Bhut jolokias, soaking innocently
In this month’s issue of Gourmet, Karen Coates goes all the way to Nagaland, in northeast India, to taste the bhut jolokia, which was discovered in 2006 to be the hottest chile in the world.
But you don’t have to go around the world to try bhut jolokia—good-quality dried ones are available at Kalustyan’s. I bought an ounce ($8.99) a couple weeks ago, and they’ve been sitting in my cabinet ever since. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. The packaging, for one thing, is a little intimidating. “Caution: World’s hottest chile, handle with care,” it reads. Handle with care includes eating them?
For comparison’s sake, the naga jolokia is about twice as hot as a Red Savina habanero (the hottest variety of habanero). But I used to work at Chile Pepper magazine—which, at one point, involved lying immobile on the floor of my cubicle clutching my stomach after taste-testing too many hot sauces—and I love spicy food. So, okay, I thought I’d make a simple, taqueria-style salsa from the naga jolokias.
In Coates article she writes, “Natives of northeastern India don’t eat bhut jolokia for its heat so much as for its smell. The pepper’s unique sweet-smoky-spicy aroma has wooed disciples across India’s northeastern states for centuries.”
As soon as I cut open the package, I knew exactly what she meant. The nagas smell similar to chipotles, smoky, but stronger, fuller and rounder. The aroma has a serious presence, and soon my whole kitchen was filled with it. The chiles themselves are brick red about an inch long, in the shape of thin lanterns.
I cut off the stems, and then soaked the chiles in warm water for about 30 minutes. (Wear gloves, or at least be careful about washing your hands right after you touch them.) Then I put the re-hydrated chiles, some garlic, vinegar, water and salt in the blender and pureed it all together. When I popped open the lid, it was clear that the nagas had become less friendly. The smell was now more like something you would use against rioters. I was having a hard time being in the same room with the salsa.
I scraped most of it into a bowl (not all of it because I was felled by a coughing fit, and I wasn’t going to eat all of it anyway).
With a container of yogurt handy, I dipped a cracker in and ate. And at first, it tasted really pretty good. Smoky, garlicky, hot. In fact, even though the heat blossomed and grew, it still wasn’t unbearable. So I took a few more bites, getting cocky. Then I wished I hadn’t. Because it is really, really hot. I sweated and dripped for about 10 minutes before it subsided. And now my mouth is numb.
Obviously, using the chiles in salsa probably isn’t their best use. In India, cooks use them as one small component of gravies or stews.
But that was fun. And, um, you should try it!
The Hottest Salsa in the World
Yield: about 3/4 cup
1 ounce dried naga jolokia chiles, stemmed, soaked in warm water, drained
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/3 cup water
generous pinch salt
In a blender, combine all ingredients, and purée. Scrape out, and eat as a salsa (if you can) or add small amounts to soups or stews.
This is very hot