Pepperheads love the hit of a habanero, the kick of a bhut jolokia. But what’s the allure of a fruit designed to repel?


On drizzly gray Sundays, after a mid-morning stroll has left my bones damp, I nestle under the covers and curl into a ball. Laptop on bedspread, I wrap myself in the screen’s azure glow and scroll through images of the vox populi in search of warmth, flavour and spice. In short, I spend hours watching YouTube videos of people eating chili peppers.

The standard form is this: the vlogger, glass of milk within easy reach, holds a single dried pepper pod to the camera, before taking a deep preparatory breath and gingerly placing it in their mouth. The chili being consumed is usually brown, the size of a shrunken peach pit. It looks harmless enough. Yet whether it’s a ghost pepper, a naga viper, a trinidad moruga scorpion or a carolina reaper, it’s almost always one of the world’s hottest chilis. It will have busted the once-mythical limit of 1 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU) – the curious measure developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist.

Scoville would take a measured amount of dried pepper and make an alcohol extraction of its capsaicin oil (capsaicin gives chili peppers their bite). That extraction would be added incrementally to a sugar-water solution, until an assembled panel of five tasters could no longer detect the pepper’s heat. A measurement of 1.5 SHU is roughly equivalent to one part per million of chili heat. These days, high-performance liquid chromatography adds a heightened level of precision, but the basic principle remains the same. Your standard bell pepper has a Scoville rating of zero; the common jalapeño, 10,000 SHU; a habanero around 300,000 SHU.

The peppers that the YouTubers love to eat are all roughly 100 times hotter than a jalapeño. The bhut jolokia, or ghost pepper, from northeast India, was officially the first pepper to hit 1 million SHU early this century. Seven additional peppers have since broken the 1 million SHU barrier; the hottest, the carolina reaper, at 2.2 million SHU, is poised this year to be supplanted by HP56, a pepper that registers 3 million SHU. It was developed, as peppers usually are, through standard hybridisation techniques. And what can’t be accomplished through horticulture can be achieved through cookery: hot sauces sold to so-called ‘pepperheads’ can hit 16 million SHU.

While I don’t remember the first time I tasted a chili pepper (I’m fairly certain my mother slipped some in my baby bottle – at least, my taste for it was early acquired), I do remember the first time I couldn’t have it: on a high-school exchange in Nicaragua. Central American cuisine, though delicious, is not especially spicy, and unlike Hillary Clinton I’d failed to pack hot sauce. Toiling through my nacatamales, vigorón and gallo pinto, I longed for a touch of a scotch bonnet, a sprinkling of jalapeño.

On YouTube, the pepperhead – a gangly 12-year-old with Harry Potter glasses, a 20-something woman in a cat T-shirt, or a bro in a backwards baseball cap – begins to chew. There’s a pause as the brain registers the sensation, then an eruption of expletives, tears, occasionally vomiting. The milk, a supposed tempering agent, never works, whether it’s chugged, swirled around like mouthwash, or poured over the body. ‘It tastes like a thousand burning needles in my mouth,’ exclaims the pepperhead, before losing the ability to speak altogether.

Why would anyone do this to themselves?

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