Naga Chillies: Some Like It Hot!
Did you know, Bhut Jholokia or ghost pepper was certified as the world’s hottest chilli pepper in 2007 by Guinness World Records? Read on to find out more about the Naga King Chilli, in this article by Rupert Winchester.
One of the oddest parts of the Hornbill Festival, for me, occurs on the very last day, towards the close of play, and it is one of the most hotly anticipated. And I mean ‘hotly’ in every sense of the word: it is the Naga King-Chili Eating Competition.
Now, Nagaland is remote and very little known around the world: for many years it was almost totally closed to foreigners. But the one thing that most well informed people seem to know about Nagaland is that it is home to the world’s hottest chilli peppers, the Naga king chili, or bhut jolokia.
This monstrous scion of the capsicum family is profoundly, scarily hot. The bhut jolokia weighs in at 1.5 million Scoville heat units (SHU): in comparison, a jalapeño is around 4,000 SHU. So it’s around 400 times hotter than Tabasco Sauce. (The Scoville number refers to how much dilution would be necessary to render the heat imperceptible.) Bhut jolokia grenades were developed a few years ago by the Indian army to use on rioting crowds. So these are definitely weapons-grade chilis.
So why on earth would anyone be mad enough to enter a competition to see how many you can eat? Well, the Naga tribes are brought up on the Naga king, and although they acknowledge its heat, they claim they’re used to it. It was noticeable, though, when we arrived, that while the crowds numbered a couple of thousand, only 15 or 20 people had stepped up to take part, despite repeated requests for volunteers.
Mostly the participants were locals, but there were a couple of foreigners mixed in there too. The MC, a local DJ and comedian, had the crowd in stitches as he cajoled them to enter, and introduced the contenders. He also helpfully pointed out the doctors and nurses at the edge of the stage: the ambulance standing by, the bottles of water at the ready.
The contestants had 20 seconds to eat as many Naga kings as possible. And once they started to eat, it became clear why the competition was so popular, in the way of gladiatorial contests: watching people deliberately hurt themselves is, shamefully, extremely funny.
Within seconds, people were writing on the floor of the stage. The nurses became busy quickly, shuffling people out of sight so they could vomit. Bodies were slumped everywhere, people clutching their stomachs and throats, turning red or purple. It was most entertaining.
The eventual winner, a local youth, managed 16 bhut jolokia in 20 seconds, and won the princely sum of $600. He trotted off stage with no apparent ill effects: from backstage we could hear the ambulance siren as it ferried someone off to casualty.
I’m still not convinced that it’s a very grown-up idea, to watch people people eat bhut jolokia: I even heard talk of some illicit gambling going on in shady parts of the stadium. But it is undoubtedly very funny, and it is culturally specific to the Naga tribes. So I can’t wait to see it again this year. But is there any way I could be persuaded to join it? Not a hope.
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