I still remember this haunting fragrance in the air from my childhood winters, every time my mum or dad returned from the local farmer’s market. Among other produce, their bags would be full of fleshly, scarlet, attention-grabbing chillies, a winter speciality and the definitive source of that fragrance.
It wasn’t just any chilli; it was the king of them all. Confoundingly aromatic and deceivingly potent – the Bhut Jolokai (as it is known in Assam) or the Ghost Pepper (as it is known in the western world) – is a fleshy chilli native to Northeast India. Though dethroned as the world’s hottest chilli, it nonetheless remains the fieriest naturally growing chilli in India.
Worldwide, the Ghost Pepper has gained notoriety for the supposed stomach burns it can cause; all thanks to YouTube videos of people trying to eat it whole… with gloves on! But what many don’t know is that the Bhut Jolokia is also an incredibly versatile ingredient when used right. Fragrant and delightfully flavourful, it is in many ways a blessing in disguise for people who appreciate spice in their food.
If you’re a home chef and like to experiment with local and indigenous produce, the Bhut Jolokia can be an excellent addition to your arsenal. Here, explore different ways to use the Ghost Pepper along with a few classic recipes from Northeast India’s vibrant kitchens.
The waxy goodness of the world’s favourite vegetable works incredibly well with the natural oomph of the Ghost Pepper, balancing the tingling heat of the chilli with the starchy smoothness of potatoes.
Let’s do the Iromba
Let’s take how well the King Chilli blends with starch in a quintessentially Manipuri dish, Iromba. Popular in the hills and valley of the state, Iromba is a cold dish made with a variety of roughly mashed boiled vegetables, flavoured with a pungent steamed chilli and fish paste, and garnished with local herbs.
The King Chilli, known as umorok in Manipur, is used in making the paste which is later mixed and mashed with boiled vegetables and a primary starch, which can be potatoes or beans. Check out a recipe here.
As Alok Verma, food blogger at All about that Palate, hints, “The key to a stellar iromba is the quality of fermented fish. The fish should smell sweet and mildly pungent… while the Bhut Jolokia beautifully enhances the richness of the other ingredients.”
Chill the Meat!
The Northeast cuisine can be largely international in terms of the way meat is consumed – in large quantities! It is therefore not surprising that a number of regional meat-based dishes call for generous use of king chillies.
One of the best ways to pair meat and the king chilli is through a number of excellent chutneys and preserves. Alok clarifies, “These peppers have an exotic, fruity aroma that plays a hand in preparation of chutneys, pickles and jams.” Be it with offal such as chicken liver, smoked meats, fresh meat, fish or even fermented soya beans.
Let’s look at one of my favourite chutney recipe.
Paté the Chilli
The Northeast is a cold place and so during the winters there, King Chilli chutneys are served as a side dish alongside piping hot stew of vegetables, fish and/or meat.
My personal favourite is the King Chilli liver paté made with chicken liver, a little fresh ginger and a de-seeded king chilli. Simply mash steamed liver, fresh ginger and chilli to a smooth spread, season with salt and garnish with coriander and spring onions.
You can experiment with this recipe by replacing the liver with fish or fermented soya bean. If you’re lazy, you can also buy readymade chutneys online.
Curry it up!
This is where mainland Indian cuisine meets the Northeast – curry! The use of aromatics and spice differs vastly in Northeast India, however, a few essential techniques remain the same.
Curries from the region are still warm and spicy due to the generous use of ginger and chillies – and this is where our magic ingredient comes into the picture.
“A spicy food fiend can utilize Bhut Jolokia in a curry paste which can be added to any meat or fish preparation in small quantities to add some heat,” suggests Alok.
Pork and Bamboo Shoot
Nagaland is great place for pork lovers; it also happens to be one of the largest consumers of Raja Mircha among the eight states. A well-loved recipe, this pork and bamboo shoot preparation is made with five king chillies. Of course, if this is your first time with this bad boy, keep it tame and go with one or two.
“Only one bhut jolokia is enough to add a delightfully intense burn to a curry recipe that feeds 10-15 people”, Alok adds.
Try this recipe out – it melts in your mouth!