Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some like it hot

A few years ago, we spent a week on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia. While there, my step-father discovered a little store (well, a large shed...ok, a moderately sized shack, really) that only sold hot sauces. This was very appealing to us as virtually everyone on that side of the family is a fan of hot salsas, peppers, and sauces.

One of these sauces on sale that day, known solely as "Widow", has achieved the status of legend among our family and friends. It's easy to tell Widow from the other hot sauces that you might find in a kitchen cabinet. It's the one with the yellow label and the big plastic black widow spider glued to it. The deal with Widow is that if you want to try it, you simply dip a toothpick into it and then dab it on your tongue. Anything more and you're asking for trouble, not to mention a damaged tongue. My step-father almost learned this the hard way when he dipped a chip in the sample bowl and was lifting it to his mouth as the proprietor waved his hands like a mad man to warn him not to do it and instead directed him to the bowl of toothpicks.

I was thinking of this as I read an article published by the Associated Press regarding the Indian Army's planned use of a native hot pepper -- the "bhut jolokia," or "ghost chili" (aka the Guiness Book of World Record's official "hottest chili") -- to make a natural, non-toxic but apparently extremely effective form of gas grenades to deal with terrorists and criminals in a non-lethal manner. In the article, the reporter notes that the bhut jolokia contains 1,000,000 Scoville units, a scientific measurement of how spicy a pepper is. A typical jalapeƱo pepper, by way of comparison, contains roughly 5,000 Scoville units and a green Bell pepper clocks in at 0 Scoville units.

(Side cool would it be to invent a unit of measurement for something and then have your name attached to it for all time? As long as it's not an embarrassing one, like a "Garn", NASA's official measure of space sickness, named after U.S. Senator Jake Garn who was sick for pretty much his entire trip in the space shuttle. The other requirement? You've got to have a cool or unusual name so that the unit of measure is the Smoot.)

OK, so back to my hot pepper musings...

What's really scary, after having tried Widow and agreeing wholeheartedly with the store's proprietor that Widow is best taken a toothpick tip at a time, is learning that in the grand scheme of things, at only 90,000 Scoville units, Widow is really a lightweight along the spectrum of hot sauces and extracts (though if you survive the heat and the mild blistering that might occur, it's actually got a nice taste).

Of course, finding out about the existence of these other sauces a) makes me curious to taste them and b) gives one an appreciation for creative branding. At a local restaurant we occasionally visit, hot sauces are range from the basic "hot" up to "call your mama". In the world of bottled hot sauces and extracts, how can you turn down options like "Possible Side Effects Hot Sauce", "Smack My Ass and Call Me Sally", "Satan's Blood Chile Extract", "Demon Ichor" and "Z...Nothing Beyond...It Won't Kill You But You'll Wish It Did" (checking in at 4,000,000 Scoville units). Actually, with heat like that, I think it would actually be very easy to turn these things down. I'm not even sure how one cooks with something that hot but it would certainly make for some interesting meals!

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