18 August 2008

Benito vs. the Naga Jolokia

At the Downtown Farmers Market I spotted a table operated by Sparkling River out of Mount Olive, Arkansas. They were selling peppers of varying strengths, and one basket contained the legendary Bhut Jolokia, also known by the name Naga Jolokia. It's become famous since its 2007 Guinness Record for the world's hottest pepper. I purchased three and let them sit in the kitchen for a day while I worked up the courage to try them.

"Afternoon, Homer. Care for some chili? I've added an extra ingredient just for you. The merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum." --Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer"

The history of this pepper is fairly recent and fascinating, from the studies conducted by the Indian Defense Research Laboratory to its use as an elephant repellent. It tops a million on the Scoville Scale, much hotter than habaneros or anything you'll normally encounter unless a police officer maces you.

I used the pepper in two ways. First, I chopped one up--seeds and all--and combined it with a thick spice paste to coat a lamb tenderloin. This was allowed to marinate overnight before grilling over fire. I thought about calling this recipe a rattlesnake, a lightning bolt, or Satan's spleen. My buddy Paul suggested the apt moniker "Shepherd's Sin". While definitely hot and tasty, it was not pain inducing. In fact, I'd happily recommend such a dish at an Indian restaurant.

For the second experiment, I tried one pepper straight. As in, rinse off the wrinkled bastard and chomp down. Paul and The Roommate were present to either alert the paramedics or inform my parents that I'd shuffled off this mortal coil.

Kids, don't try this at home. Here's the chain of sensations as best I can recall:
  • Surprisingly the first sensation was sweetness, with a carrot flavor. This stage did not last long.
  • The heat came next, a pretty standard hot pepper sensation, with nice burning around the entire mouth. My eyes watered a bit.
  • As I chewed, things got strange. It doesn't take long for the heat to get so intense that it's no longer hot and your nerve receptors go sideways. At one point it was kind of cold, like the effect produced by mint. Then it would go back to feeling like a bee sting--not a burn, but a piercing sensation of poison being injected. These sensations (plus several others difficult to describe) came and went in waves. Tears were profuse and my nose was running.
  • It burned a lot on swallowing. It was difficult to speak more than a word or two at a time. I enjoyed the mild euphoria that comes with hot peppers, though my left foot was tingling and my right arm got itchy. I don't think it was an allergic reaction, but I'm sure my peripheral nervous system was having trouble handling the overload. Whitman's opening line "I sing the body electric" ran through my head, and somehow I knew what it felt like to be a Christmas tree when the lights are switched on.
  • Residual effects lasted for a few hours. Symptoms included laughing, drastic changes to depth perception, and the occasional sensation that ants were crawling over me.
Somehow after all of that, I actually want another one. Alas, such a shock to the palate can desensitize the tongue, and I don't want to impact my ability to taste wine (or anything else for that matter). Your mileage may vary, but if you choose to cook with or eat these peppers, please be careful.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you're a brave soul! Thank you for doing that and writing about the experience so profoundly that no one else in the universe has to.

Anonymous said...

WOW sounds like something I am glad you did, not me!! Very interesting since darlene is as big of a pepper head as you I think I am off to the market and let her try them! Great read as always my friend

Anonymous said...

I despise hot peppers, a little bit goes a long way. Normal quantities overpower the rest of the food, cause gastrointestinal distress, burn out the tastebuds for days on end. Maybe others are not as sensitive to their effects, but except in very judicious amounts they do little to improve a cuisine.

Benito said...

Anonymous, I understand where you're coming from. I dislike the concept of heat just for the sake of heat. For instance, I think habanero Tabasco sauce is nasty compared to its milder original version. Unfortunately, there are some cuisines in this world that you can't really appreciate until you've built up a certain tolerance for heat.

This pepper was great as an ingredient--it's got thin walls, so if you want to add heat without a bunch of chili mass, then it's great. For times when you want the pepper to be physically present in the dish, a Hatch or Anaheim or Jalapeño works better. The Naga Jolokia really isn't meant to be eaten whole; I did so for scientific curiosity.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you got high on hot peppers. What did mom say? ;)

Sally said...

Reminds me of the director of the student film on which Terry and I met. He once said that on long overnight study sessions he'd turn on the stove and briefly roast a pepper over the heat, then eat it whole. Said it was better than anything else he'd tried for a jolt of wakeful energy. He didn't mention the euphoria, but frankly that fits very neatly into the overall picture of this particular guy....

Anonymous said...

Ran into some Jolokia peppers grown by The Farm at Red Hill near Millwood,VA at the Shenandoa Wine Festival at the Longbranch Farm - I tried a 1/2" piece - unlike the Habenero , these have a real pepper taste - which lasts about 2 minutes. After 10 minutes of tears endorphin euphoria sets in. It burns all the way down the gullet.Wine does not help.A great pepper experience- highly recommended to all pepper lovers. Rob - Damascus , MD

Unknown said...

To the Anonymous person above me, USE MILK!

Anonymous said...

Great post! You should have drank candle wax before eating the pepper. It worked for Homer.
Kris (the Wine Rogue)