09 April 2013

BWR Classic: Trying the World's Hottest Pepper

Another favorite from the archive for your reading pleasure. Since this initial experience, I've kept a bottle of ghost pepper hot sauce available whenever I want to relive the joys of the naga jolokia.

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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.

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