A version of this article was presented at the 2008 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, and subsequently published in the conference proceedings. Though the paper needs updating the basic facts and speculations remain valid.
The Naga Morich Story
Early in the 21st century an irrevocable change took place in the world of chillies. A series of reports from India, America and Britain proclaimed that varieties from Bangladesh and northeast India were the most pungent ever measured. Pungency levels of these chillies were more than 50% higher than that of the previous record holder, making this part of Asia a ‘haven of heat’. Though the varieties are known by different names and originate in different countries, they are probably part of the same traditional variety that has been growing in this region for years. Naga Morich, the version from Bangladesh, is a popular and indispensable spice among Bangladeshis living in Britain, and appreciation for this chilli is gradually spreading to a wider group of consumers who like their food extremely pungent.
The Quest for Pungency
Originating in the New World tropics, peppers have become ubiquitous culinary essentials now grown not only in warm climates but in temperate areas as well. They include both sweet and chilli varieties, and, botanically, belong to the genus Capsicum. Of the more than 20 Capsicum species, only five of them have been domesticated (Bosland and Votova, 2000).
Renown for their pungency, chillies receive by far more attention and publicity than sweet peppers. The reason for this is difficult to explain, but may have to do with the existence of thousands of varieties whose fruit offer a mind-boggling choice of flavour, shapes and sizes. Since they adapt well to most of the world’s cuisines, it is probably safe to say that there is only a minority of adults in the world who have not eaten chillies at least once in their lives.
The pungency in chillies is caused by a family of chemicals called capcaicinoids. These chemicals are not found anywhere else in the plant, and the more concentrated they are, the more pungent the chilli is. The concentration of capcaicinoids is expressed in its own unit of measurement called the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU), named after Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacologist who devised a test for measuring chilli pungency in 1912.
Though growing conditions and fruit maturity can significantly affect capcaicinoid concentrations, it is the genetic make-up of the plant that exerts the strongest influence. And since chilli varieties are genetically distinct from each other, they display differences in pungency that range from the barely detectable in some varieties to the virtually mouth numbing in others. For example,Joe E. ParkerJoe E. Parker, a large Anaheim type, has been measured at a mild 800 SHU and is at the lower end of the range (Bosland et al, 1993). In contrast, the cayenne variety Super Tramp can measure 36,100 SHU, a level that most people find very pungent. Even more pungent is Rooster Spur, a little-known variety whose tiny fruits reach an astonishing 179,300 SHU. As pungent as Super Tramp and Rooster Spur are, however, they pale in comparison to the habanero variety Red Savina, which once achieved a mouth-numbing 577,000 SHU and for years was the most pungent chilli ever measured.
The hottest chilli in the world has become the Holy Grail among culinary thrill seekers, and finding it has become a quest bordering on the obsessive. The search seemed to have come to an end with Red Savina, which reigned as the chilli king for so long that it was doubtful if anything would surpass it in pungency. The situation, though, changed in 2001 when scientists working for the Defence Research and Development Establishment in India identified a variety of chilli that measured 855,000 SHU. In a paper reporting their work, the scientists stated that the chilli, which they called Tezpur variety Nagahari, came from the northeast state of Assam and ‘seems to be the hottest chilli known so far’ (India Academy of Sciences, website).
The Indian discovery, however, was only the first in a series of findings that has led to the recognition of Assam and Bangladesh as havens of extremely pungent chillies. For example, in April, 2006 we reported we had grown a chilli that measured 923,000 SHU. The chilli, which we named Dorset Naga, was developed in our Dorset market garden from samples of the Bangladeshi chilli Naga Morich bought in Bournemouth. At the same time, we conducted a web search that uncovered Frontal Agritech, an agricultural production and marketing company in the northeast Indian state of Assam. They were selling (and still do) powdered and dried whole fruit of a chilli they call Bih or Naga Jolokia, claiming it reached 1,041,427 SHU (Frontal Agritech, website). And later in 2006, researchers at New Mexico State University in the USA reported that the Assamese Bhut Jolokia they grew measured 1,001,304 SHU (Bosland and Baral, 2007).
All of these remarkable chillies are C. chinense, and there is enough evidence to suggest that, despite the different names and where they grow, they may be versions of the same traditional variety. In the first instance, they all share extraordinarily high pungency levels. Additionally, the fruit, though not exact replicas of each other, are physically similar enough for the plants producing them to be closely related. And, finally, parts of Assam and Bangladesh border each other, and their geographic proximity further strengthens the probability that the chillies growing there are, in fact, close relatives.
Plants, especially useful ones, are always on the move, and anecdotal accounts, both verbal and digital, also place this chilli in the Indian states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur. They are all close to Bangladesh and Assam, and considering the chilli’s wide distribution in the region, it is something of a miracle that its extreme pungency wasn’t recognised until the 21st century.
On the Move
By the time of the European arrival in the New World, the domesticated species of Capsicum were present in the Caribbean, and North and South America. Capsicum chinense, the species which includes Naga Morich/Bhut Jolokia (henceforth called Naga Chilli) was no exception and could be found in parts of Central America; on most of the Caribbean Islands; and a large part of South America, including what is now Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana (Andrews, 1999).
Before it could become established in Bangladesh and the surrounding Indian states, Naga Chilli first had to make the long journey from its original home to its new residence. When exactly the journey was made and who helped it move are mysteries that will probably never be solved. As A. J. R. Russell-Wood (1998) put it: ‘Rarely do documentary data permit accurate dating of the first appearance of a specific plant in a region’.
Though Naga Chilli’s movements may never be fully understood, it is still of some interest to devise a hypothesis explaining its arrival in Bangladesh and northeast India. Hypothesis building in this case requires an agent of introduction, and strong contenders for the role must certainly be the early European explorers. Beginning in the 16th century, for example, the Portuguese had settlements in Brazil where Capsicum chinense was already established (New Encyclopædia Britannica, 2003) as well as in or near what is now Bangladesh and Kolkata (Campos, 1919; Swartzberg, 1992). Their presence in both regions created a bridge over which Naga Chilli could have passed on its move to the east. The Portuguese have already been credited with introducing chillies to the Bay of Bengal (Campos, 1919), and it is certainly possible one of these was C. chinense. How exactly it moved is another matter, though it could simply have been by an adventurous sailor carrying seeds on his journeys between the New World and the Asian subcontinent.
Other European powers, such as the Dutch and English, also had settlements in both the New World where C. chinense originated as well as in and near Naga Chilli’s domicile in Bangladesh and northeast India. Any one of these nations could also have been responsible for moving the chilli from the New World to the Old. Attributing Naga Chilli’s movements to a single country, however, simplifies what is probably a convoluted process of plant transference. Naga Chilli, for example, could have first been carried to one or more of the settlements established by Europeans in various parts of Africa. It could then have been cultivated there before going to the Bay of Bengal, possibly making one or more stops in other European settlements located in the Indian subcontinent. Considering the multi-national nature of the settlements, such a movement, carried out over a number of years, could easily have included two countries or more.
Convincing conclusions are difficult to make with only circumstantial evidence, and it may not have been early Europeans who transported Naga Chilli in the first place. Looking to more recent times, another means of introduction could have been indentured labourers moving between India and the New World. From 1838 to 1917, more than half a million Indians went to the Caribbean (Vertovec, 1995) and many of them were from Bengal (Look Lai, 1993). Their destinations included Jamaica, British Guiana (now Guyana), and Trinidad, and while the majority took up residence there, some returned home, possibly carrying Naga Chilli with them.
Speculation of this nature assumes that the Naga Chilli has remained unchanged and genetically intact since its introduction to Bangladesh and northeast India. It also implies that there exists a New World version ready to take its rightful place alongside its Asian brethren. While its existence may at first seem improbable, research done in the Caribbean strongly suggests that Naga Chilli’s New World counterpart may have, in fact, been found. Working with C. chinense varieties collected in the Caribbean, Umaharan et. al., (2004) analysed the pungency levels in the mature fruit of the varieties Seven Pod, Red Scotch Bonnet and Scorpion. They measured 750,000, 900,000 and greater than 1,000,000 SHU, respectively, suggesting that there is a New World version of Naga Chilli.
Of course, none of these Caribbean scorchers may be Naga Chilli at all. In fact, the Naga Chilli that is known today may not even exist in the New World and could be a mutation of a variety already in the region. Alternatively, it could be a hybrid of two or more varieties that were themselves introduced to the region – chillies naturally cross-pollinate and new varieties are being constantly produced from such crosses. The offspring of this cross could then have been selected by some astute farmer and propagated further by seed, which then spread throughout this part of the world.
How Naga Chilli came into existence and found its way to the Bangladesh region will probably never be solved. However, the uncertainty surrounding its past gives it a mystique possessed by few other food plants, and speculating on its travels only adds to this mystique.
Naga Morich Moves to Britain
Naga Chilli, in its various disguises, is currently recognised as the hottest chilli ever measured. Though its world-wide reputation wasn’t established until the 21st century, local farmers and cooks would have been aware of its exceptional qualities well before then.
In Bangladesh the Naga Chilli is called ‘Naga Morich’, with ‘morich’ being the Bangladeshi name for ‘chilli’. Over a quarter of a million Bangladeshis now live in Britain, and they have resolutely maintained many of their traditional eating habits, including the consumption of Naga Morich. It is difficult for an outsider to understand the elevated status this chilli enjoys within their community, but as one Bangladeshi woman said, ‘We are obsessed with it’ (Halima Ahmed, personal communication).
Though the Bangladeshis occasionally cook Naga Morich in their food, they tend to eat it raw with their meals. Offered a whole fruit at the table, they might, for example, break a piece of it off with their fingers. The piece is mixed with a small amount of cooked rice and any other concoctions that are on the plate, and the amalgamation is then popped into the mouth and eaten.
Because Naga Morich is such an important spice for British Bangladeshis, fresh fruits are a common feature in the food shops they patronise. The fruits are distinctively wrinkled and wedge-shaped, and they are almost always sold in the green, unripe stage of maturity.
Some are grown in Britain, e.g., in the London area and in Dorset by us, but the majority are imported. Anecdotal accounts describe a supply chain that has fruit flown from Bangladesh to Heathrow Airport, from where they are collected and distributed as far north as Leeds and as far south as Bournemouth.
Once they reach the shops, the fruit are treated in ways that reflect their special status. For example, they are often sold in a small box or basket near the till, segregated from the other vegetables and chillies. Though chillies are usually sold by weight, Naga Morich is priced individually and can be, therefore, quite expensive to buy.
Commercially-made pickles of Naga Morich are an acceptable and popular substitute for fresh fruit. They are a regular feature in shops with a Bangladeshi clientele, who have a choice between at least three brands that are imported and two that claim to be made in England Though they vary slightly from brand to brand, the ingredients common to all the pickles include finely chopped Naga chillies, vinegar, oil and salt.
Despite its reputation for being pungent, Naga Morich is not necessarily eaten for its pungency alone. Its appeal may have as much to do with its distinctive aroma, which has variously been compared to apricots and bubblegum. The aroma is typical of C. chinense varieties and gives a pleasant flavour to any food to which the chilli is added.
Though shops frequented by Bangladeshis are the traditional sources of Naga Morich, other, newer types, of outlets selling the fresh and processed product are gradually developing. Likewise, in November, 2007 the supermarket chain, Tesco tried selling fresh fruit of Dorset Naga in their Newcastle store. The response was so positive that they decided to stock it in more of their stores in 2008, using one of their growers, located in Bedford, to produce the fruit.
Internet shopping, too, will uncover at least one brand of Naga Morich pickle that the vendor will post to potential customers, albeit at excessively high shipping rates. Dried fruit, both whole and powdered, are also available on the internet under Naga’s various aliases such as bhut jolokia. Alternatively, visits to the ubiquitous Indian takeaways and restaurants scattered all over Britain will frequently uncover dishes made with Naga Morich, probably in the form of a pickle. These establishments are normally run by Bangladeshis for non-Bangladeshi customers, and the owners are keen to cater to their customers’ needs for pungent foods. A typical example is the menu of the Alishaan in Dorchester, which offers a dish called Murgh Zalzala, describing it as ‘…slighty less hot than a vindaloo with Mr Naga! (A very hot chilli pickle). A fierce dish not for the faint-heated.’ (sic)
Naga Morich can be successfully grown in Britain, but like other C. chinense varieties, they can be something of a challenge even for experienced gardeners. The seeds are not only slow to germinate, but the plants grow slowly as well. In addition, the first flowers to appear fall off the plants without producing fruit, significantly reducing the yields of the earliest harvests. And because they are ill-adapted to a temperate climate, they need to be pampered inside a protective structure like a greenhouse or conservatory, where the environment is warm and more to their liking.
The gardening challenges presented by Naga Morich plants, however, have not deterred green-fingered Bangladeshis from attempting to grow them in Britain. Viable seed is readily extracted from shop-bought fruit, germinated in the warmth and then nurtured into productive plants. Alternatively, young plants, undoubtedly supplied by enterprising Bangladeshi gardeners, are sold around June time in shops located in London’s Brick Lane and elsewhere. Given the right environment and enough time, these can be prolific enough to make the effort of growing them worthwhile.
Filling a gardening niche, seeds of Naga Morich are becoming more available through an increasing number of outlets. As would be expected, they are sold over the internet under various names, though the provenance of these seeds is suspect. Alternatively, Sea Spring Seeds, a companion company of Peppers by Post, has been producing and selling seeds of Dorset Naga since 2007. Likewise, other companies, such as Thomson and Morgan and Suttons, are selling seeds of Bhut Jolokia, the Assamese version of Naga Morich, proving that more and more Britons are ready to not only eat but also to garden on the wild side.
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 Capsicum annuum is the most common of the domesticated species. It includes sweet bell peppers and the majority of cultivated chillies, including the cayenne chilli. C. chinense includes the hottest chillies ever measured such as the habanero, Scotch Bonnet and Naga Morich. C. frutescens includes the world renown Tabasco and Thai prik kii nuu. C. baccatum is known as aji throughout South America. C. pubescens has black seeds and is called rocoto or locoto in South America.
 In their original paper, the Indian scientists called it C. frutescens, which is undoubtedly a misclassification.
 Kolkata – or Calcutta, as it was once known – is in the Indian state of West Bengal, close to the Bangladeshi border.
 Fruit of Naga Morich change from green to red as they mature. The preference for green fruit may have to do with their reduced pungency compared to when they are red. According to tests we conducted on Dorset Naga in 2007, green fruit measured 655,900 while red fruit harvested at the same time reached 878,400 SHU. Given these values, the pungency of the red ones may be beyond the tolerance level of even the Bangladeshis.
 The imported brands include Nicobena’s ‘Naga King; Pran’s ‘Naga Pickle’; and The Kitchen Magic’s ‘Bengali Pepper’. Those produced in England are Shahnaz Food Products’ ‘Mr Naga’ and K&S’ ‘Naga Raga’.
 Indian restaurants are found both in large cities and small towns, and they are so prevalent that they have become an integral part of the British culinary scene. Calling them Indian restaurants, however, is incorrect, and as Lizzie Collingham said in her 2006 book Curry: ‘There are about eight thousand Indian restaurants in Britain and the great majority of these are run by Bangladeshis’. Of the Bangladeshis living in Britain, it can be said that so seldom has such a relatively small group of people had such a large influence on the eating habits of a nation.