Fears of a collective failure are threatening the Northeastern states: the downgrading of their chillies, which not long ago ascended the dizzying heights on the Scoville heat scale, the acknowledged international yardstick for measuring the heat sensation of chillies.
Associated Press reported yesterday from Albuquerque that the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion was on the verge of formally displacing the Bhut Jolokia, grown in the Northeast, primarily in Assam, as the world's hottest chilli.
The Bhut Jolokia was declared by Guinness World Records as the world's hottest chilli in 2007, putting the fruit - and another element of the Northeast - on the global map. Other chillies grown in the Northeast, such as the Naga Viper, have ascended and descended on the Scoville heat charts periodically, but India has consistently had a pride of place in growing chillies. At one point, the Naga Viper was credited with having 1,382,118 Scoville heat units but this figure was never conclusively validated.
Bhut Jolokia's rise to fame came after it was established scientifically to have 1,001,304 Scoville heat units. Its challenger in waiting, from the Caribbean, has been measured to be capable of exuding 1.2 million Scoville heat units.
All may not be lost for the Northeast yet: it may still be possible for the region to protect its standard bearer in agriculture and the culinary world because the Chile Pepper Institute, an international non-profit organisation devoted to “educating the world about the wonders of chile peppers” has not yet formally crowned the chilli from the Caribbean as the lord of heat.
But there may not be much time to be lost. As part of the Chile Pepper Institute's research, it planted some 125 varieties of chillies - including the Bhut Jolokia - and fruits from each variety were picked, dried and ground into powder.
Their capsaicinoids, which emit the true chilli sensation were then measured on the Scoville heat scale. That was when the Bhut Jolokia was displaced by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion.
Although the Chile Pepper Institute based in Albuquerque has not yet formally announced the findings of their latest research, the Associated Press interviewed researchers at the institute for an exclusive story and it suggests that the displacement of the Northeastern variety of chillies is not far away.
The acknowledgement by Guinness World Records five years ago that the Bhut Jolokia was the world's hottest chilli was also the result of research at the Chile Pepper Institute. Till then, the Red Savina, grown in California, was considered the world's hottest chilli.
The Red Savina is not, however, a fruit of natural evolution unlike the ones in the Northeast or in the Caribbean. It was developed by a spice manufacturing company in California and it is protected by the US Plant Variety Protection Act.
As a result, the method by which it was developed is secret. The Red Savina measures merely a quarter of the Bhut Jolokia on the Scoville heat scale, according to the Chile Pepper Institute, although there have been claims that its strength could go up to half a million Scoville heat units.
Like a lot of the research in the US in the 21st century, the latest initiative by the Chile Pepper Institute has also been prodded by industry for commercial reasons. As the market for chilli hot foods grow, commercial firms producing them and the restaurant business worldwide are keen to establish standards for heat levels and put an end to freelance claims about the potency of different varieties of chillies.
AP said the Chile Pepper Institute is funded by industry groups that have a vital interest in the outcomes of its research, in addition to US government grants.There is much that the Northeastern states, which have a stake in growing chillies, could learn from collaboration between the Institute and the industry in America. For example, one Ohio company, CaJohns Fiery Foods, has already teamed up with the Chile Pepper Institute and is using the reputation of Bhut Jolokia to market products called Holy Jolokia Hot Sauce at $14 per bottle and Holy Jolokia Salsa and Barbecue Sauce at $15 per jar.
India's ministry of development of Northeastern region, set up in 2001, teamed up with the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development on a project to improve the livelihoods of people through capacity building and introduction of new technology and techniques for sustainable growth.
It has a focus on specifically on cultivation of chillies. But at the ministry, the fate of this project after 2008, when it was to expire, was not known, when queries were made yesterday.