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.”