How Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Pepper, Took Over the West

Dubbed the hottest pepper in the world in 2007, the unique northeastern Indian chili became a tempting challenge for Western palates. But what got lost in the process?

Makepeace Sitlhou

July 7, 2022

How Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Pepper, Took Over the West
A farmer plucks "ghost chilli" or "bhut jolokia" peppers at a field in Nagaon district, India's northeastern state of Assam, June 13, 2021. (Str/Xinhua via Getty Images)

While traveling in Joensuu, a sleepy town in eastern Finland, Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman came upon a curious ad at a local burger joint. The Naga burger on the menu came with the disclaimer, “somebody call the fire department.” Rahman, 39, grew up eating bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper, in Assam, most often pickled with lime and other veggies. When he saw the burger again while traveling in Brisbane, he signed the required waiver to give it a try. “It was not as spicy as it is in northeast India,” he said, “but sufficient to warm up the Aussie winter a bit.” 

Pain is pleasure when bhut jolokia is served in the northeast, most delectably as chutney served along with mounds of rice ladled with beef or pork curry, lentils, salad, and boiled vegetables. It also packs quite the punch with Maggi or Wai Wai instant noodles, leaving you with a runny nose, sweats, loud hiccups, and a volcanic heat building up inside your innards. For people of Indigenous communities in India’s northeast, the bhut jolokia is a necessary accompaniment to every meal. Maniram Gogoi, who runs a small retail shop in Guwahati, Assam for northeast produce, perfectly described the phenomenon in Assamese: bhujon thela. “Without chili, we cannot have our food.”

But what is an essential component in a northeastern thali in India has become a cultural oddity across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans — with the bhut jolokia springing up in ice cream, cocktails, and even donuts. In its rise to global notoriety as one of the hottest peppers in the world, bhut jolokia has become a thing of contests and dares, if not a spoof, in the West, turning a traditional northeastern ingredient into the adventure sportof the chili world.