Some spicy chilies, like the jalapeno pepper, come in a number of mouth- and eye-watering varieties, but when it comes to the piping hot ghost pepper, there can be only one.
Probably because all the others died of heat stroke.
Indeed, ghost peppers – also known as ghost chilies – are a striking and singular phenomenon; the only cultivar of their kind. We can only imagine gardeners everywhere looked at their otherworldly amount of capsaicin, the natural chemical compound that gives hot peppers all their heat, and figured there was no need to tinker with the formula.
How hot are ghost peppers, exactly?
The short answer: Really, really hot.
The capsicums are in the same notorious family as other legendary mouth burners habanero peppers and scotch bonnets. But they register something like 4 to 8 times hotter than their spicy relatives on the Scoville scale – the standard measurement tool for chili pepper chilliness.
Those of us who find even the mild sauce too spicy can think about it this way: The ghost pepper routinely ranks a scorching 400 times hotter than the most mild jalapeno. Whew!
For a time, this bad boy was even the world record holder for the hottest pepper out there. And while it was eventually beaten out for the title by the current reigning champ, the Carolina Reaper – which can register at a truly lethal 2.2 million on the Scoville scale – the ghost pepper can still count well over a million Scoville heat units to its name. Talk about frightening!
Still, extreme heat is nothing new for the unforgiving chilies. Ghost peppers hail from the mecca of spicy food itself: India.
In their native land’s native language, the plants are actually referred to as bhut jolokia. In English, the moniker translates to “poison pepper,” an obvious allusion to the capsicum’s power of sickening spice.
“Ghost” is technically a mistranslation, but it works just as well as a nickname, since even a tiny bite of one could make you turn as pale as an apparition.
And bhut jolokia chilies could literally turn you into a ghost, too: It is actually possible to die from eating an extreme amount of ghost peppers – or other equally hot capsicums.
But don’t sweat too much. It would take a massive amount – about 3 pounds’ worth, for a 150-pound person – to trigger the lethal effects, and our bodies would react long before reaching that point.
Still, even handling the pepper isn’t a task that should be taken lightly. Many people choose, or even insist on, wearing gloves when handling the fiery chilies. And of course, touching your eyes or skin afterward is not advised, unless you’re a fan of searing pain.
The potent capsaicin fumes wafting off of the powerful ghost pepper are also enough to impact most people, especially those sensitive to the compound. Yet, the daredevils among us continue to consume these crazy capsicums every day.
So what is the ghost pepper eating experience like?
The peppers actually have a rather fruity and sweet pallet, which our tongues are capable of picking up for about 30 or 45 seconds, before the chili kicks in.
But once that heat hits – it pummels, leaving behind all the telltale signs of an insanely spicy bite like watery eyes, instant sweating, a churning stomach and sometimes even shortness of breath.
The burning lingers for a while, too, often even intensifying over a period of 10 to 15 minutes. Pepper enthusiasts appreciate the ghost for this quality, saying its spiciness is more of a “blooming” heat that starts slow, rather than hitting with max firepower right up front.
Still, when we say “eat,” we don’t mean by chopping them into generous-sized strips and frying them up with some onions, like we’d do with a sweet pepper. Ghost peppers work best in small doses, since a little bit goes such a long way. When adding them fresh to something like curries or soup, the pieces involved should be tiny – closer to a serving of minced garlic than a piece of pepper you’d see on a veggies and dip plate.
Of course, ghost peppers have also been added to any number of spicy hot sauces, and also come in dehydrated powder or flake form.
And in India, they’ve even stepped beyond the kitchen, considered a homeopathic remedy for GI tract issues and even appearing as traditional facepaint to help keep stampeding elephants at bay.
Still, no matter how you use them, there’s no denying that the power of this pepper is nothing to say boo to!