According to press reports last week, the world has a new contender for the title of Hottest Chilli Pepper. The Naga Jolokia chilli (originally from Bangladesh) is more than twice as potent as the previous record holder – and it’s going on sale in UK supermarkets soon.
I am a firm believer that there are a number of ways in which the world can definitively be divided into two types of people:
People who can touch their toes and those who can’t. People who are fundamentally dishonest and those who aren’t.
Starfish sleepers and corpse sleepers.
And people who love hot chilli and those who don’t.
And like starfish and corpse sleepers who inevitably end up married to one another (ask around – you’ll see I’m right!), more often than not a chilli-lover and a chilli-hater end up married to each other.
Seeing as I am of the opinion that Nando’s lemon and herb chicken is a little on the spicy side, obviously I had to go and marry a man who once downed a double tot glass of half Tabasco and half tequila for a laugh. The line between stupid and hard-core narrows daily!
Kiss Your Ass Goodbye
But it seems he is not alone in his obsession – a brief search on the internet turns up dozens of chilli eating contests, mostly in the USA but also in other countries.
There is also stiff competition between manufacturers to devise and market the hottest chilli sauce on the market, with names like After Death, Pain & Suffering, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, and Dave’s Total Insanity Sauce, to name but a few.
However the title now goes to Blair’s 16 Million Reserve – a sauce that’s a staggering 8,000 times hotter than Tabasco. Workers in the factory where it is produced wear sealed suits to avoid inhaling traces of it, and customers have to sign a legal waiver before they can buy it.
So what makes us crave the heat?
The heat in chillies comes from a chemical compound called capsaicin. It is an irritant to mammals (but not birds), probably evolved to protect fruit from hungry mammal predators who could chew and crush the precious seeds. It is also the principal ingredient in pepper spray used by the police.
But contrary to what your tongue may tell you, capsaicin does not actually burn you: instead it stimulates nerve endings in your mouth, merely giving the sensation of burning. The theory is that the perceived painful sensation stimulates feel-good hormones called endorphins – and it is these feel-good hormones that chilli-heads become addicted to, seeking out hotter and hotter tastes to get an endorphin hit.
The perceived heat of chilli peppers is measured in Scoville units, a scale developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. To measure a chilli’s heat on this scale, extract from the pepper is diluted in sugar syrup or water (added one drop at a time) until a panel of five tasters can no longer detect the heat. The number of times the extract must be diluted in water in order for it to lose its heat equals its number of Scoville Heat Units. So if Tabasco sauce has to be diluted 2,500 times to lose its heat, it carries a rating of 2,500 on the Scoville scale.
So, using this scale, which chillies rate the highest and the lowest? Here is a list of peppers and their Scoville Heat Units:
Pure capsaicin: 15-16 million
Police-grade pepper spray: 5 million
Naga Jolokia pepper: 923,000
Red Savina pepper: 577,000
Habanero or Scotch bonnet pepper: 100,000-325,000
Jalapeno pepper: 2,500-8,000
Tabasco sauce: 2,500
Bell pepper: 0
So, how hot would you go? And why do you love (or hate!) the burn?
Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog www.cooksister.com. This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.