Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Hot Is Hot: The Bhut Jolokia AKA the Ghost Chili by Jim Rohling

The Bhut Jolokia chili originates from Nagaland and Assam in northeastern India and was named by the Naga people after the most venomous snake in the region. The Assamese word “jolokia” means the Capsicum pepper and the word naga means” King Cobra” in Sanskrit. The peppers’ fierce “bite” is akin to the venom of a King Cobra. One farmer described it as “so hot you can’t even imagine. When you eat it, it’s like dying,” hence the name “ghost chili.” It’s also been referred to as “the equivalent of a gastronomic mugging.” At over 1,000,000 Scoville units (SHUs) one can see why.

In 2005, New Mexico State University’s Chili Pepper Institute (yes, there is a chili pepper institute) found the Bhut Jolokia to have a Scoville rating of 1,001,304 SHUs. Although there are other peppers that are hotter, like the Naga Viper at 1,382,118 SHUs and the Trinidad Scorpion at 1,463,700 SHUs, because of their hybrid nature they are unable to produce offspring exactly like the parent. So, at 855,000–1,050,000 SHUs, the Bhut Jolokia is the hottest “naturally grown” pepper.  For comparison, a bell pepper registers zero SHUs, a Jalapeno comes in at roughly 3,500, and a Habanero is approximately 100,000–350,000.

What is a Scoville unit you might ask?  In 1912, Mr. Wilbur Scoville invented a method of testing a pepper’s pungency units. Scoville’s test results were determined by taking the extracts of many types of chili peppers and diluting them in a sugared water solution until none of the heat remained. Testing was done by a panel of five “judges” who would taste these solutions and then tell Scoville when they no longer felt any heat. Because of the differences in an individual’s taste buds, the results were not very consistent. Today, more scientific and accurate methods like Electrochemistry and High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) are used to determine capsaicin levels (the chemical in chilis that produces the heat).  In honor of Mr. Scoville, the unit of measure is still named Scoville.    

In 2009, scientists at India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation announced plans to use the peppers in hand grenades, as a non-lethal way to flush out terrorists from their hideouts and as a pepper spray to control rioters.

I first read of the Ghost Chili in 2008 in a newspaper article and wondered at the time where I could get some seeds. I found the seeds at the Chili Institute of New Mexico in 2010 and called to place an order.  I was told that they were very hard for the home gardener to grow and the seeds were costly. I took what they said about hard to grow as a challenge; after all, what kind of “almost” Master Gardener would I be if I didn’t at least try.

This year, 2011, I ordered 20 seeds and started them in my greenhouse the first of February in Fox Farm seed starting mix (only the best for this experiment).  With a 160–180 day growing season, I needed to start them very early. I ended up with a 90 percent germination rate, not too shabby. In 5 weeks, I was able to transplant the seedlings into the containers I was going to grow them in. I used Fox Farm potting mix (only the best for this experiment). I watered with non-chlorinated water and fed them with Fox Farm liquid fertilizer (did I mention only the best for this experiment?). Whenever the sky looked stormy, I would put them under cover to avoid any hail damage.  But, with this summer’s heat, they didn’t get moved much.

Ripe “Ghost Chili” Pepper        Photo: Jim Rohling

Of the nine plants I kept, four were setting fruit in about 160 days and getting ripe at about 180 days. I was warned to be sure to wear gloves when I handled the peppers because they were so hot they could blister the skin by just touching them. I talked to many people about my experiment and they all asked me the same question: What was I going to do with the peppers? I guess it can be said it’s like a dog chasing a car, what are you going to do with it when you catch it. I decided the safest thing to do was to dry them in my dehydrator. Since the peppers were “not allowed” in the house, I set up the dehydrator in the greenhouse. Maybe I’ll grind them into chili powder to add to green chili stew.  Ready for a cook-off anyone?  With my curiosity fulfilled for this year, I guess I need to focus on how to get into trouble next year.

Dried Ghost Chili Peppers              Photo: Jim Rohling

Oh, and by the way, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, I did bite.  WOW!!!

Happy Gardening!

Further Reading:

For some fun facts on chilis, go to  

For a list of how chilis rate on the Scoville scale, go to

To read about all the nutritional benefits of chilis, go to, scroll down to and click on chili information, then click on nutritional information. Chilies are so good for you, you’d almost think they could cure death!