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Why do we like hot chilies so much? Why eat something that can hurt us? The heat in chilies comes from their capsaicinoids, a series of related compounds concentrated in a chili's internal ribs and seeds. The capsaicinoids turn on the pain receptors in our mouth and on our tongue. It's essentially a defense mechanism designed to stop animals devouring the pod. "The body reacts as if it's a poison," says David Thompson, an Australian cook responsible for some of the most inventive Thai cooking of the past decade and owner of Nahm, London's only Thai restaurant with a Michelin star. "It expects more than just a wallop of heat, but that's all it gets." At a very low level, that wallop is addictive because our body's nervous system releases endorphins, a type of mild natural opiate, to ease the sting. It's that mix of pleasure and pain that makes eating chilies such a wonderful experience. "The reason people get excited about eating more and more of them is you have an adrenaline rush," says Thompson, who lives half the year in Bangkok to immerse himself in Thai cooking traditions. "We want more."
We also seem to want hotter. In the past few years, chili lovers in places such as the U.S. and the U.K. have become obsessed with eating the hottest chili, the hottest sauce, the hottest anything. In an episode of the animated series The Simpsons, Homer Simpson coats his throat with hot wax so he can eat a steaming hot chili "grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum." Colleagues have inundated me with stories of their own encounters with chilies. One said he'd eaten chilies in Thailand that "stripped the enamel off my teeth." Our Southeast Asia bureau chief told me she had grown up having chili-eating competitions with her father. "I'm proud to say I once beat him," she wrote. "But then had to absent myself from school for an afternoon because of the consequences. Mother was not amused."
In September 2000, a military laboratory in the garrison town of Tezpur in northeastern India announced that it had identified the hottest chili in the world. Chili heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units (shus), from the American chemist Wilbur Scoville who invented the scale in 1912. Pure capsaicin, the main capsaicinoid in a chili, measures 16 million shu. A bell pepper typically measures zero. An Italian peperoncino, used to spice up pasta dishes in southern Italy, measures about 500 shu, while the spiciest Thai chilies come in at around 100,000. Most people are reduced to tears by eating anything above 200,000, and until now the hottest chili ever measured was the Red Savina, a type of habanero grown in California by a commercial chili farmer, which measured 577,000 shu.
According to the tests carried out by India's Defence Research Laboratory, pods from the bhut jolokia, or "ghost chili," a plant grown across northeastern India, had measured 855,000 shu. The chili world met the claim with skepticism, but in 2005 the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico finally grew enough bhut jolokia from seeds a member had collected in India to be able to test it. The results were stunning: the bhut jolokia, also called the Naga chili after a traditionally fierce local tribe that enjoys eating them, measured just over 1 million shu, the sort of heat you normally find only in the hottest chili sauces made from pure pepper extract.
On a recent visit to Tezpur, I met with the director of the Defence Research Laboratory, R.B. Srivastava, and the scientist in charge of cultivating the bhut jolokia, R.K.R. Singh. The two men explained that the bhut jolokia was so popular in northeastern India that it was known as "the king of chilies" and celebrated in a festival that coincides with the beginning of the chili season in April. The men discussed the possibility of using the bhut jolokia in antiriot weapons such as tear gas. (I wasn't allowed into the laboratories, Srivastava said, because I was a foreign national and clearance could take weeks.) The bhut jolokia might also make a good food for India's troops, he suggested. We joked about soldiers eating bhut jolokias to get in the right mood before going into battle. "A balanced approach has to be there," Srivastava said, half seriously, "or they will be running to the toilet all the time." The laboratory is contemplating applying for Geographical Indication certification, which would mean only bhut jolokias from northeastern India could be sold as such. "The commercial applications are there," said Srivastava, who mentioned using the chili in medicines and even, by smearing it on string encircling villages, to keep elephants away from crops and humans. "Chilies are packed with vitamins and just so good for you."
After some time, a colleague brought in a small saucer containing three bhut jolokia pods. The pods had been picked a few weeks earlier and were beginning to shrivel. They were about 5 cm long and a burnt orange color. They had an extremely pleasant smoky aroma half the reason people in the region adore them, said Singh, who is from the nearby state of Manipur and found the bhut jolokia "horrible" as a child but now loves it in small doses. With a cup of milky tea on hand in case of an emergency (milk or yoghurt is a much better way to counter the effects of chilies than water or alcohol), I used my fingernails to tear off a tiny shard of bhut jolokia skin. The men warned me not to try the seeds or the ribs. "Just place it on your tongue, don't swallow," Singh said. The heat took a few seconds to register but quickly spread across my tongue and around my mouth. It was hot, but not unpleasant. I tore off a slightly larger piece of chili and placed it between my front teeth. As I bit down I could feel the chemicals burst out and begin to heat my gums and tongue and down into the top of my throat. I took a swig of tea. Singh smiled and suggested I stop there. "You survived," he said.
Chefs such as David Thompson dismiss the fixation on heat alone. "In countries where chilies have been part of the cooking culture for centuries, that rather adolescent approach has been discarded a long time ago. People in those places don't have to prove their manhood by trying to eat the most number of chilies at one go," Thompson says. He pauses and then adds, "although I've certainly been guilty of that." The point of chilies, he says, is not just the heat but the way they enhance the flavors of other ingredients. "Chili is not meant to swamp or overpower but act as a counterpoint to something salty or sour or sweet, or to heighten the sensation of textures," he says. No wonder, then, that in five centuries, the chili has successfully seduced the entire planet.