If you can’t stand THE HEAT

SundayXtra - - ONCE OVER -

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 su­per­hots, 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

DEB LIND­SEY / THE WASHINGTON POST

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