Imphal: India’s Northeast is a treasure trove of rich culture, variegated traditions, sumptuous food and warm, affable people. The dense forests and breathtakingly-beautiful mountains are home to a number of exotic wonders of nature. Among them are the hottest and fieriest chilies that constitute a major portion of the spice cultivation in the region.
King chilies from Nagaland and Manipur, Bhut Jholokia from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and Bird’s Eye chilies from Meghalaya are among the most popular varieties from the region that have caught the attention of foodies across the world. “Food in the Northeast is largely constituted of meat products. Hence, most of the dishes based on meat call for a generous helping of chilies since we do not indulge much in oil, fats or other spices. That makes our food very tasty and unique,” says Julia, a local restaurant owner from Senapati district in Manipur.
According to official sources, there are over 400 varieties of chilies in the world and most of them are produced in India, followed closely by China. In fact, the commercial cultivation of chilies is largely being supported by state governments and farmers are being provided with special incentives to boost production to meet the increasing demands.
Every year, in the month of August, the horticulture department of Manipur organises a three-day-long ‘Hathei Phanit’ or the Sirarakhong Chili Festival in Ukhrul in order to promote the unique Sirarakhong chillies that are high in calcium and have immense anti-oxidant properties. “Our chilies here are different and every year we have just been seeing a record growth. Apart from fresh chilies that we sell in the wholesale market, we also dry and powder them and export to other states,” said V Mary, a farmer.
Manipur itself has seven indigenous varieties of chilies that are much in demand across the country and abroad, and the state government in conjunction with the horticulture department is planning to conduct special surveys to record the production amount.
‘Maroi Nakupi’ is another one of the widely used chilies that flavour local Manipuri dishes. It is available in most markets and is considered extremely beneficial for health working as a diuretic and brings a shine to hair.
In the neighbouring Nagaland, King Chillies are much in demand for their unusual taste and colour. Also known as ‘Raja Mircha’ or ‘U Morok’, these organic chillies are also among the fieriest and provide an unusual flavour and colour to the food that works as an added advantage. “In the local markets, the King Chilies sell for Rs 1,400 per kilogram and if the produce is really good, the price goes up even further,” said Kashung, a local farmer from Mantripukhri.
With 1,000,000 Scoville units, the scientific measurement of a chilli’s heat factor, the Bhut Jholokia or Ghost Pepper chillies are one of the hottest in the world. Mexico’s Carolina Reaper and Trinidad’s Moruga Scorpion come close. Experts believe that it has immense medicinal value and is also commonly used as a counter irritant across Assam. “Whenever we have any stomach disorder, we just pop a chili and it get’s cured,” said Yoshu, a local Ayurvedic doctor.
The Bird’s Eye chilies from Meghalaya are equally fiery and pungent in taste and explode in flavours when added to curries, soups and pickles. Across the hill state, these chillies are available in the form of dried flakes that are also used for treatment in various cardiovascular ailments and strengthening of bones.
The heat of these northeastern chilies apart from culinary usage has been diverse. Scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation have inculcated the peppers in hand grenades in a non-lethal way to counter terrorists from their hideouts. Chilli grenades are also used for dispersing mobs in various rioting situations. In Kashmir, the central government has replaced the controversial pellet guns used by the security forces with pepper grenades using Bhut Jholokia.