One of the many things that puzzle people about those from the Northeast is their obsession for bhut jalokia. A fiery chilli that makes them teary eyed. It's so hot that some even cry! But these are only tears of joy. To stop the tears, they quickly take a mouthful of raw sugar! All is well again and they continue eating.
A meal in some parts of the region is hardly complete unless it is laced with hot and sizzling bhut jalokia. The scary-sounding name "bhut jalokia" is a vermilion-coloured chilli pepper which is famed as the world's hottest chilli. In 2007, it was certified by the Guinness World Records as the 'hottest chilli pepper in the world'. In fact, in 2010 the Indian military decided to use this chilli in hand grenades for crowd control.
In Manipur, people call it Oo-Morok or Sap malta. Since its origins are in in Assam, the local name is what caught on around the world - Bhut Jalokia. In Nagaland, the Naga's have bestowed a rather royal tag calling it 'Raja Mirch'. Local markets in these places cater to freshly-plucked bhut jalokia. The sun-dried ones are also equally pungent and are available in local markets. A mere nibble is more than enough to make a man cry. It makes the heart beat faster and sends your body temperature through the roof. Despite the lethal effect, people in the Northeast consider this a delicacy and incorporate it into their daily meal. No meal is ever complete without a tinge of this chilli.
My aunt took her addiction to this chilli to a whole new interesting level. She sneaked in a small container of mashed bhut jalokia in her clutch at a formal dinner in the city! She was dressed to kill in her gown but that didn't deter her from sneaking in chilli in her clutch. So when food was served on the table, she discretely pulled out her container and was more than content pairing it with just about everything.
Even when people from the Northeast go away from home, they take the chilli along with them. Be it in dried form or pickled, rarely do they run out of this spice. Even when their supply runs out, parcels are sent from home with just these chillies carefully wrapped in black polythene so that the pungency does not go away. Trust them to take it along even when they go dining in public places. Students take this with them as part of their luggage to their hostels. Some working professionals also store them in their freezers.
But what does this chilli really do? Does it add flavour or boost the existing one? Does it have an aroma? Yes, the red hot chillies have a rich flavour and a peculiar aroma which is quite inviting. In Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram, people use it sparingly in most of their dishes - pork, chicken and even in vegetarian dishes.
Sparingly, because even a nibble is more than enough to hit you. This means one whole chilli can easily last for days. Interestingly some people have found different usage of the chilli. Guwahati-based chef Atul Lakhar is so fascinated with the chillies that he even organised a chilli eating completion to charm Michellin-star chef Gordon Ramsay when he landed in Assam back in 2009. Of course, Ramsay was more than impressed. He was so taken in by the red hot appeal that he apparently bit into the chilli only to be in tears.
Chef Lakhar is unlikely to forget the incident which he fondly recounts even to this day. "It was quite an experience," he says of the visit and the event he organised. A North Indian friend, who loves gorging on chillies is limited to those tender green chillies seasoned on dhokhla. He was completely taken in by the look of the bhut jalokia and despite our warning he bit into a whole bhut jalokia only to hit a near panic button. We were just few seconds short of declaring an emergency. He burst out in tears and wagged his tongue, breathing in through his mouth! What saved him was a handful of raw sugar.
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There are no special methods of using bhut jalokia in dishes. Sometime it can be roasted over fire and made into chutneys with other accompaniments like sundried fish or fermented fish. Lakhar though has been using bhut jalokia in most of his dishes. Be it in his version of dry chicken with bamboo shoot or pork with bamboo shoot, the dishes are delicately laced with this spice which imparts that delicate flavour. And the varieties that grow in Assam are found to be richer in flavour, as compared to other parts of the region. Perhaps it is in the soil that makes the ones from Assam so rich and pungent. Apart from dishes, bhut jalokia is also used in pickles and people have made sauces out of it too.
I am often reminded of Leena Saikia and her husband who run and maintain a sprawling bhut jalokia farm in Jorhat, about 400 kms or so from Guwahati. In 2004, Leena was sure of the idea to develop a farm to cultivate the world's hottest chilli. They supply over 25 tonnes of dried bhut jolokia around the world and their biggest market being the United States which buys about five to 10 tonne of the chillies annually from them. In their hands, it's fascinating how the spice has evolved from mere chilli. Bhut jalokia flakes, sauces, dried pods, pickles, paste, salted mashed and much more are what you get out of the spice. But if you are ever tempted to try this out, make sure you have raw sugar handy!
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