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May. 29th, 2013 | 12:02 pm

One of the best quotes I've read in recent months:

The squeals of a greased pig contest provide soprano counterpart for the low tones of digestive torment.

That's from Mary Roach's eminently readable article on Bhut Jolokia peppers, published in the June 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

The article tells the tale of a trip of hers to Nagaland, a state in north-eastern India from which bhut jolokia peppers originate; she attended a pepper eating contest (not as a contestant, mind you), and backstage at least, the results were dramatic:

[...] I look up from my notes to see Pu Zozam headed my way. I have seen people stagger in movies, but never for real directly in my sightline. Zozam’s legs buckle as he tries to keep walking. He goes down onto one knee and collapses sideways onto the floor. He rolls onto his back, arms splayed and palms up. He’s making sounds that are hard to transcribe. Mostly vowels. After a minute he rolls back onto his side and raises his head to retch. A doctor prepares a hypodermic of dicyclomine. [...]

Someone has unbuttoned Zozam’s waistband and shirt. Cold water bottles are pressed to his bare mounded belly. Others are cracked open and emptied over his head and his feet, now bare as well. Capsaicin is vasoactive. It opens up the peripheral circulation, dilating vessels in the skin and creating the sensation of being flushed. Pu Zozam is having the mother of all hot flashes. This is one reason capsaicin is used topically, for muscle pain. It’s a natural heating pad.

Zozam managed five chilies. The winner, Namlui Rongmei, finished 14. He’s crouched on the floor, glassy-eyed. I see him reach for the hem of the doctor’s white coat. [...]

In the tradition of the post-game interview, a chat with the winner seems to be in order. He’s now lying against a wall in the fetal position, his head supported by the caved-in cardboard Nestlé’s box. He speaks little English, but manages to convey his state: “Very no.”

Apparently Zozam later had to be taken away in an ambulance. And he can't not have known what he was getting himself into — and as an MP (from Myanmar), it's doubtful he needed the prize money of 600 USD, either.

It's an interesting question of just why people subject themselves to this; the article discusses several reasons. But when you don't overdo it, the peppers apparently have a rather exquisite taste to them:

The Bhut Jolokia is unlike any pepper I’ve experienced, but the shock has nothing to do with the heat, which is easily bearable at so low a dose. It’s the flavors—a gorgeous vibrating chord of lemon, cut grass and florals. Roko cut it small because he wanted me to be able to appreciate it. With peppers this hot, the flavors get trampled by the pain. And that would be a shame.

Indeed, it would! But I think I'll still stick to moderate-heat peppers myself, at least until someone grows a milder cultivar of bhut jolokia (it's been done with habaneros). As I always say, it's all about taste; heat has to be balanced with the other flavors in a dish instead of overpowering them, and I fear the flavor of this pepper would be drowned out if you used the miniscule amount required to keep it bearable for my palate.

Here's a a chat with the author on NPR's Talk of the Nation, too. And while I'm at it, My Indiana Home ("Connect to your food, your farmers and a uniquely Hoosier lifestyle") has a very interesting story on one of the big names in the hot sauce industry, Jim Campbell.

“Even after 20 years, I’ve never lost the joy that comes with what we call the moment of enlightenment,” [Jim] says. “It’s that wide-eyed, panic-stricken instant when a person comes to realize they didn’t really know what ‘hot’ was.”

Not much one can add to that. :) And once you've gotten hooked on peppers, you'll start missing that extra dimension of flavor in any dish that doesn't have at least a bit of zing in it.

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