An encounter with the world's hottest chilli

By Andrew Buncombe

In a covered market in the city of Imphal, the air pungent with fresh and fermented produce, a young man holds up his hands to reveal what looks like a cluster of dried, berry-red flowers. They immediately smell herbal, complex and very powerful.

"These are the dry ones. The fresh ones only come during the winter," says the salesman, Raymond, who, by dint of being a man, has been banished to the fringes of the city's famous "women's market", where his shop sits next to a stall selling dried fish.

"It's the most hot. One piece is enough."

For generations, the people of north-east India have relished this small, pungent pepper that packs a punch like no other. Known in Assam as bhut jolokia, in Nagaland as naga jolokia and here in Manipur as umorok, the chilli is valued for its heat, its flavour and its purported medicinal qualities.

In 2007, there was quiet celebration in these parts, if only for receiving external confirmation of what everyone already suspected, when the Guinness World Records book declared it was the hottest chilli in the world - almost twice as ferocious as the variety whose fiery crown it took.

But this innocuous-looking capsicum could soon become more famous yet.

Scientists working for the Indian military said recently that they had successfully tested a hand-grenade made from umorok. They believe the non-lethal weapon could be used as a form of crowd control by police or paramilitaries, or used to produce a protection device for women.

"We have found it can be used either as a spray or as a hand grenade. We think it is more effective than teargas and, unlike teargas it has no side-effects," said RB Srivastava, the director of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) at Tezpur, in northern Assam.

"We think it could also be used by women for protection. I've heard that women in remote areas often carry a small bag of chilli powder to defend themselves [against attackers]. I thought that if they used this, they would only need a very small amount."

Mr Srivastava, who explained that trials of the grenades were complete and he was awaiting word from the armed forces, said the chilli was also used for controlling wildlife by people who spread it along ropes and fences.

"It is a very good repellent for wild elephants," he added.

While umorok has steadily developed a cult following in the US and Europe for its unmatchable heat, cooks in north-eastern India have long used it as a regular ingredient in everyday meals. Many people will grow a plant or two in their vegetable garden.

The fresh umorok is particularly loved and people smile and joke as they talk about catching the smell of the pepper as they walk past a vegetable seller. Many also talk of its medicinal properties.

Dr Srivastava said there was evidence that the chilli boosted the metabolism. In Manipur, locals coyly point out that, unlike many varieties of chilli, umorok burns while entering the body but not on the way out.

Hoihnu Hauzel, a New Delhi-based writer, poet and author of The Essential North-East Cookbook, grew-up in Manipur and friends still bring her bags of dried umorok when they come to visit.

"People use it mostly for the flavour. It adds extra richness and colour to the dish. It's particularly good with pork," she said.

"If they cannot get the fresh one, people use the dried chilli. Or else the fresh ones can be preserved in jars of mustard oils."

Umorok's rise to fame began in 2005 when researchers at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University carried out tests on a pepper that had been grown from dried seeds brought back from India.

The institute's director, Paul Bosland, found that when assessed using Scoville heat units (SHUs), the chilli came in at more than one million. The standard Scoville measure was devised in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, a US chemist who found a way to determine the heat given off by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chillies.

The red savina, a Californian pepper which at the time was considered the world's hottest, measures 577,000 SHUs. By comparison, a jalapeno measures a paltry 5000 SHUs.

"Oh my gosh, this is hot," Dr Bosland later recalled of the umorok.

After it was listed as a record-holder, it increasingly began to draw the attention of the bold and adventurous who like to test themselves against the hottest chillies. Indeed, the internet is full of painful accounts of people's excruciating encounters with the pepper.

One of the most unlikely took place last year in Assam state's capital, Guwahati, where Anandita Dutta Tamuly ate 60 of the peppers in just two minutes before a cheering crowd including the British chef, Gordon Ramsay, who was filming a television series. For unexplained reasons, having consumed the chillies, the young woman then rubbed 20 of them into her eyes. She emerged, seemingly unscathed, saying: "I am very happy to have broken my own record."

On a recent evening in Imphal, The Independent was invited to a special dinner in order to sample umorok prepared in several ways, helped down with home-made rice whiskey, Sekmai, named after the town said to produce the best variety.

Fellow diners included a doctor, a dentist, a journalist and an official from a nearby hospital. With a long-running insurgency in Manipur creating a de facto curfew, one of the few options these men have found for socialising is to get together at one of their homes, cook a meal and slowly sip their whiskey.

"Our wives will call and we tell them we are still at the office," one of them joked.

One of the dishes was a gamey chicken which had been stewed with a small piece of the dried chilli. It was hot and fiery but nothing too mad. More compelling was a strong-smelling dish of dipping sauce which had been prepared by combining ngari (fermented, sun-dried fish), vinegar and chopped up umorok.

"Try some," urged the enthusiastic group.

More than aware of the horror stories of novice encounters with the pepper, it seemed prudent to taste just a small amount: a tiny blob on the end of a teaspoon. Even this insignificant portion had an extraordinary effect; within an instant, the entire mouth was throbbing and burning.

Yet perhaps even more unexpected than the sheer heat, was the seemingly addictive quality of the chilli.

The gang around the table had said that once someone started eating umorok it was hard to stop and that the throbbing, burning pain became a natural high.

Remarkably, their words proved to be true, and when the bowl of sauce came round the table a second time, it was indeed hard to resist just a little more. One would never have predicted it, but one taste was not enough.

- INDEPENDENT

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