Habaneros are child's play. Only 300,000 Scoville heat units? Laughable. The ghost pepper, also known as the bhut jolokia or naga jolokia, has over 1 million Scoville heat units.
One million. That's hot. And a business for Jay Sheldon, who was raised in the sizzling desert of Tucson and now sells the hottest peppers in the world over the Internet.
They've replaced the peppers he downed when he grew up here: jalapeños.
"At the grocery store, only one out of every few jalapeños pack any real heat," Sheldon said, almost pooh-poohing the hot jalapeños, which he called "mild."
Sheldon, who still has family in Tucson, is an artist, and when he isn't creating, he virtually hawks those peppers out of his Brooklyn studio.
We picked up the phone to talk to the pepper pusher.
On becoming a ghost-pepper peddler
During his days at Sabino High School, Sheldon skateboarded and developed his attitude with art. After graduating, he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute.
It was his attraction to the out-of-the-ordinary that first introduced him to the peppers at a Kansas City farmers market.
"I look for odd things in the world. I collect weird stuff," Sheldon said.
That day at the market, the strange, wrinkled pepper from India caught his eye. He tried it and fell in love.
In the city full of barbecue aficionados, he started making and experimenting with his own spice rubs. He would dry and grind his new favorite pepper, making sure to wear a mask in the process to protect himself from the potent airborne particles.
Eventually, he got more education, moved to New York City, and made more art.
But the peppers were always with him.
In March, he launched his online business selling the peppers and transformed part of his art studio into his pepper palace.
For those who can't handle the heat of peppers very well, Sheldon has a sweet alternative.
"I was trying to find a way to give out samples for people to try the pepper without having to cook with it," Sheldon said.
After sampling a sour watermelon candy and realizing it was crying out for a little heat, he teamed with a candy maker to concoct spicy watermelon hard candies. Each candy contains about three to five granules of the dried pepper; they release a steady supply of heat. The sugar cuts the heat and keeps it from becoming overwhelming.
Personal pepper preference
Sheldon most definitely eats what he sells - he has a couple of ghost-pepper bushes growing in his yard to feed his personal supply.
His favorite ways to eat the pepper are in his homemade salsas and the watermelon candies. "I carry the candies and the flakes around with me for whenever I need a pick-me-up," Sheldon said.
A bit of advice
Don't be afraid to try these hot, hot peppers. Start with tiny amounts, use gloves when handling them, keep something on hand to eat or drink if you need to cut the heat - Sheldon recommends ice cream or milk. And - this is important - don't rub your eyes after touching the peppers.
The peppers come in powdered form, as crushed flakes, whole dried peppers, and in watermelon candies. Prices start at $10 and can be ordered at his website www.bhut-pepper.com
The 17th Street Market sells ghost-pepper hot sauce; otherwise we couldn't find a local outlet for the hot stuff.
Five granules thoroughly burn the tongue
"Here, try this," my editor says as she holds out a pepper. She just plays it off as an exotic pepper.
Luckily, I recognize the name. The ghost pepper is hot. Really, really hot.
Then she drops this: Eat it and write a story.
I am intimidated at first. Oh, sure, I've entered hot wing-eating contests and downed some tear-inducing hot sauces. But nothing that was 1,000,000 Scoville heat units.
When the package of pepper products arrive, I open my bag of goodies and cautiously waft in the aroma. The peppers have a smokey scent - like Spanish pimentón, or smoked paprika. I know I am about to experience something I'm not prepared for, so I take baby steps and start sweet.
The sweet little watermelon hard candies are half jade-like green, half black. After about 20 seconds in my mouth, the heat kicks in and lingers. About 10 more seconds and I salivate enough to dissolve the candy and the smokiness comes through. The heat starts spreading but it never gets hotter than a jalapeño. The sweetness keeps the heat in check.
I put five tiny granules on the back of my palm and dip the tip of my tongue into it. Within two seconds I feel the heat begin to spread through the rest of my mouth, which stays warm for about 15 minutes.
An eighth of a teaspoon sounds like nothing, but it is potent. I count to 11 Mississippi before I feel the pepper kick the doors down. I begin panting fast, then faster. It's hot enough to wring a single tear out of my left eye.
I let the dry pepper reconstitute in hot water for about 10 minutes.
When I chomp into it, I find it fruity and sweet. The heat isn't kicking in as fast as the powder, so I foolishly take a bigger bite of the pepper. This time, it has my eyes wide open.
Less than a minute into it my eyes water and I can't speak in sentences.
Again, one single tear. Both my eyes water much faster, though.
It is like a cloud of heat floating ominously in the back of my mouth. It isn't full contact heat, but it feels like the cloud is ready to release a jolt of heat.
I almost inhale a seed that is discreetly resting on the back of my tongue. My body jumps. The heat of the rehydrated pepper fades much faster than the powder's heat.
Next I feel my stomach. "Let me out!" it is clearly yelling. It is kind of like the warmth after taking a shot of whiskey.
The heat mostly fades away, but I am taking deep, nearly involuntary, breaths. My body is in a different state entirely. It is a yoga-like trance. Then my heart beats faster and I lean forward, catching my breath.
My body starts rejecting the pepper, but after 30 seconds it gives in. Still, my stomach continues to talk to me: "Why would you do this to me?" it grumbles. I recline in my chair and continue to pant. Eventually my body settles down, but is wide awake.
Surprisingly, my tongue doesn't become numb, as it does when too much hot sauce is downed. I lick my lips a few minutes later and feel them warm up. My saliva is still potent with heat but my body readjusts. And still I want more.
The other day I made some crispy wontons filled with roasted corn, chive cream cheese. The pepper kicked my macerated strawberry sauce up a notch.
Next, I think I'll bake some ghost brownies for my friends, and just tell them with a wink that they have a "special" ingredient. The peppers are pretty special, after all.
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde
Makes: 3 cups.
• 1 1/2 pound tomatillos
• 1 dried ghost pepper (no stem)
• 1/2 cup water to re-hydrate the pepper
• 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
• 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 cup chopped white onion
• 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
• 1/2 teaspoon sugar
• 1/2 cup fresh water (to add to salsa mixture)
• Salt to taste
Remove papery husks from tomatillos and rinse well. Cut the tomatillos in half and place cut side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place under a broiler for about 5-7 minutes to lightly blacken the skin.
Meanwhile, re-hydrate the ghost pepper by adding it to a sauce-pan with 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a boil and let the pepper simmer for 5 minutes after boiling.
Place tomatillos, lime juice, olive oil, onions, cilantro and re-hydrated chili pepper, sugar and 1/2 cup of fresh water (discard the water used for re-hydrating the pepper) in a food processor (or blender) and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and mixed. Season to taste with salt. Cool in refrigerator.
Serve with chips.
Jackie Tran is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact him at 573-4128 or at firstname.lastname@example.org