In hot pur­suit of In­dia’s ‘ghost pepper’

Chicago Sun-Times - - Food -

Ev­ery now and again, heat-seek­ing chili-heads dis­cover a new pepper that is her­alded as the “hottest.” Heat is mea­sured in Scov­ille units. The most re­cent con­tender for hottest pepper was the red sav­ina at 600,000 SUs.

For com­par­i­son, a jalapeno tops out at 8,000 SUs.

The ghost pepper, also known as the Cal­i­for­nia death pepper and less sen­sa­tion­ally as the naga or bhut jolokia, red­lines at a tongue-blis­ter­ing 1.5 mil­lion SUs.

Chef Ran­jana Bhar­gava, who teaches tra­di­tional In­dian cook­ing classes in the Chicago area, told me the ghost pepper is most com­mon in the cui­sine of Ben­gal, where it’s been used in lo­cal dishes for years but is only now gain­ing in­terna- tional no­to­ri­ety.

Though no heat freak, I wanted to experience the hottest pepper, just be­cause it’s there.

At Kama In­dian Bistro, 8 W. Burlington in La Grange, I took the plunge and sam­pled ghost pepper sauce over lamb.

The first ten­ta­tive taste was sim­i­lar to the experience of stub­bing a toe: It takes a few nanosec­onds for the sen­sa­tion to reg­is­ter.

One fork­ful of ghost pepper sauce, and my tongue felt as though it was be­ing gen­tly rubbed with fine-grain sand­pa­per: slight ir­ri­ta­tion but no pain. Sec­onds later, I felt a quick burn on the palate and a not-un­pleas­ant wave of warmth that caused my cheeks to flush and per­spi­ra­tion to flow for about 90 min­utes.

Alas, the lamb didn’t have much chance of be­ing heard; when ghost pepper is in the choir, it’s singing louder than any­thing else.

Years ago, I had a spicy Thai lunch with Harold McGee, the food sci­en­tist and au­thor of the land­mark On Food and Cook­ing.

“Why,” I asked as sweat droplets hung from eye­lids, “do we like to eat such hot stuff?”

Ac­cord­ing to McGee, it’s all about the joy of “con­strained risk,” the feel­ing of be­ing in dan­ger while re­main­ing fully aware there’s no ac­tual threat. Like rid­ing a roller coaster, the heart rate is higher but risk is very low.

There are, how­ever, more than imagi- nary risks with ghost pep­pers. When han­dling them, Bhar­gava sug­gests oil­ing the hands to pro­tect the skin. I cut them up us­ing knife and fork, avoid­ing skin con­tact com­pletely.

Used in mod­er­a­tion (a dime-sized slice for three scram­bled eggs), the pep­pers de­liver a sat­is­fy­ing though not tonguenumb­ing burn with slight sweet­ness and lin­ger­ing notes of fruit.

Ghost pep­pers are pow­er­ful. Na­tional Ge­o­graphic re­ports they’re used in In­dia to re­pel ele­phant at­tacks.

David Ham­mond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Pub­lic Ra­dio con­trib­u­tor and a founder/mod­er­a­tor of culi­nary chat site LTHFo­rum.com. Ques­tions, com­ments, tips? E-mail [email protected]­times.com.

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