Facing a basket of chicken wings loaded with a thick purée of one of the spiciest combinations of peppers the genus Capsicum has managed to eke out of the Earth, I paused to consider human mortality.
The roasted serrano — fine. The roasted poblano — no problem. But the roasted bhut jolokia? A pepper that's been weaponized by the country of India? A plant spread on fences in its native state of Assam, to keep marauding elephants from crashing through them? The pepper rumored to cause blistering on contact, and that's handled only with the assistance of face masks and plastic gloves?
One group of masochistic idiots who filmed themselves challenging the ghost chili, as the bhut jolokia is also known, can be seen on YouTube getting pounded into a coughing, sweating, burning mess of human suffering.
But sitting here at Zingers, a collegiate grub spot near the University of Denver campus, with my waiver signed — "I hold Zingers, its employees and representatives totally harmless against anything that might occur from using the WTF? sauce, including any physical or psychological damage" — it occurs to me that I'm the same kind of idiot. Sure, the waiver's a little gimmicky, but the peppers aren't, and either way, there's a reason why this stuff is almost impossible to find on the shelves of spice shops in Colorado Springs.
So I take a drink, take a breath, and take a bite.
"Those are ... hot," I manage, after a beat.
"Give it 30 seconds," gleefully advises Zingers owner Dennis Krieger, who's come over to the table, camera in hand, to film the meal. "Thirty seconds."
Burn, baby, burn
Dave DeWitt — the "Pope of Peppers" and creator of the Scovie Awards, one of the world's largest spicy-food competitions — says the ghost chili originated on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. In the 19th century, it made its way to northeastern India via British lord George Francis Robert Harris, then Trinidad's governor.
"[The pepper's name] is closely connected to Indian mythology and funeral practices, which hold that when a person dies, he or she leaves behind a ghost," writes DeWitt on his website. "To prevent these ghosts from becoming demons and terrorizing the people, they take preventative action using hot peppers [placing it on the deceased's eyes]. I think the practice began with black pepper, but the Indians switched to super-hot chile peppers because [of] their superior heat, or power."
Though it can be grown in a variety of locales, including some in the United States, the plant — whose shape varies from traditional elongated forms to fat and stubby — thrives in Assam's warm, humid climate. Each plant node pushes out up to five peppers, which ripen from green, through bright orange, to a deep red.
And though fairly quiet for the past 150 years, the bhut jolokia — also called the naga jolokia, raja mircha or nagahari, among others — gained worldwide notoriety in 2007, when it was certified the hottest pepper in the world by Guinness World Records. Tipping the Scoville scale (more on that later) at greater than 1 million units, the pepper rated twice as hot as the previous record-holder, the Red Savina habañero, and almost 200 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.
The ghost chili has since been eclipsed by several other cross-bred varieties; the record's now held by the 1.3-million-Scoville-rated Naga Viper pepper. But it remains the hottest commercially available form of culinary-assisted suicide.
It's the flavor, stupid
"The heat comes in waves," says Bill Phillips, a 17-year professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "I just call it 'The Gift That Keeps On Giving.' Whereas a jalapeño, you get bit by it, and then the heat dies off and you recover, the bhut jolokia just goes on and on and on."
Phillips should know: As an instructor for cuisine of the Americas, feeding the pepper to his students is just par for the, um, course.
"What we notice is that, at first, the students will look at me like, 'Yeah, that's nothing, Chef; that's OK, it's not that hot, Chef,'" he says. "And then they just start turning red, and they start looking very distressed."
So what's happening to them?
"Obviously, [the body's] responding as if it was injured. So, on your palate, you have something called a [vanilloid] receptor, and it's what makes spearmint and mint, when you eat it, be perceived as cold. And it's what makes the chili pepper appear to be hot," Phillips says, now in full lecture mode. "So the capsaicin binds with the receptor; it sends a message of pain based on heat — and it's not really heat: it's [a] chemical reaction — and then your body responds as if it were burnt. And scientists say it just starts healing: You start to sweat; you release endorphins, and that's what 'chili high' is all about."
And with all this focus on the pepper, it's easy to forget that it's really the capsaicin doing the heavy lifting. The compound is located in glands at the joining of the "rib" and the wall of the pepper and, in its purest form, is a brutal 16 million heat units — the highest level there is — on the Scoville scale, a quantification from a method called the Scoville Organoleptic Test, designed by pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville in 1912.
"Scoville's method was semi-quantitative at best and resulted from using a panel of tasters and determining the [sugar] dilution needed to remove the hotness from a sauce or food," reads a 2009 research assignment from Pennsylvania's La Salle University. Decades later, Scoville numbers are more reliable. As explained in a 1998 report in Instrumental Methods in Food and Beverage Analysis, high-performance liquid chromatography "accurately determines the homologs and analogs of capsaicin and, combined with mass spectral analysis, can identify the structural isomers of the minor components."
In other words, if a pepper today pulls a 1.3 million rating, you can be sure it's really fucking hot.
'More and more'
As hard as it is to believe the heat being generated, it's even harder to find the heat generator. Kerri Olivier, co-owner of the now-defunct food emporium Extraordinary Ingredients, ran out of ghost chili powder last October, received a new shipment in March and promptly ran out again.
"I have had, just in the year-and-a-half that the store was open, more people call me from afar wanting to know if I have it, where they can get it: 'Can I get plants? Can I get seeds?'" she says with amazement. "All kinds of things like that, because I really do think that it's just one of those things that people get really crazy about."
Dick Frieg, co-owner of Savory Spice Shop, tells a similar tale.
"We've been open 18 months — this is the second time we've sold out," he said a few weeks ago. "We're hoping to get them any time; I have so many customers that buy these. We've got some of the sauce left, but the actual peppers we sold out of about 10 weeks ago. The main reason was because the Indian government bought a major portion of the crop to make tear gas. So they've weaponized our bhut jolokias, and it's kind of eating up some of the supply."
Ohio's Firehouse Pantry is a major importer of the pepper. While spokesman Robbie Rice won't divulge every detail, he does say that, four times a year, the company brings in roughly 220 pounds of the pepper directly from Assam, and that business has tripled in the last three years. "We almost always run out before the next shipment arrives," he says.
Why? Frieg says he thinks there's certainly an element of American Badass to the jolokia phenomenon.
"[There was a guy] that was so eager to try them that, in spite of my multiple warnings, he popped it. And his last words to me before he ran out of the store gasping were, 'I've had worse,'" Frieg says, laughing.
But he and Olivier both claim there's more to the phenomenon than heat.
"The ghost does have the highest commercial level available of capsaicin," Olivier says. "But on top of that, it's got amazing flavor — it's kind of similar to the habañero, in flavor. It's got kind of a pineapple-y ... there's just a certain something to it that's really flavorful, and people that love it, love it. I mean, they want more and more."
Looking back over the previous two months, my quest to experience this spicy little bastard took many forms.
I bought the powder from Extraordinary Ingredients and began incorporating it into my cooking; adding it first, as recommended by Olivier, to some scrambled eggs, and progressively ramping it up until I'd made a batch of stir fry with so much "fry" in it as to make the dish nearly inedible. (My simultaneous white pepper experiment didn't exactly help anything, either.)
I sought out noted Boulder chili-brewer Twisted Pine Brewing Co.'s recent bhut jolokia-laden release called Ghost Face Killah — which enjoyed a small burst of fame when its rapper namesake endorsed it — and experienced some milder-than-hoped-for burning o' the lips.
I even went looking for the pepper itself, and, of course, found only empty store containers.
But it's back at the table at Zingers where, in the seconds it takes to swallow a bite, my life is changed. With the staff correctly recognizing my dignified sweating, blank stares and random arm spasms as distress signals, gallons of milk, French fries and cones of fried mashed potato balls begin to appear.
And though the effort is appreciated, it does little to stop the feeling that a thick army of acidic demons armed with razor-sharp pitchforks tipped with a fire past belief is stabbing its way across my mouth.
"Can you taste anything?" my appalled sister asks, while I sit and stew in my own juices.
"Yeah," I say, slowly nodding my head. "But it's a real oily burn. It doesn't leave your tongue."
Krieger's son Max, the head cook, merrily agrees: "When we cook it through with the butter, that fat helps it just spread all over your mouth, and it's tough to get out of there."
So tough, in fact, that I'll have hours of burning face, stinging lips and even pained fingertips ahead. But for now, with Krieger having sated his need to experience and document my early suffering, I watch him put down the camera and offer some supportive parting words.
"It's not so bad — you're not tearing," he says with a grin. "We've seen a lot worse. Don't force yourself to eat them all."
Two wings down, with a gallon of milk in hand, I only know one thing.
If you eat it ...
As a member of the mammal class, you're one of the many unfortunates who have the right receptors to bond with the sometimes oh-so-wrong capsaicin. (Birds, and the like, are immune.) And since capsaicin is the very definition of a frenemy, it's more fun to eat if you know how to counter its sting.
• Do: Drink milk, and lots of it. Not just an urban myth, whole-fat milk is the best defender of your delicate mouth parts because it binds to the capsaicin tighter than the capsaicin binds to your receptors, and takes it along as you swallow. If whole is out, any milk — and, in a pinch, any dairy — will be better than the alternatives.
• Don't: Swallow the milk, at least not right away. "If you have milk with this, you gotta hold the milk in your mouth," says the CIA's Phillips. "As soon as you swallow the milk, yeah, you wash some capsaicin away, but you're gonna be miserable again until you put more milk in your mouth. You wanna swish it around like a mouthwash, and then take it down."
• Don't: Drink water or alcohol. As shown in painful detail on Discovery Channel's MythBusters, water only serves to spread capsaicin around the mouth. And while alcohol can dissolve the compound, it requires a greater amount than is conducive to remaining standing.
• Do: High-five yourself for outsmarting the compound ... er, that you deliberately ate. So, maybe you're not so smart after all. It's OK: Me either.
— Bryce Crawford