Monday, March 1, 2010

Bhut Jolokia

It was recently time to order to some more Brother Bru-Bru's hot sauce, which is my preferred condiment for home fries and Röschti. Hot sauces are fairly shelf stable, so we like to stock up, which also saves on shipping. Furthermore, boutique sauces come and go: we are down to our last bottle of Satan's Revenge, an Indonesian-style sauce which I like on zucchini sticks, but which hasn't been produced in several years (it is still shown in the web site photo).

And there is always something new to try. For a while, the new hotness (sorry) was Red Savina peppers. We still have a bottle of Melinda's version. Now it is Bhut Jolokia and we got the Melinda's, which is good on a grilled portabello mushroom, and the Dave's Gourmet, which I've yet to try, since I'm waiting for the bottle of Dave's Insanity, which I put on pumpkin kibbeh, to be finished. As one might imagine, these personal pairings help to justify a larder full of hot sauces.

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Though that Wikipedia page has some dead news links, it does a reasonable job of summarizing the “new” world's hottest peppers: a group of related hybrids of mostly C. chinense with some C. frutescens genetic material, from the area around Assam, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Manipur and Nagaland. More comprehensive are Dave DeWitt's and Gernot Katzer's pages.

Of particular interest are the names and their associated problems. Bhut-jolokia is sometimes glossed as 'ghost pepper', as though it were ভুত-জলকীয়া, when in fact it is 'Bhotiya (Bhutanese) pepper', that is, ভোট-জলকীয়া. Similarly, Naga-jolokia is claimed as 'serpent pepper' নাগ-, rather than 'Naga (that is, related to the Nagas or Nagalim) pepper' নগা-. In a stricter transliteration scheme, like the one used by the Library of Congress, the differences would be clearer: bhut-jalakīyā, vs. bhoṭ- and nāga- vs. nagā-. Though that may not be the whole story, since the other forms do occur in reliable sources like a user-contributed dictionary or an academic promotion. Nor are all the actual names benign: bih-jolokia is indeed 'poison pepper', বিহ-জলকীয়া. One of the names in Nagaland (though it isn't clear in what language(s) — perhaps Nagamese creole) is 'king of peppers', राज-मिरंच rāja-mirca.

This recent favor in the West was picked up and encouraged by the Assam and Manipur news and television reporting from Nagaland (video starts playing right away). And so discussion in some blogs helps to confirm and clarify the identifications in Assamese or Naga cuisine. And to offer some additional names like Sap Hmarcha and Sap Malta. Or other related varieties like U Morok. (Hmarcha and morok মরোক / ꯃꯔꯣꯀ are clearly 'chili pepper' and so presumably is malta; sap might be 'snake', or perhaps that's a coincidence. U is apparently 'tree'; that variety is eaten with some kind of water lily seed.)

Still, Katzer's spice page raises the interesting question of just how old this super-hot pepper is in its native land. Here again, transliteration inconsistencies make searching somewhat less efficient. A Victorian report uses jálika. But the most common in the early 20th century seems to be jalakia. A report from just after independence lists some specific hot varieties, Surjamukhi Jalakia (সূৰ্য্যমুখী-জলকীয়া 'sunflower pepper') and Kharika Jalakia (খৰিক-জলকীয়া 'long slender stick pepper', still known as Khorika Jolokia), but they don't seem to match. However, A Dictionary in Assamese and English (1867) , which Wikipedia (s.v.) says was the first Assamese dictionary, has this entry (p. 439):

ভোটমৰিচ, s. এবিখ সকত জলকীয়া, a species of large red pepper.

Much as I would like to believe that bhût-morich then is the same as bhût-jolokia now, there really isn't anything remarkable about peppers from Bhutan in Assam, nor about red peppers, and large is relative. Now, it is true that C. chinense violate the ordinary hot pepper rule from C. frutescens like bird peppers or Thai chilis, that smaller is hotter. So there isn't anything to suggest this isn't it, either.

In any case, it seems that these new hottest peppers are consistently over one million Scoville units. Only twenty years ago, when the hot pepper craze in the USA was already in full swing, a cookbook author is quoted in the New York Times as unable to even track down who Wilbur Scoville was, using then standard sources like the Library of Congress Authorities file. Now, in addition to those Wikipedia entries, it is easy to search pharmaceutical literature of the time and find dozens of research papers on various topics authored by Scoville. One can even find, “A Note on Capsicums,” (note the plural, many sources cite it as singular), as published at the time of his presentation or the following year in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association with some comments and so the standard citation, either in the digital version of that journal, if you have access to a research library, or, otherwise in a copy among the course materials for an MIT course on Kitchen Chemistry.