Spicy Spectacles: The Hunt For The World's Hottest Pepper

Read Mary Roach's Smithsonian magazine piece "The Gut-Wrenching Science Behind the World's Hottest Peppers."

Part of a competition in Northeast India, Pu Zozam ate five chili peppers, then collapsed. Food scientists call the Bhut Jolokia he ate one of the world's hottest peppers. Writer Mary Roach talks about her experience traveling to the state of Nagaland to try the pepper for herself.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Some hot peppers you buy at the grocery store maybe jalapenos. For the really hot ones, though, the peppers that sometimes bring people to their knees, literally - for those a trip to Northeast India is in order. Mary Roach travelled to the state of Nagaland to get a taste of one of the hottest peppers on the planet. It's called the Naga king chili. She writes about the trip in an article in Smithsonian magazine. It's called "The Gut-Wrenching Science Behind the World's Hottest Peppers."

Well, we want to hear your hot pepper stories today. Our number is 800-989-8255. You can also drop us an email: talk@npr.org. So Mary Roach's latest book is titled "Gulp," and she joins us now by smartphone from her home in California. Mary, you tried a Naga king chili, did you not?

MARY ROACH: I did indeed.

DONVAN: And yet you speak, you walk, you breathe.

ROACH: I can tell you why, because I tried a very, very, very small piece of the Naga king chili.

DONVAN: So what is the Naga king chili, where does it grow, and who gets to eat it?

ROACH: The Nag king chili, for some time had the crown of world's hottest chili. There's now some - there's another chili - super hot chili that has bested the Naga king chili. But there's some sort of a rivalry between the Trinidad super hot chili and the Nagaland super hot chili. Nagaland is a very, very, far northeastern state in India. The Naga king chili grows there and two other places naturally, unless of course you take the seeds and plant them. And it is — to give you by comparison, there's the unit, Scoville heat unit is how they measure the intensity of the heat. A jalapeno is about 4,000 Scoville heat units, and the the Naga king chili ranges from half a million to one and a half million Scoville heat units.

DONVAN: That's like three to four thousand times hotter? Am I right about that?

ROACH: It's very, very hot.

DONVAN: So there's actually, there's a metric, there's a unit of measurement of chili heat, chili heat sensation.

ROACH: Yeah, the Scoville heat unit. Uh-huh.

DONVAN: All right, so we have a really hot Scoville-ey hot chili out in Nagaland, and there's this contest that actually happens that you went to see. So what do they have to do with the contest and who goes into it?

ROACH: The — it's called the Naga king chili eating competition. It's part of an annual festival in Kohima, which is a town in Nagaland. And anybody is welcome to compete. It is mostly - there were about a dozen competitors. There's not a long line of people who are signing up to compete. So there was about a dozen. Four of them were from other countries, and the rest were Nagas. And what you have to - you've got 20 seconds. Mercifully, it's limited to 20 seconds, and you must chew three times in order to - to experience more pain, basically...

DONVAN: Wow.

ROACH: ...because the seeds in the placenta of a chili are where most of the heat is. It's the chili plant trying to protect its progeny. So that's where the heat is. So when you bite into this, there's this unbelievable scorching pain. And then you swallow and that's when a lot of quite dramatic distress happen.

DONVAN: Such as?

ROACH: Well, I was backstage. I didn't - I did not compete. I'm not ashamed to say I was not competing, but I was reporting backstage and I - because I kind of thought, well, I've kind of missed the boat here. I'm backstage, I can barely see people eating. And then I looked up to see this guy coming towards me, and he is staggering. This is a verb that you read and you know what it means, but to see someone literally staggering in front of you, falling to his knees - this was - and this was a guy from - he was, oddly enough, an MP from Burma or Myanmar, whichever we are calling it, and he had had five peppers. And he was on the floor, and he was making sounds that were hard to transcribe, mostly vowels, just - like really stricken, writhing.

People were riving at a certain point. And they were, you know, drinking a lot of water. And at a certain point, the body tries to get rid of the material so there's a lot of - there was so much drilling up of water and milk powder, which is supposed to help but I don't know if does. There was so much coming up that my - the photographer on the story actually yells out, Mary, is my camera bag on high ground? I mean, it was - perhaps the scene of carnage behind stage was unreal.

DONVAN: And this is - is this in front of cheering crowds and, you know, there are people who got favorites and they're kind of betting on each other?

ROACH: It's in front of a big crowd, yeah. But the event itself - I looked at the photos afterwards 'cause I was behind the scenes, I missed the actual eating, and the eating is quite - it's very anticlimactic. It's people stoically sitting there chewing, looking a little stricken, but nobody is grimacing or screaming. And then they get up and they go backstage, and that's when the action happens. So yeah, there is a big crowd, but I think unless you're backstage and you see what's going on, you would think, huh, I could do that. There's no big deal there.

DONVAN: So the man from Myanmar falls to the ground. But then there's another woman you wrote about, Catherine Burns. What did she do?

ROACH: Yes. Yeah, Catherine Burns is - she was from the U.K., and she had approximately the same number of peppers. And she was sitting on the ground for a while and I saw her, and she seemed - she was appearing to be OK. I spoke to her much later. She said the cramping is quite intense. And at a certain point, she said I'm sitting and my body just told me that's not good enough and I had to kind of lie down and double up in pain.

So she was affected not quite - she wasn't taken away in an ambulance as was the MP from Myanmar, and a couple of other people were taken away. But the winner had 14, 14 Naga King chilies. And that - the amazing this was that this man had been the runner-up the year before, so he knew what he was in for.

DONVAN: Well, what's the prize?

ROACH: Six hundred dollars, which is a lot in Nagaland.

DONVAN: Yeah. In Nagaland, I think that could go a long way.

ROACH: That'll go a long way, yeah.

DONVAN: We've asked our listeners to call in with their chili stories, and we got a lot of people actually I can see lined up. So I'm going to - I want to go first to Derrick in Bloomington, Illinois. Hi, Derrick, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DERRICK: Hi.

DONVAN: Hi.

DERRICK: Thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Sure.

DERRICK: Well, a couple of years back, my friends purchased a vial of the world's hottest - supposedly the world's hottest hot sauce ghost pepper sauce. And as a prank to my other friend, he switched it out with a milder hot sauce and switched the labels around. And it was all fun and games until we almost thought we should be calling an ambulance for our other friend who was collapsed on his knees crying in pain.

DONVAN: Wow. And that's obviously not psychosomatic He did not know that he had ingested this really hot sauce.

DERRICK: No. He had no idea. It was - he took a full scoop of a scooped chip and filled it to the brim.

DONVAN: Oh, man.

DERRICK: But then...

ROACH: I want to say - let me just say, the ghost pepper, that is the Naga - it's another name for the one that we were just talking about. So that is...

DERRICK: (Unintelligible)

ROACH: Yeah, that's the Naga King chili.

DERRICK: But, you know, we think we just learned our lesson at that one. But another friend of ours who is about 300 - 350-pound guy who plays football, he filled up his chip. He eats the thing and hardly reacts to it at all. He just, that's too hot.

(LAUGHTER)

DERRICK: And then he fills up another one, continues to eat the chip. He missed out on the drama with the first person, but yeah.

DONVAN: All right. Derrick, thanks for your call. But you raised for us, a really good point. And I want to put to Mary 'cause I know you researched kind of the science behind this. Why do people have such dramatically different reactions? Is it life experience or genetics or what?

ROACH: It's one of two things and possibly both. You eat a lot of hot peppers, a lot of capsaicin, you burn out the pain receptors that cause the pain - that cause you to feel the pain. So you build up a tolerance that way. So I don't know if the 350-pound guy eats a lot of hot peppers. That may be why. But there's also genetic differences. Some people have more of these pain receptors than others.

DONVAN: So damage is actually done. Tissue damage is done by the chemicals.

ROACH: Actually, it - no, not - usually, what's going on the mouth is - the way that capsaicin works - there are these pain receptors that respond to a certain temperature, but the capsaicin triggers them without the heat. So it fools you into - it tricks a human being into going, oh, this is hot. I got to get it out of my mouth or I'm going to burn myself. In fact, it's not hot enough to burn the mouth that way. It's a way to get you to spit it out. And it's a survival mechanism.

DONVAN: It's a brain trick then, really.

ROACH: It's a brain trick, yeah.

DONVAN: But it can burn out - you used the term that it can burn out the taste receptors. So at a certain point...

ROACH: Yeah, it burns them out, and yet it's not the same way as holding a match to them. But it damages them, yeah.

DONVAN: I did a story for "Nightline" a few years ago where I went to Avery Islands in Louisiana where Tabasco sauce is made. And they mash up their peppers and then they pour in salt and then they let them sit in barrels for three years. And then they open the mash and they water it down. And it's had some time to ferment and get spicy. So they had this little ceremony planned for me where I had to touch a little - my pinkie into a tiny, tiny drop and put it on my tongue and then I had to immediately follow it with a shot of bourbon.

And honestly, you know, this is all for their entertainment, you know, to get the Yankee to fall to the ground, and I almost fell to the ground. It was really, really hot and it persisted for several hours. And I'm just a little worried that on the scale that you were talking about, the Tabasco is really, really at the mild wimpy end compared to the Naga King chili. Am I right?

ROACH: Well, it's - yeah, it's a D. But, you know, what is on to me is that I tried a little sliver of the Naga King chili because I wanted - well, first, because I'm a wimp but second, because I wanted to be able to actually taste the flavor. And it has an exquisite kind of lemony, grassy, floral flavor. It's like no chili pepper I've ever had.

But, I mean, I ate a piece - the size of a large grain of rice. And the heat was not overwhelming. It was hot, but no hotter than - so I don't know if I got a particularly mild chili or if there's a tremendous amount of variation or what it was. But I was impressed by the amazing flavors on it, rather than the heat. And, of course, it was a tiny piece so that's part of it. But it sounds like you had a very small amount, too, and if you were - within five minutes I couldn't - my tongue was fine.

DONVAN: Well, we're talking to Mary Roach. His latest book is called "Gulp." And we're talking about her explorations of the Naga king chili and taking in your stories as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News.

And let's bring in Laura in Sturgis, Kentucky. Hi, Laura. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

LAURA: Hi. You guys are just talking about the flavor of the pepper or the chili, and I had a similar story where my family hosted a Thai exchange student a while - a long time ago.

And he would make dishes for us. And one of them was the papaya salad with this raw papaya leaves and ground pork, cooked and everything. It was very different places but some feature of the dish would be all of the chilies. And we've - oh, one would be enough. She put in 20.

(LAUGHTER)

LAURA: So it was a little much for our Wisconsin-ite family. But after like - after taking a few bites, you know, with our boring Wisconsin taste pallet, you know, papaya and ground - like room temperature ground pork didn't taste too good but the chilies actually tasted the best out of everything in the dish, so...

DONVAN: Yeah. I guess that's the attraction, Mary Roach, isn't it? Isn't - it works as a spice.

ROACH: Yeah. And it's - if - I think a lot of - when people are buying super hot chili, it seems to be sort of - either they like, for some reason, the sensation of the pain either it's a thrill-seeking thing, or it's a macho thing, or they get some sort of endorphin rush. I'm not sure because I'm not a super hot chili eater.

But to me the appeal was definitely the subtleties of the flavors of that chili. I've never eaten a chili and experienced anything other than heat. So that was - it was extraordinary. It's an extraordinary pepper.

DONVAN: We have a tweet from PyraBlaze(ph), who writes: One piece of advice I'd give to people who eat any hot peppers, wash your hands, do not touch anywhere near your eyes. So much burning. I'm assuming his talking about after handling the chili. That it can stay on your skin.

ROACH: Yeah.

DONVAN: I want to bring in Rebecca in Lexington, Kentucky. Hi, Rebecca, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

REBECCA: Hi. Yeah. I was telling the lady - my husband was in the military in Okinawa. And he used to eat peppers for beer. And so he learned to be very stoic and not respond to the peppers. Most of these were like the hot Thai peppers. And he's carried that forth into contemporary time.

He and my brother - we grow chilies, and he and my brother will taste test the chilies that we grow including habaneros. And one time they were in our back porch, my brother folded his tent early quickly when eating the habanero. My husband didn't respond, doesn't respond and I've learned that the only thing that happens to him when it's really hot is he gets just a little down of a sweat on his upper lip. And that's it. And so I've talked (unintelligible) pepper machismo. And they will go through these rounds of pepper machismo far more frequently than I think they should.

DONVAN: You don't see his knuckles going white as his gripping the edge of the teeth or something?

REBECCA: No.

DONVAN: No?

REBECCA: No. All he does is this little down of - as sweat on his upper lip. And - but he's been practicing for 25 years, so...

(LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: Rebecca, thanks for your call. Let's go to Chip in San Antonio. Hi, Chip. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHIP: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: Good.

CHIP: I used to grow - I used to garden my front yard. And one year I had a really great crop of cherry tomatoes, but my neighbors stripped the plants. The next year I grew habaneros and they only did it once. And the other thing about...

DONVAN: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait, let me just take it apart. You - in other words, you planted a little booby trap for them?

CHIP: Well, something like that. Yes.

DONVAN: And it worked? I mean, I want to move, now, to Mary Roach because, Mary, there seems to be a tradition of pranking in the world of chili peppers. A lot - I did some research once for the story I was doing on Tabasco. A lot of cartoons and, you know, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello and - they're always slipping each other hot chili peppers. Have you notice that?

ROACH: Yeah. But what's interesting in Nagaland that doesn't exist. There is this - I think because they are so intense. There is this kind of quiet respect but Nagaland has a history of not - now contemporarily this is not the case - but a lot of the - a bunch of the tribes in Nagaland practice head hunting, head taking in the tribal warfare. So these are pretty fierce dudes.

And at this festival, a bunch of these hill tribe folks were there. And I had - I was wondering around the festival and I had a Naga King chili. And I more importantly sort of like carrying a concealed weapon. And it was when I held it out to this group of Chang warriors. They were there and they were wearing they tribal finery for the festival.

DONVAN: Mary Roach, I've got to cut you off because we're exactly at a time shift. Sorry, we didn't continue your call, but go to our website and send us an email. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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