One Little Chile in a Tiffany’s Box

I’m thinking it might be the most humble but exotic item that ever did appear in one of those little blue boxes. This dignified surprise arrived in our Christmas gift package from my sister and brother-in-law. One shriveled red chile.

We sniffed it — such a subtle mix of smoke, citrus, berry and heat—and we knew: this is the real deal. This is a Naga chile, born of parent peppers with world-renowned fire. On its home turf, in the northeastern state of Nagaland, these peppers will reach more than 1 million on the Scoville heat scale. I can still taste my first bite (and feel that first swoon); just a pinprick nearly knocked me out. Who needs drugs with chiles like these?

When we traveled through northeastern India a few years back, some of the Naga farmers we interviewed and photographed offered us seeds of their most prized and potent crop. (Locals regard this chile as medicine; they eat the pepper for its aroma, its heat and its ability to heal the belly of myriad discomforts and diseases.)

So I gave a few seeds to my brother-in-law, John, an avid gardener in Lake Country, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, last year, many home-grown vegetables were lost in summertime floods. But this tough little Naga survived the storms (fitting, perhaps—its ancestors were cultivated by tribal farmers known for their strength in warfare and tradition of head hunting; but those days are gone).

We haven’t tasted the Wisconsin Naga yet. It sits at home in the pretty blue box; meanwhile, I’ve returned to Boulder for the second half of my fellowship year. I’m thinking, thinking…. I’ll have to find an appropriate way to prepare and share the chile. All it takes is one Naga to transform a meal. I recall the words of my Nagaland guide, a lovely young woman named Neitho:

“One chile is sufficient for the entire family,” she told me. “Other chiles—maybe 15 or 16.”

11 thoughts on “One Little Chile in a Tiffany’s Box

  1. Wondering if you have a salsa recipe for making something approximating New Mexican food in Cambodia. If so, please share here or by email.

    As for the chile in the box, it seems so out of place. Poor thing. At least you treated it well.

  2. I am a chilli addict and terribly jealous of your prized possession ! I’d be so smitten that I’d probably treat it like I do my candles and let it sit out on display to be admired but never used :)

  3. Akila, sexy indeed!

    Belinda, I agree.

    Aku, neither can I. I’ll be going through my Nagaland notes and cookbooks.

    Andy, you are so lucky to have access to fresh salsa ingredients year round! I’m missing tomatoes like crazy right now in Colorado. The easiest thing you can do is make pico de gallo with tomatoes, onion, garlic, lime, salt, cilantro and chile – see if your local market has roasted chiles & garlic for a smoky flavor. Sometimes I add a little fish sauce for an Asian twist to salsa.

    Foodie and the chef, I like that idea but one day I simply must cook with it. I want to know how it compares to the chiles in Nagaland!

    Sasha, I met a Naga farmer who ate these whole. Tough dude.

    Erin, yes!

  4. hi,I belong to Manipur,which is a part of Northeastern India.Naga chilli is also native to our region;we call it “oo-morok”(morok is manipuri for chilli).We consume it on a regular basis;the heat is lessened and the flavour heightened when we make it into a sort of “chutney” or “sambal” by mixing it with fermented fish(known as “ngari”and a staple in manipuri cuisine)- I wish you could taste it-its a heavenly side to a rice meal.For those ‘unfortunate'( :) ) people with no access to ngari, the naga chilli goes really well with pork- a simple stew with potatoes,tomatoes,onion,ginger and garlic does the trick-try it,its really tasty;if you have bamboo shoot(better if fermented),even better.

  5. This is so fun. It reminds me of my high school boyfriend who was a year ahead of me. When he left for college he gave me a very pretty jewelry box (not Tiffany’s), inside was a small bunch of forget-me-not flowers. Some girls might be disappointed, I was so very touched.

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