Assam’s Seed of Fire

Table for Three

Assam’s Seed of Fire

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

As you drive along NH 37 and get to the boundaries of the great Kaziranga National Park, it is hard not to marvel at the wonder of nature surrounding you. How many national highways in the world offer you a view of rhinos in their natural habitat or eagles perched on trees that skirt its perimeter? If you are under the speed limit (as you should be), giant flying squirrels and who knows, maybe a family of gibbons, might greet you.

You could be forgiven for breaking in to a smile and shedding a tear at the same time. Or you could opt for a smile then and save the tears for later. For the chilli that most animals must avoid as well, the legendary, the storied Bhoot Jolokia.

It is but a chilli, but one that holds its place proudly at the summit of the Scoville Heat Units (SHU). “Bhut” is simply an Assamese term for Bhutanese. But because the word is so close to “bhoot”, it is often inaccurately rendered as Bhoot Jolokia. The other world and the spirits must be invoked when something this spicy lurks in the bushes along with a monitor lizard or two.

Like all things in nature, there must be a reason for something this spicy to exist. And the reason is simple. In sensible quantities – read: no more than a tiny bit of its thin skin or one seed – it has the most wonderful flavour. The tradition among poorer families is to share one chilli no larger than your little finger, with some mustard oil and mixed with rice. It spices up the grains with a flavour that leaves a peppery heat around your lips, but strangely, does not set the tongue or stomach on fire.

My wife and I were on holiday after attending a dear friend’s wedding in Shillong. In the middle of the day, we had stopped at a forest guard’s station, where we stretched our legs and gazed at the wonders around us. In a corner of the compound, were a few humble plants where some chillies were germinating. Our guide turned into a quizmaster and asked us if we knew what we were facing. In a reverential tone that he had previously reserved only to point out a rhino or a tiger paw mark, he whispered “Bhot Jolokia”.

It’s a chilli that can set the world on fire, but all it brings back in me is a yearning to go back to the magical place.

Our enthusiasm for the words reflected the same reverence, hitherto reserved for the fauna of the place. My wife has an appetite for the spicier things in life, and both of us like to use liberal quantities of it in our kitchen. But to come face to face with the mother of all of them was like finding the Holy Grail. Before we knew it, we had been given a whole bag of the short, slightly round chillies that came with only one warning: Wash your hands if you so much as touch them.

We had spent the whole day in the forest, experiencing the bitter early morning winds to track down rhinos and watched the hornbills colonise the tree-tops. Evenings in a national park have the feeling of returning a possession to its real owners. Nature takes over.

Just on the outskirts, our driver Bablu stopped his vehicle outside his modest village house and invited us in for tea. Bablu’s family welcomed us with warm open arms, showed us how they made rice flour, fried some dough fritters, rice cakes, and served us tea. But the highlight of the evening was the Bhot Jolokia. Pickled in oil, just tiny flakes with the fritters and cakes – spicy, lively, numbing the lips slightly, but opening up every tastebud. It’s a chilli that can set the world on fire, but all it brings back in me is a yearning to go back to the magical place.

We brought back a bunch of the fiery angels (or devils, if you prefer). Some were given to family with the attendant warnings. We kept some. There were various conversations around it – should we put one while cooking a dal? Or should we pickle the whole lot? Maybe just use them as regular additions to our meals.

There were a few experiments. But none of our efforts matched the dance on the tastebuds that we experienced in Kaziranga. The pickled chilli in mustard oil tasted heavenly because it was a way of life, practised hands and all that. We were mere tourists touched by hot magic. Maybe when we have put in our 10,000 hours of practice, might we be able to guide people on what to do with a Bhot Jholokia.