Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

If you can't stand THE HEAT

... don't allow the Bhut Jolokia pepper in your kitchen

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The bright red pepper has a shriveled appearance, as if a bulbous clown nose had somehow wilted into a long, twisted witch's beak. Between its wrinkly complexion and its nasty reputation, the Bhut Jolokia, better known as the ghost pepper, generates fear and fascination. YouTube is littered with videos of bros pumped up enough to eat a whole one -- only to crumple to the floor, pounding down milk.

When I cut into my first ghost pepper recently -- while wearing food-safe gloves, at the urging of practically everyone who has an opinion on the subject -- I was first struck by the aroma. My kitchen was filled with the sweet, tropical fragrance of passion fruit. You quickly learn that the aroma is a trap, designed to entice the innocent.

I tried a small seedless dice of the pepper, approximately the size of a pea, and within seconds, my right eye was streaming tears down my cheek, my nostrils were dripping and, worst of all, I began to hiccup uncontrollably. It was as if my head had become a wood-burning oven, lighting up my tongue and the interior of my skull. Milk provided little relief, until the burn began to subside on its own some 10 minutes later.

The Bhut Jolokia is one of a rare breed of peppers: The nonprofit Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, N.M., calls them, without any whiff of comedic hyperbole, "super-hot" peppers. Believe it or not, these freak-show specimens are slowly creeping into some farmers markets, where heat seekers sometimes treat the peppers more like schoolyard dares than take-home produce -- just the latest example of that seemingly never-ending human desire to try to eat fire.

Lana Edelen, co-owner of Homestead Farm in Faulkner, Md., once had a customer approach her stand at a market and stare at the colourful carnival of hot peppers for sale. "He said nothing was hotter than a habanero," Edelen recalls.

So Edelen cut open one of her flame throwers and offered a piece to the man, but with a neighbourly warning. "It's hot," she told him. "I'm telling you beforehand." He popped a piece into his mouth and told Edelen, "It ain't too bad. There ain't no heat yet," she remembers.

"Then all of a sudden he was looking for something to eat," she adds. An hour later, she spotted him again and "his teeth and lips were still on fire."

To some, Edelen's anecdote would be a cautionary tale. To others, it's a come-hither Body Heat signal of seduction, much like those hot sauces with the orifice-oriented names (think: Sphincter Shrinker XXX, Colon Cleaner) were in the 1990s and 2000s.

To join the elite class of super-hots, peppers must register an average level of 1 million Scoville heat units in replicated, scientifically controlled trials. To give you some point of comparison, a common jalapeno tops out, depending on what source is cited, at 10,000 SHUs. Habaneros and Scotch bonnets can range from 100,000 to 350,000 SHUs.

At present, only a handful of peppers are members of the super-hot class. Aside from the ghost pepper (an average of 1,019,687 SHUs), the other ultra-hotties include the Trinidad Scorpion (1,029,271 SHUs); Trinidad 7-Pot Jonah (1,066,882 SHUs); Douglah Trinidad Chocolate (1,169,058 SHUs); and the mother of all tongue-destroying peppers, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (1,207,764 SHUs), according to a recently published Chile Pepper Institute scientific study. Two Trinidad Moruga Scorpion plants in the study topped two million SHUs.

However, the Chile Pepper Institute "the Bhut Jolokia pepper remains the hottest pepper that is commercially available."

This desperate chase for the world's hottest pepper -- and whatever commercial applications it may hold for the record holder -- is a separate issue, of course, from the people who want to consume them. You might be shocked to learn not all consumers are heat junkies looking for their next starring role as a human test dummy in a YouTube video.

The reason Homestead Farm entered the hot pepper market was pure and simple consumer demand. Since 1992, Homestead Farm has tapped into an African market that desires foods from back home. Almost every day, Edelen says, customers come to pick sweet potato leaves, "garden egg" fruits, jute leaves or hot peppers. At first, Lana and her husband, Joseph, started planting more moderately spicy varieties, such as cayenne and jalapenos, before graduating to Scotch bonnets. Nothing was hot enough for their African customers, however, until the couple began planting ghost peppers and Jamaican Hot Chocolates and even Trinidad Scorpions.

So, these carpet bombs for the mouth fit into dishes that are actually consumed by people with functioning palates? Danise Coon, a senior research specialist for New Mexico State University and program co-ordinator for the Chile Pepper Institute, thinks "some of these are completely inedible. They're not for food consumption, that's for sure."

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 25, 2012 A2

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