A ghost pepper is a specific kind of hot pepper, native to parts of India and Sri Lanka, that is considered by many to be the hottest pepper in existence. The local term for this variety of pepper is bhut jolokia, and natives of these regions understand that the term “ghost pepper” has been largely applied by Western audiences. This pepper has been prolifically exported all over the world for use in recipes that require a specific intensity of flavor.
To understand the intensity of hotness for this pepper variety, it’s helpful to be familiar with a scientific resource called the Scoville rating. The Scoville scale, or rating, helps to define the hotness of a particular pepper or other food. The Scoville scale is composed of Scoville Heat Units, abbreviated SHU. These units are based on the amount of an element called capsaicin, which is naturally found in many pepper varieties around the world. By using a Scoville scale, experts can compare the intensity of various peppers in a technical way.
What researchers have found is that ghost peppers tested on the Scoville scale can reach a top rating of over 1 million units. This is best understood by comparing this rating to something like the rating of the more familiar jalapeno pepper, which is found to have up to around 8,000 units. That makes ghost peppers hundreds of times stronger than jalapenos, which gives those unfamiliar with the plant more of an orientation as to its intensity.
These small peppers are often used in exotic cooking where the end result relies heavily on a hot, spicy taste. As a prime example of the power of this pepper, ghost pepper products have been featured in some of the competitive eating events that test the ability of the human body to handle capsaicin. The ghost pepper has also been used in the production of various weapons and personal defense items, for example, in pepper spray that is commonly used by individuals in self-defense, and also by law enforcement to control crowds.
As with other kinds of peppers, ghost peppers can lose some of their intensity through cooking. Because the peppers are so inherently hot, though, many consider this strategy to be only marginally effective. In culinary uses, ghost peppers must be mixed with a great deal of other food in order to be even remotely digestible for many eaters. It is also necessary for cooks to take extra precautions in handling them, such as wearing protective gloves and face masks.