No ghost in this chili

BHOOT IS past, ghostly too. Not hot.

Just ask the king of chilies –a ‘perpetual’ British pepper that dethroned Raja (king) Mirchi.

I was somewhat relieved after reading this pungent news a few weeks ago: “UK’s Infinity is now the hottest chili on earth, says Guinness Book of World Records.”

Sad too; the news meant the end of the fiery reign of our very own backyard Jolokia. But more importantly, it meant our scorcher would be spared a ghostly – ghastly? – cultural crime.

Our Jolokia – Assamese for chili – made it to the record books in 2007 with a rating of 1,041,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs). In the four years it ruled to singe tongues, burn stomachs, water eyes and make ears emit smoke, it could have been a synonym for ‘too hot to handle’.

Instead, it came to represent hotness that makes one “see ghosts”. That was because horticulturist Paul Bosland erred eerily.

In 2005, Bosland proved what India’s Defence Research Laboratory had done five years before – that the Assamese Jolokia was hotter than the Red Savina Habanero, the hottest at that time with 580,000 SHUs.

But Bosland, perhaps addicted to allusion, got one thing wrong; he called the scorcher Bhut Jolokia or Ghost Chilli. Bhut is a phonetically poorer variant of Bhoot that in Assamese — Bengali too — means ghost or past.

You can’t perhaps blame a firang (Brown Indian equivalent of the Red Indian paleface) for being haunted by the phonetic phantom. Not when more than half of those speaking the Assamese language don’t give a damn if the chili’s real name is Bhot Jolokia.

Infinity, one presumes, isn't as exotic or Lava-like a name as Jolokia

One vowel is as good as the other, you might say. But when you replace the ‘u’ in Bhut with ‘o’, the word acquires a different meaning. Pronounced with a slightly nasal twang peculiar to those living in north-central Assam, Bhot means ‘of Bhutanese origin’ or ‘from the hills’ of adjoining Bhutan.

What’s Bhot on the northern bank of the river Brahmaputra is Naga on the southern bank, where the chili is believed to have been brought from the hills of present-day Nagaland. But the chili on either bank of the river was given a mountainous moniker more in a derogatory sense; for the plainspeople, everything that was extreme had to have a Bhutanese or a Naga tag.

The Nagas were apparently too deep in rebellion to complain. But they beat Assam in patenting the Naga Jolokia by its royal name – Raja Mirchi.

Raja as a name is no longer relevant, you might say, now that UK’s Infinity has been acknowledged as the hottest capsicum on earth with an SHU of 1.17 million.

But then, no one’s stopping Infinity from becoming the Emperor. Until some other chili comes along to beat the ghost out of it.


About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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2 Responses to No ghost in this chili

  1. R K Baruah says:

    What is the mechanism to taste the hot chilly?

    Nicely written by the author but I am not aware the process. Will be happy to read more from you in this regard.

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