Beware The Ghost Pepper

The Ghost Pepper, native to India, is gaining popularity.

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By David Hammond

I’m no heat-seeking capsaicin freak, but I do enjoy a little pepperiness in my chow, particularly with relatively neutral foods like rice and chicken.

Last week, at a little spice store outside Tubac, Arizona, I picked up a jar of Ghost Pepper.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, Ghost Pepper (also called Bhut Jalokia or California Death Pepper) clocks in at a blistering 1.2-1.5 million SHU (Scoville Heat Units, the standard measurement of a chile pepper’s potency). A jalapeno, by comparison, is measured at a moderate 8 thousand Scoville units.

The Ghost Pepper, native to India, is gaining popularity.  This chile, usually in powdered form, has recently started appearing on store shelves in little towns like Galena and on menus at places like Chicago’s famous Twin Anchors.

Having cooked with fresh Ghost Peppers, I found them powerful though flavorful, providing a clean, quick intensity followed by a slow burn that lasts  a very long time (long after I ate them, I still felt a glow emanating from my core: it was pleasant).

The dried and powdered Ghost Pepper, however, is a different story. More concentrated by about 10X, the dried flakes of this chile are truly incendiary, almost a weaponized version of the condiment. I tasted about six grains of the stuff…and then kept tasting it for a good while afterwards.

Years ago, I had a spicy Thai lunch with Harold McGee, the food scientist-author of the landmark On Food and Cooking. “Why,” I asked as sweat droplets hung from eyelids, “do we humans 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 may jump higher but we know the risk is, in reality, very low. 

Wondering if any store in Oak Park might carry the Ghost Pepper, I called Penzey’s. The clerk (who preferred to remain anonymous) told me that it was very unlikely this chile pepper would be sold at his store: “We have a very rigorous process we go through before we introduce any new product. We thoroughly check out the environment where the spice is produced, making sure the workers are taken care of and that the product meets our standards. Also, [the ghost pepper] is not a spice for everyday use, so it’s not likely something we’d want to carry.”

There are online sources for the Ghost Pepper, and I’m guessing the chiles may start to show up in farmers’ markets this summer. My plan is to grow some fresh varieties in my garden this summer. If  you’re interested in cultivating Ghost Peppers at home, you don’t even need a garden.

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Christina Pippin from Oak Park  

Posted: April 11th, 2011 12:49 PM

David, I read long ago of the myriad health benefits of peppers: the antibacterial properties that help combat chronic sinus infections and the anti-inflammatory agent, capsaicin, that provides pain relief for headaches and arthritis. As a person with arthrits, I find it interesting that I regularly crave peppers.

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