The bhut jolokia chili pepper fires up the imagination, as well as the taste buds. The thumb-sized chilies are so potent they could be used in pepper spray, says the director of India's Defense Research Lab, R.B. Srivastava. "I've been told the U.S. and Israel have considered it for antiriot material," he says.
The bhut jolokia pepper, which is farmed in the northeast part of the country, was plucked from obscurity last year when the Guinness Book of World Records declared it the world's hottest. The standard measure for such things is the Scoville Heat Unit, or SHU, named after Wilbur Lincoln Scoville, a chemist who in 1912 developed a method of assessing the heat given off by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Jalapeño peppers measure about 5,000 SHUs. The bhut jolokia tops a million.
"When you eat it, it feels like dying," touts one online retailer. Even packaging the stuff is a pain. "Our workers wear goggles, face masks, head cover and protective clothing," says Ananta Saikia, whose firm is the pepper's sole exporter. "They look like astronauts." He and his wife have started shipping tons of dried bhut jolokia around the world, including Germany, England and the U.S. Annual sales, he says, are expected to jump 500% this year.
Locals here in Assam and the neighboring states of Manipur and Nagaland add fresh chopped chilies to the pot when cooking curries. The hardiest eat them raw as a condiment. Dried pepper powder and flakes are sold online in the U.S. and abroad.
The spread of Mexican, Thai and Sichuan cuisines that use chili peppers is kindling America's interest in hot dishes. There are hundreds of Web sites selling sauces and chili seeds, says Dave DeWitt, of Albuquerque, N.M., who has written 31 books on the topic. Visits to his Web site, fiery-foods.com, have doubled in the past five years to 2.5 million annually, he says.
"There's also the macho, who-can-eat-the-hottest aspect," says Dave Hirschkop, owner of Dave's Gourmet Inc. and the producer of Dave's Insanity Sauce. This spring, he plans to add bhut jolokia to his 2008 Private Reserve hot sauce, priced at $30 for a five-ounce bottle packaged in a small wooden coffin. Mr. Hirschkop says he got in the business after opening a Mexican restaurant in Maryland in the early 1990s. He started serving superhot sauces in his restaurant as a joke. Then he discovered customers liked them.
Hard-core chili addicts incorporate the pursuit of hot food into their travels. Terry and Marty Ward of Virginia Beach, Va., have chased chilies in Jamaica, Venezuela, Aruba, Mexico and New Mexico. India is now on the couple's trip list, says Mr. Ward.