formula is then applied to weigh peppers by their ability to create a sensation of heat.  They are ranked according to their SHU’s (Scoville Heat Units): bell peppers have 0 SHU’s; the hottest jalapeno have 8,000 SHU’s; the red savina habanero has 580,000 SHU’s. The bhut jolokia blows away the competition with 1,050,000 SHU’s. That’s almost double the pain offered up by the red savina!  It’s believed that certain growing environments only increase the pepper’s heat content; in particular, areas like Hawaii and Florida, with hot, humid, and rainy climates similar to Assam, are ideal for those seeking to reproduce the pepper in top form.

Assam, the small corner of India near the Burma border, has been home to bhut jolokia peppers for centuries.  Recent research has indicated that the scorching pepper was also grown in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  The bhut jolokia was introduced to the western world for the first time in the year 2000 – a surprising fact, considering the massive worldwide trade and consumption of peppers throughout history.

Pepper Prestige

Peppers, in all their varieties, have played an incredibly important role throughout history, not only as seasoning, but also as currency, sacred offering, and medicine.

In ancient Greece, peppers held a degree of prestige and were used to pay taxes and ransoms and to honor the gods.  During the fall of Rome, barbarian invaders were honored with black pepper, and in the Middle Ages, a man’s wealth was often evaluated based on his stock of dried peppers.  In ancient times when food would spoil quickly, peppers were used to cover up the lack of freshness.  Chili peppers were introduced to India in the 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who brought them from South America.  Pungent spices already being a stable in the Indian diet, the widespread use of the peppers was inevitable.  Purandara Dāsa, one of the most prominent composers of Carnatic music during the 15th century, sang about peppers as a flavor enhancer and comfort to the poor.  Peppers are still used medicinally in India to treat stomach ailments and ward off colds.

In modern times, many varieties of chili are being cultivated in India: Dhani from the northeast and Sannam, Nalcheti, Todappally, Jwala, Mundu, and Kanthari from the south.  However, no pepper is more of-the-moment than the bhut jolokia.

Pride & Business

Thanks to the talents and growing fame of Tamuly and the hard-working bhut jolokia farmers of Assam, this remote region of India – previously most known for its poverty and blood-soaked insurgencies – is getting recognition for something positive.

It seems like almost everyday, more and more of the outside world is being let in on the secret of this potent pepper.  Anyone who pays attention to the global culinary scene knows that top-end restaurants, in places as diverse as Shanghai and Frankfurt, are incorporating the intense heat and flavor of bhut jolokia into modern and innovative dishes.  And all it takes is a quick search on Amazon to realize bhut jolokia seeds are an in-demand item.

So what does the rapidly increasing popularity of bhut jolokias mean for the farmers of Assam?  Unfortunately, it probably will not result in significant financial gain, as parts of the world with high demand for the pepper will simply grow it on their own.  However, some increased sales of dried bhut jolokia powders and “authentic” masalas are likely.  Perhaps more significant, the farmers and the people of the region gain a sense of pride from the pepper, especially in light of the fact that their once booming tea industry is suffering due to falling prices and rising costs.

Good Addiction

It hurts going in, but not coming out. – local saying in Assam, India

In this day and age, with a spicy pepper addiction that is akin to that of smoking cigarettes, albeit way healthier and tastier, it comes as little surprise that there’s a spotlight shining on a woman like Tamuly and the bhut jolokia.  After all, it is our own twisted addiction to the pleasures of pain that makes someone with her talents so exciting.

It’s a rather cool fact that hot peppers have been scientifically proven to release endorphins in the body.  When capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers that causes the burning sensation, comes into contact with our tongue, our brain is tricked into believing that the pain is a significant threat to our body.  As a result, we receive a blast of those pain-relieving endorphins that we love so much.  And that’s where the addiction lies.  Once we start to crave peppers and eat them regularly, we build up our tolerance levels so that the once spicy serrano is no longer enough.  We graduate to guntur chilies, then chiltepins, and so on, until one day we find ourselves trolling the Internet late at night, desperately trying to get our hands on the hottest pepper in the world.

Fear not – the best part about our pepper addiction is that we won’t ruin our health, burn through all our money, or lose our husbands or wives over it.  At worst, we’ll become pepper snobs who annoy cocktail party guests with our oral dissertation on the differences between arbols and manzanos.

Evolving Palette

Perhaps in conjunction with addiction, our growing love of peppers and spicy foods is an indicator of the evolving palette of the world population.  Just think about the foods Americans and Brits were consuming before the proliferation of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in their respective homelands; hamburgers and fish & chips may have made for a tasty meal, but certainly not a piquant one.  South Asian cuisine significantly broadened the scope of what was possible with food.

One of the benefits of globalization is that we get to try food from other places and learn a little bit more about each other in the process.  Certainly, the bhut jolokia and other peppers serve as windows into unique cultures – at least for those brave enough to take on the heat.