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Are Ghost Peppers Actually Used in Indian Cooking?

I'm wondering if the people of Assam--the native region of the bhut jolokia--actually use these peppers in their cuisine. I know they are used as elephant repellent (seriously), but have not heard of them actually being used in the native cooking. I almost think that with the pepperhead craze in the US, you'd be more likely to encounter the ghost pepper in an Indian resto in the States than you would if you ate in India itself.

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  1. A friend of mine from a neighboring state in India told me about them long before they were popular here, he says that they often use them. They called it "The King".

    He brought me a bag of dried ones several years ago, I forgot why I had wanted them in the first place and threw a handful in a curry. Ouch! Now you can get them just about anywhere.

    2 Replies
      1. re: Perilagu Khan

        Naga/Ghost peppers figure in a novel published in 2003 called, Who Sleeps with Katz.

    1. I grew them this year (an ABUNDANT harvest), and the relatives in India had never ever heard of them! (They're in Balgalore.)

      1. Having worked in restaurants in Manhattan until a few years ago, I had the chance to work with a number of Bengali immigrants. They told of a pepper that was hot enough that a single chili was hot enough for a communal stew shared by about 50 people during festivals. It was before I had heard of a ghost chili and don't remember if it was called bhut jolokia. If my geography is correct Assam is quite near Bangladesh.

        5 Replies
        1. re: KilgoreTrout

          That is correct. Far northeast India. Rather remote, I expect, and that's probably why the bhut jolokia remained virtually unknown to the broader world until four or five years ago. Heck, pine time indicates they were not even widely known in Bangalore.

          1. re: Perilagu Khan

            Perilagu Khan: thanks for noting that the relatives are really in Bangalore, not Balgalore--I need spell check! A few other relatives are in Hyderabad, known for hot foods, and they didn't know the pepper, either.

            1. re: pine time

              pine time: my favorite local (Lubbock, Texas) Indian restaurant is staffed entirely by natives of Hyderabad, and indeed, the food is extremely hot, just the way I love it. The chef, however, was unaware of the bhut jolokia when I asked him about it.

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                Oh, I'm jealous. Do they make an authenic Moghlai Hyderabadi biryani?

                1. re: pine time

                  They do make what they call a Hyderabad biryani, with either chicken or lamb. Having never eaten in Hyderabad, I cannot attest to its authenticity, though.

                  Someday I'd like to travel to Guntur, just to eat. I understand it is the pepper capital of India, and I assume the local cuisine is correspondingly scorching.

        2. I saw not long ago a Gordon Ramsay special where he went to Assam and attended a ghost pepper eating contest.

          1 Reply
          1. Perilagu, I am not sure if they are used in India, but I've used them to marinate hot wings and can attest they make excellent hot wings that have a depth of flavor along with the heat. Also, Dave's Insanity Ghost Pepper sauce is an excellent product for putting the little beauties to use.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Leper

              Thanks, Leper. As a hardcore wing-man I may have to give this a shot.

              1. re: Leper

                Yup, I've used them in hot wings, too. Just used 1 pepper (seeds and membrane) for nearly 2 1/2 lbs of wings, and they were quite hot.

              2. They're commonly used in Sylhet, Bangladesh.

                ETA: Sorry, which is right next to the Assamese border.

                2 Replies
                1. re: adrienne156

                  Added to curries? Included in pickles, relishes and chutneys? Used as the basis for kulfi? ;)

                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                    I've seen then used sparingly, in their green state, in curries and bhartas. More often than not, in fish preparations.

                2. I was in Assam in July and know that ghost peppers are used in pickles. The season was ending when we were there and we were staying with relatives so we didn't go to any restaurants. However, I believe they are also used in curries and other preparations.

                  I'm not surprised that the peppers are used in Bengali/Bangladeshi cuisine; many Bengalis went to Assam to work in the tea gardens. I believe these peppers are are native to northeast India so I wouldn't expect them to be known in Bangalore or Hydrabad, both of which are in the far south of the country.

                  I found it interesting that these pepper plants can grow 5 ft. high. Eggplants grow surprisingly tall too.

                  I don't think bhut jolokias are used in US restos for two reasons: it's too hot for most palates and the flavor is different from the chilis Indian chefs use. They have a fruity flavor reminiscent of habaneros.

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: OldSchool

                    They're closely related to habaneros and that ilk, being of the C. chinense species of chiles.

                    1. re: jgg13

                      For what it's worth, they are actually a naturally occurring hybrid. Wikipedia expresses it: "There was initially some confusion and disagreement about whether the Bhut was a Capsicum frutescens or a Capsicum chinensepepper, but DNA tests showed it to be an interspecies hybrid, mostly C. chinense with some C. frutescens genes." (footnotes omitted).

                      1. re: MGZ

                        I actually still prefer habaneros and scotch bonnet chiles to bhuts. SBs & habs have thicker walls and seem to have more of the fruity citrus like flavor that I enjoy while still providing a balance of respectable heat. Bhuts are more thin skinned and are rather stupidly hot. I'd have to say the quest for hotter and hotter chiles left me behind some years ago with the Red Savina...

                        1. re: equal_Mark

                          I have no use for these scientifically-created super hots that spring from laboratories in Las Cruces or Sydney or wherever. Artificially created hot peppers simply don't qualify in my book, and I'm about the farthest thing from an organic zealot you'll ever find.

                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                            I'm not sure what you're referring to, because none of the super hots were created in laboratories or are "artificially created." The hottest varieties- Trinidad scorpion, 7 Pod, Douglah, Moruga, and bhut jolokia are all naturally occurring varieties from Trinidad, Tobago, and India.

                            Practically every chile is engineered in reality by hundreds or thousands of years of selection by people growing them, if it weren't for people selecting for size, flavor, shape, heat, etc. the only chiles available would be tiny bird types. In reality these super hots are far more wild and less engineered than common varieties like bell peppers, hungarian hot wax, jalapeno, etc.

                            The Red Savina was supposedly bred to be hotter, yet despite the unconfirmed 577k score, it actually scores lower than regular orange habaneros. The 577k score was a sham.

                            1. re: StringerBell

                              I was under the impression that the Dorset naga and the Butch T Trinidad were part of an individual's or team's efforts to breed the hottest of the hot. Perhaps not. At any rate, there's a difference between chiliheads consciously attempting to get in the Guiness Book of World Records and common farmers in remote areas selecting peppers for certain characteristics over the course of milennia.

                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                Oh, I didn't know you were talking about those. The dorset naga is just a renamed naga morich (supposedly an "improved" variety). It's not any hotter than a naga morich and doesn't grow any differently. People just like to rename varieties to try to make more money off them. It's annoying and unethical but it unfortunately it happens a lot.

                                The Butch T wasn't an effort to breed a hotter pepper at all. A guy named Butch Taylor was growing Trinidad scorpions many years ago and shared seeds with people all over the world. A common practice by chileheads is to write the name of the cultivar on the seed packet followed by the source in order to keep track of where seeds come from. So he would label his seeds "Trinidad Scorpion- Butch T," not because he was trying to make/label a new strain just to keep track of origins. A lot of people who grew his seeds thought that his Trinidad scorpions were noticeably hotter, and also somewhat smaller and smoother-skinned (and also have a worse flavor according to many) than other Trinidad scorpions and so they began calling them Butch T Trinidad Scorpions. He gave seeds to a well known seed vendor in Australia (The Hippy Seed Company) who had them tested. They tested at ~1.5 million SKU and got in Guinness. So that's the story of the Butch T. Butch Taylor is just a hobby grower who shared a lot of seeds, not someone trying to breed anything hotter.

                                Guinness is to blame for much of this. They are not a credible scientific institution and don't know anything about peppers, they often award hottest chile in the world based on single, unsubstantiated tests by unqualified people (Warwick university). Until recently there hasn't been any kind of widespread testing on all the hottest varieties (until NMSU did it this year with 5 varieties), so people would just have a particular variety tested and if a single test beat the highest test from another variety Guinness would rush in and declare a new champion. But all the varieties have been around for a long time, they're just new to the public, and the media tends to incorrectly suggest at times that people are breeding them to be hotter.

                                As far as the Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU in Las Cruces goes, they have tested a lot of superhots but they don't breed them. They focus on breeding New Mexican types for increased flavanoids, disease resistance, drought tolerance, productivity, etc. Superhots aren't of much interest to them. They have also developed mild habaneros, ornamental peppers for certain holidays, but they don't really work with superhots much. New Mexican chile farming has been in decline for a while and they mostly work on trying to save it.

                                1. re: StringerBell

                                  That's good info, SB. Thanks. Do you know of any instances where scientists, or even clever dilettantes, successfully bred a new superhot? With all the publicity--and probably money--surrounding these peppers, it seems only natural that individuals would play mad pepper scientist in their labs and fields.

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    Well there is a guy named Gerald in the UK that tries to breed hotter superhots, but he basically just crossed existing superhots (bhut jolokia, 7 Pod, trinidad scorpion, Morugas, Douglahs). He created the "Naga Viper" and "Infinity," which can't even be stable yet considering it takes at least 7 generations to stabilize a cross. He's kind of the PT Barnum of the chile pepper world though, all hype, so no one really takes anything he says seriously except for the media because they don't know any better. There hasn't been any credible testing proving that his crosses are any hotter than existing superhots, and I don't see why they would be any hotter. If you cross a 1 million SKU pepper with another 1 million SKU, the SKU of the cross is probably going to be around 1 million SKU. It doesn't work exactly like that but I don't know of any reason why crossing peppers with similar capsaicin contents would produce something with a higher capsaicin content.

                                    Selecting for higher capsaicin content is fairly difficult and takes a lot of time and resources. It's pretty hard to judge capsaicin content by tasting, a person probably isn't going to be able to determine a difference between a 1 million SKU pepper and a 1.2 million SKU pepper by taste, and the HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) tests that measure capsaicin are expensive and would need to be performed over and over again. The big organizations like New Mexico State University and Monsanto (pardon my French) aren't interested in superhots because they're a niche market, they work on the more common commercial varieties that make money.

                                    So, there aren't really any instances of new superhots being bred, unless you count crosses of existing superhots, but they probably don't have any increased capsaicin content over their parents. One example is the 7 Pod Primo, which is now a stable variety, it is a 7 Pod crossed with a naga morich. It is extremely hot, but probably no more hot than the two varieties it was created from.

                    2. re: OldSchool

                      My bhuts grew to about 4 feet this year. I'm saving some seed to see if I can grow 'em next year without buying plants. Interestingly, they grew right next to my extra-hot habaneros, and the bhuts had some hab flavor--I had wondered if the proximity was why.

                      1. re: pine time

                        Yes on proximity. Chile peppers are extremely promiscuous, i.e., they form hybrids very readily.

                        1. re: pine time

                          My understanding is these sorts of crossings only take effect on the next generation - i.e. if you have two kinds of chiles next to each other, it'll be the seeds that would reflect the hybridization and not the fruit of that generation. I'm no botanist though, so I can't say for sure.

                          Jolokias taste a lot like Habaneros, which might be what you're picking up on.

                          1. re: jgg13

                            We'll see, with using the seeds next year, if the flavor is even more pronounced. However, on the other side of the bhuts, I grew both plain ole' bell peppers and jalapenos, with no flavor/heat crossover.

                            1. re: jgg13

                              jgg13 is correct, cross pollination will only affect the next generation. Planting a hot one next to a mild one will not make the mild one hotter or the hot one milder. IF they cross pollinate, you save the seeds, and then grow those next year then you will see the effects of cross pollination. Chiles are self-fertile though and don't cross all that frequently.

                              1. re: StringerBell

                                will be planting last year's seeds in a couple of weeks. Hope they germinate & produce.

                          2. re: OldSchool

                            I imagine American chefs don't use BJs for fear of lawsuits. That's only partially a joke, or jokia, as the case may be.

                          3. I work with a physician who is from Mumbai and his mother used ghost peppers often. I was able to grow 2 colors this year Red & Yellow ( goal is to get the Chocolate color next year). I was told that the secret to these bad boys is to give them a quick fry and it takes away some of the hot lead sensation.