When I think back on my history of eating spicy foods, a significant turning point springs instantly to mind. It was 2007, and Jillian and I were living on the Gulf coast of Mexico. We were at one of our favorite restaurants, a few blocks off of the zocalo in Merida. It was a bit of a tourist trap, to be certain, but there were just as many hard-drinking expats lining the barstools on a Wednesday afternoon, as there were smiling families posing for pictures with rifles and wearing multicolored sombreros. The Yucatan peninsula is a part of Mexico famous for its inclusion of sliced or diced habanero peppers, either raw or in a quick pickling solution, with every meal. On this particular afternoon, though, I decided my lunch needed a little more fire, and asked the waiter for an additional side of habaneros.
“Very hot,” he explained in heavily-accented English, setting the dish on the table. I couldn’t help but think of how many tourists he must have served, who had requested hot peppers with their meals, only to then express outrage at how spicy it made their food. I told him I understood, and began adding them by the forkful to my lunch. After a few bites and some noticeable sweating, I saw that a small group of waiters had assembled off to the side, watching for any signs of weakness as I happily munched the peppers. I wonder if they were waiting to see if I would crack; I like to think they were impressed by the heat tolerance (if not the language skills) of the pale extranjero.
As spice lovers like myself continue down the road of hot food, however, the danger becomes that food stops tasting like anything. Eventually, you are masking whatever you are eating with layers of heat that were never meant to be eaten by human beings. Becoming comfortable with the heat of a habanero is enough, I think; it’s a spicy chile, but still one that compliments flavor rather than masks it. An orange habanero pepper weighs in at around 300,000 Scoville units (the scale used to measure heat in chiles) which makes a habanero about 60 times spicier than a jalapeno.
That’s enough heat for most people. Any hotter, and chiles stop being mere ingredients, and start being regarded by the human body as poison. That’s where the Bhut Jolokia, or “Ghost pepper,” enters the picture.
Until 2011, the Bhut Jolokia was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the spiciest chile pepper in existence. It registers anywhere up to 1,041,427 Scoville units, making it more than 200 times hotter than the humble jalapeno. The pepper grows naturally in the town of Tezpur, in Northeastern India. It’s not widely used as a flavoring agent for food in that part of the world, however. Instead, mashed Bhut Jolokia is smeared on fences as a deterrent for wild elephants, or as a chemical agent in hand grenades and pepper sprays used by Indian authorities to control mobs and riots. It’s not food. It’s a toxin.
After placing an order with a mildly sketchy online pepper dealer, my nondescript, unmarked plastic container of ground Bhut Jolokia arrived, and has been sitting in my pantry for weeks. Unsure how to approach it at first (you can feel the heat from the pepper in your nose even through the sealed container), I’ve been working on a way to incorporate the chile into my cooking. Though it is far, far too hot to be used by itself, ground Ghost chile is incredibly complex, with the taste of fruit bark and lots of roasted, Earthy flavor behind the heat. It’s not a one-note spiciness, like you get from adding lots of Tabasco to your vegetable juice, but a round, flavorful, toasted heat that I was certain could be worked into a hot sauce that was plenty spicy, but still edible and, I daresay, enjoyable.
The solution was to balance the heat of the chile with an equal amount of sweetness: in this case, a whole jar of apricot jam, brown sugar, and honey, with only a half teaspoon of the ground Bhut Jolokia. The first taste that your brain registers is fruity sweetness; it’s only after you chew and swallow (and repeat) that the heat clings to the back of your throat and wraps itself around your tongue. As a sauce for Buffalo wings, it’s a lot of fun to eat, and affects you with the startling suddenness of grain alcohol. Instead of tracing the progress of a creeping, building heat, the burn seems to come all at once, knocking you over the head and sending a rush of endorphins dancing merrily onto your spinal cord. It’s shocking and surprising. And delicious.
Apricot-Shellacked Ghost Chile Chicken Wings
Makes approximately 3-4 dozen wings; Serves 4-6
- 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 stick salted butter
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1/2 teaspoon ground Bhut Jolokia chile
- 1 cup apricot preserves
- Pinch of salt
- 1/4 cup bourbon
- 5 pounds chicken wing sections, room temperature and patted dry
- Peanut oil, for frying chicken
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine brown sugar, honey, garlic, butter, ketchup, chile, apricot preserves, and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring almost constantly. Reduce heat to a simmer, add bourbon, and stir. Simmer until sauce reaches desired consistency, up to one hour.
Pat chicken wing sections until they are very dry. In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring peanut oil to 350 degrees. Working in batches, pat chicken wing sections until they are very dry, and add to hot oil. Fry wings, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about ten minutes per batch. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
When all wings are cooked, toss a few at a time in a bowl of the apricot Ghost chile sauce to coat evenly. Serve (with a glass of milk, just in case).
Disclaimer: All of those things you read about safe chile pepper handling? Like how you should wear gloves and not touch your eyes? You should actually follow those guidelines when working with Bhut Jolokia. Remember that this stuff is essentially poison, and doing something without thinking (like taking a big whiff of ground Ghost chile) can destroy your airways and may even land you in the hospital. You’ve been warned.