Iam not a shrinking violet when it comes to spice or hot chilies. There are times when I’ve got to have a dish loaded with the hot stuff. Some days I crave the kind of chili that make your eyes water and your scalp sweat.
Whether the chili-spiked dish is Korean, Indian, Mexican, Thai, I’ve enjoyed all races and creeds of chilis. I’m an equal opportunity chili-eater, and I like ’em fried, pickled, fresh, sauteed, and pureed. But today, I think I’ve met my match – the dreaded, the powerful ghost chili, also known as Naga Jolokia.
Last week I visited Kalustyan’s famous spice store located in Manhattan’s Little India that is sometimes called “Curry Hill”. I happened upon an entire rack, from floor to ceiling, crowded with packets of dried chilis. The word “Naga” printed on a little yellow tag caught my eye. I’ve managed to learn a few words of sanscrit through my yoga training and I know that “naga” means snake. This concerned and yet intrigued me. I tossed the packet of chilies into my cart and headed home to my kitchen.
I was ready to take some picture before I start cooking. I snipped the bag open and sniffed. Do you know the smell of a wooden house that has burnt to the ground and is still smoldering? I started to cough and made my husband take a whiff of these puckered pups. He wrinkled his nose. Now I’ve never used gloves when I’ve handled chilis in the past, but now I was afraid to use my bare hands. I grabbed a spoon and shuffled their crackled bodies into a small dish.
I couldn’t resist – I had to break one open to see what it looks like inside and I didn’t have any gloves in the house. Ok… so now I’ve touched it. It’s on me, the camera, and now my keyboard. My eye started to itch. I headed to wikipedia to see if I should really be worried. Apparently, the ghost chili can be up to 8 times hotter than the habenero chilies that I chop up for my homemade curries. If you’ve never cooked with chilis, then you might not know why some chilies are so hot. The juice carries a pain-producing compound, capsaicin, that can linger on finger tips and under finger nails for hours after it’s touched your skin. Capsaicin is fat-soluble which means that it disolves in fat and doesn’t evaporate easily like compounds that are water-soluble.
So, now we’ve got the science part down, where does this chili’s name come from? Sometimes called Bhut Naga Jolokia, bhut means ghost and naga does in fact mean snake. I can’t seem to find a direct translation for jolokia, so I’ll assume it means chili. The Naga Jolokia hails from Northeastern India and is also cultivated in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. My Google search also told me that there are several American food bloggers who are growing it in their very own gardens! I don’t think I’d eat enough of them to think about making space in my tiny herb garden, but it does make me happy that other staunch chili eaters out there raise them.
Is this chili’s bite as bad as its name suggests? To find out, I made one of my favorite rice dishes for dinner. The first hint of heat started at the roof of my mouth right behind my front teeth and flamed across my tongue and down my throat a second after I swallowed. Curiously, the lining of my nose was beginning to sting – was that from the chili in my mouth or did I scratch my nose after slicing it? A second and third bite, I smacked my tongue to get past the heat, tasting other flavors in the chili, something slightly fruity, a bit of smoke, maybe even a hint of cinnamon if we are really stretching things. I cleaned my plate without a single tear. I guess this chili’s bite is one that I can handle, though I think I’ll stick to my favorites, habanero and chipotle!
- Can chilies help to control your weight?
- Find out how to handle hot chilies.
- Listen to my favorite food scientist explain why chilies are hot.
- Chilies are great for grilling, but is grilling as healthy as you think?
- Read about a London restaurant that serves up the world’s hottest curry.