For India’s Northeasterners, a meal without chilli is incomplete. In this hotspot region of rich biodiversity, varieties of chilli jostle for space among a plethora of landrace crops not found anywhere else in the country. The Capsicum, or chilli, species that exist here count among the world’s fiercest. The fearsome Bhut Jolokia leads the crowd with the hotness of over 1 million Scoville Heat Units!
Scoville Heat Unit or SHU is the standard unit of measurement of a chilli’s hotness that comes out of the pod’s capsaicin content. Capsaicin is the ingredient that determines a chilli’s ferocity and Northeast chillies are never low on that.
So let’s dive into a rundown of 11 of the Northeast’s top chillies, all of them insanely hot.
1. Dalle Khursani
This round cherry pepper is Sikkim’s signature chilli—a round ball of sweet fire that’s synonymous with the state itself. Dalles are beautiful to look at, especially when they’re a ripe, red colour. They deliver a fiery punch but taste as good too, with an unmistakable hint of sweet and fruity notes.
So, if hot and sweet is what you crave for in your chillies, then Dalle Khursani is what you’ll want to devour!
The dalle’s heat measures between 1, 00,000 and 3, 50,000 SHU – which isn’t mild by any standards. Consuming it will leave you sweating away but the lovable thing about it is the sting doesn’t linger on in your mouth for a long time. So you savour the spicy and sweet moments for just enough time with no fear of a burning tummy afterwards.
The Dalle Khursani chillies are round in shape, green when unripe, gradually turning to yellow and bright red as they age. The downside is that they are very addictive. Once you acquire a taste for them there’s no way you’d want to avoid wolfing down dalle in any form with every meal or snack!
They pair with almost any dish and options are open for you to chomp a raw cherry or two on the side with humble steamed rice, pulses, and vegetables. Or, spice up a meat dish to a hot and sweet high. Or, you can grind the delectable dalles into lip-smacking sauces to dip flavourful dumplings in!
But since they’re so perishable, it’s best to convert them into dry chillies, powders, or flakes.
Of course, pickled is the best way to enjoy Dalle Khursani the whole year-round.
Any way you take them they’re hot enough, topped with that incomparable, fruity aroma that turns even the blandest meals into gourmet spreads!
2. Bhut Jolokia
This Ghost Chilli of Assam needs no introduction. The Guinness Book of Records named it the hottest chilli in the world in 2007 but now it’s relegated to sixth place.
The Bhut Jolokia scores between 1 to 1.6 million SHU. That’s burning hot, so hot that a tiny morsel is sufficient to have with the meal… more than that might burn the innards. Despite that, many people of the Northeast, especially those of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Meghalaya love to take one or more of these on the side along with their meals!
This chilli is called by different names in found in other northeastern states such as Naga Mirchi, U Morok, Sohmynken Beb, and others. Earlier it was classed as belonging to the species Capsicum chinense Jacquin but recently it’s said to be a distinct species, Capsicum assamicum, based on some morphological characteristics.
But scientists say it’s still the world’s spiciest naturally grown chilli. That means it is not artificially cross-pollinated with other specimens to create hybrids with increased ferocity. All the other chillies anywhere in the world that have beaten Bhut Jolokia in hotness are hybrid varieties that were created for that purpose.
The Bhut is highly perishable because of its intense heat. So, the best way to enjoy it beyond its fruiting season is to make pickles. It also has a sweet and fruity flavour that subtly complements its hotness.
But it’s best to take precautions while handling so that it doesn’t enter the eyes or face.
Otherwise, with a Scoville rating of 1 to 1.6 SHU, any accidental rub would mean a visit to burning hell for the affected person!
Culinary speciality apart, the Bhut Jolokia is also valued for its health benefits – for example, it’s analgesic, anti-diabetic, and anti-obesity properties. It’s also developed as a non-lethal anti-terrorist and crowd control weapon.
3. Naga King Chilli
You can’t ignore this fiery cousin of the Bhut Jolokia and the two share closely similar features. Naga king chilli is placed in a taxonomic position between Capsicum chinense and Capsicum frutescens with a closer leaning towards the former.
The Naga King Chilli has a capsaicin content so big (2.06%, and Scoville rating of 855,000 to 2,200,000 SHU) that it ranks number six among the most pungent chillies of the world. That makes it unique which prompted the Nagaland government to obtain the Geographical Indication rights to it in 2006, although it grows in other northeastern states as well.
Its pungency is more than enough to scare away elephants from paddy fields but that’s accompanied with a delightfully sweetish taste that can quietly hook you!
And because of its high heat, it’s also highly perishable. So if you want to eat it fresh, do so not later than 2-3 days after harvest. Else, dry it, powder it, or, better still, pickle it. Naga King Pickles are unforgettably heavenly.
There’s one unique feature in the Naga King Chilli’s cultivation. It’s the traditional and natural ‘jhum’, or slash and burn, method on forest land without the use of artificial fertilizers.
What you get are mind-numbing chillies that are as palatable for the taste buds as they are beneficial for health.
4. Hmarcha te – Mizo Chilli
Bird’s eye chilli (Capsicum frutescens) has come a long way from the Amazon Basin and the Mexican city of Tabasco to the Lushai Hills of Mizoram. It’s prevalent all over the Northeast but Mizoram has gone one up in obtaining the Geographical Indication tag for their prized ‘hmarcha te’ or ‘vai hmarcha’ or ‘Mizoram bird’s eye chilli’.
Midget among chillies, the fiery hot Hmarchate is a favourite not only among the Mizos but among all Northeast people. It’s also in high demand in neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and others of Southeast Asia.
It makes spicy sauces, pickles and chutneys and it’s also used as medicine by the locals for many ailments such as those of the gut and pain relief.
But how is the Mizo Chilli different from others of its kind? The reason lies in Mizoram’s diversified soil and climatic conditions. Mizoram has pleasant weather throughout, and the soils are sandy to loamy to clayey and acidic, rich in humus, with medium phosphorus and potash content.
And here’s the most unique feature: Like the Naga King, Mizo chilli is also grown using completely natural methods on ‘jhum land’ without artificial fertilizers. The burning of the dead plant matter itself creates high ash content which results in the distinctive red colour of the chillies.
You can find the hmarchate growing everywhere in Mizoram, from the low-lying western regions of Chawngte to the Blue Mountains of the Southeast.
Mizo chilli has three grades. Grade A is only about one centimetre in length - smallest, thinnest, but the most pungent, and the most in-demand. Next is Grade B, slightly thicker and longer. Grade C is similar to Grade B in thickness but a bit longer. The chillies change colour from green to yellow to red in various stages of ripening.
The Mizos love their boiled food with the alkali-infused Mizo bai. And their favourite Bird’s eye chilli adds the desired punch and taste. To top that, they also dish out chutney of hmarchate, onion, garlic and ginger.
That’s something you’ll also savour and crave for once you can stomach the bird’s eye’s heat of 50,000 to 100,000 SHU!
Otherwise, the quick and best way to enjoy Mizo chilli is the pickled way. Even a wee chilli with a few drops of the oil will do the trick to lift the taste of your meal to the next level!
5. Sohmynken Khnai – Meghalaya’s Bird’s Eye Chilli
Meghalaya’s sohmynken khnai or bird’s eye chilli isn’t different in looks from bird’s eye chillies of other northeastern states except perhaps in pungency levels.
Sohmynken khnai are of two types: sohmynken khnai rit (small) and sohmynken khnai heh (big). The small ones are no longer than 1 cm and the big ones, 2 cm but both heat up between 100,000 and 225,000 SHU which is quite punishing.
Farmers say birds love to eat the bright red ripe chillies and play a crucial role in propagating the plant. Because the seeds stay undigested inside their warm bodies, their coats soften up. That later helps them germinate faster after the birds drop them along with their excreta.
Bah Ha, a farmer from Ri Bhoi district who also cultivates chillies says chilli plants love shades and grows beautifully under plantain trees and on soils fertilised by fallen bamboo leaves.
As a food, the Khasis love to eat sohmynken khnai by themselves as well as by pickling in oil together with bamboo shoots.
As a medicine, these chillies help in problems such as diarrhoea and dysentery, bringing down fevers, and strengthening the heart.
6. Hathei Chilli
Sixty-six kilometres west of Manipur’s capital city, Imphal, in Ukhrul district, lies the bustling village of Sirarakhong. This village is now famous for the Northeast’s only chilli festival, the Hathei Phanit Festival, held every year since 2009 to showcase Ukhrul’s rich wealth of chillies of various kinds and species.
But one chilli remains the star of the show, year after year, and that’s the Hathei or the Sirarakhong chilli. It’s a vibrant red colour and distinct taste makes it one of the most sought-after chillies of Manipur. It’s not surprising that Hathei chillies provide farmers with a major chunk of income but the demand is so much that farmers struggle to match it with the supply.
According to legend, Hathei chillies were discovered by the village elders long ago while they were hunting in the forests. They found unusually long chilli fruits of about 6 to 8 inches with a bright red colour. That indicates high carotene content.
Many have tried planting it elsewhere but the chilli plant doesn’t exhibit the same characteristics it does in Sirarakhong. That’s why the Sirarakhong villagers call Hathei chillies God’s gift to them and the pride of the Tangkhuls.
This unique chilli is also beneficial for health. It’s an excellent diuretic and brings shine to hair.
The Government of Manipur has also obtained the Geographical Indication tag for hathei chilli.
7. Krishna Jolokia
Not everyone can stomach the punishing pungency of Bhut Jolokia, Naga King Chilli, Dalle Khursane, or Bird’s Eye Chilli. For folks such as these, the Krishna Jolokia of Assam is the finest option.
Krishna Jolokia grows well in most places of the Northeast, especially in the homestead gardens of Assam. Their fruits are near black while still not fully ripe but once they ripen, they turn a bright red.
What endears it to the faint of heart is its near-sweet flavour and medium-level 40,000 to 80,000 Scoville heat levels. That lets them enjoy chillies daily without the fear of a continuous burning sensation afterwards.
8. Sohmynken Bhot or Beb or ‘Ken Rakot
Meghalaya’s Sohmynken Beb or Bhot is also of similar texture and characteristics to the Bhut Jolokia of Assam, the Naga King Chilli of Nagaland, and the U Morok of Manipur - it's equally fiery and fearsome.
Chilli farmers of Ri-Bhoi district cultivate ‘u ‘ken beb’ in large numbers on raised beds or ‘buns’ gently sloping grounds to ensure the fields don’t get inundated.
Because they love the shade, other plants such as ginger or tapioca are planted along to provide a kind of canopy.
Being high on capsaicin (the compound that gives a chilli its spiciness) it is also highly perishable. So it’s best consumed fresh within three or four days after harvest.
Else, the next best thing is to dry and pound to flakes or powder. That will increase shelf life for months if you store it properly.
Those who dare eat it raw but the ‘ken beb makes especially blistering pickles that carry an inimitable sweetish tinge which those who love it can’t have anything less.
And, of course, if you want to enjoy it year-round pickling is the most flavourful way to preserve ‘ken beb. Pickling in oil lets you add aromatic spices of your choice such as fenugreek, caraway, black cumin, and fennel that’ll surely take the taste and flavour to an altogether new level.
But be cautioned. When you eat ‘ken beb, raw or pickled, make sure you start with just a tiny morsel. You might find that wee piece itself is potent enough to burn the roof of your mouth down! And a tiny drop of the oil will add so much fragrance to your meal it’ll make you slurp, both in pain - from the burning, and in pleasure - from the fragrance!
9. Sohmynken Kba
Like tiny bullets, ‘ken kba are small, slender, and stinging chillies that are found in Meghalaya. About 3 to 4 cm in length, they aren’t as tiny as ‘ken khnai nor as spicy but they’re popular as raw complements to a meal or to make pickles and chutneys.
Kba means paddy and one would think they got the name because farmers intercrop them with rice plants. But that’s not the case, I learnt from Bah Ha, a farmer from Ri-Bhoi. They got that name because their seeds are often found mixed with threshed paddy. One plausible explanation for this must be that birds dropped them on the rice grains as they dry in the sun.
‘Ken kba also loves shaded areas under partial canopies of taller plants such as yam and bananas. There they have enough nutrients and the soil is moist but not wet.
Unlike the other two chillies, you can enjoy ‘ken kba without the fear of an after-burning. Their pickles are as pleasant too and would burn a hole through the roof of your mouth!
10. Sohmynken Ding
In Khasi, 'ding' means 'fire' and ‘ken ding is as fiery as its name. It’s similar to Dalle Khursani of Sikkim, round but a little flat at the tip. Take a bite and a piercing hot sensation with hints of sweet fruit greets your taste buds.
You’ll kind of love ‘ken ding' which is found in Meghalaya. It’s flesh has body in it, which feels nice to sink your teeth into, unlike the ‘thin-skinned ‘ken khnai or the small ‘ken kba.
Sohmynken Ding isn’t as high on the popularity rate as the others but it’s getting noticed for its juicier flesh and fuller body.
In great demand for making dynamite chutneys to accompany dumplings, they’re as great for pickles to enjoy year-round.
11. Sohmynken Thnat Syiar
Thick and long – about 8 cm - this is one chilli from Meghalaya that rarely features raw on the table. But its thick, fleshy and strikingly hot characteristics are a delight for chilli aficionados.
It is, however, particularly great as a stuffed pickle (ashar). And the mix of green, yellow, and red thnat syiar chillies make quite an eye-catching, colourful display on the transparent glass jar, beckoning at you to take bite after bite of them.
To make ‘ashar ‘ken thnat syiar', what the locals do is first wash and pat dry the chillies, slit them in the middle, mix turmeric and salt, and leave them on a ‘pdung’ (bamboo tray) in the high sun for a few days to dry.
Meanwhile a pickle masala mix stuffing - usually of roasted and pounded fenugreek, fennel, and cumin seeds as the main ingredients - gets ready. Thus stuffed, the chillies then go into large glass jars and are topped with a generous quantity of mustard oil.
The bottles stand in the hot sun from a few weeks to two months, occasionally turned or stirred. After that, the lip-smacking ‘ken thnat-syiar pickles are ready!
‘Ken thnat syiar’s big size makes ideal hot and aromatic ‘ktung nei-iong curry.
First, a thick gravy of onion, ginger, garlic, – and the favourite festive spice, the earthy-flavoured aromatic nei-iong (black sesame seeds) is set to boil.
Then in goes a handful of dry fish such as ‘tung puria khlein’, or ‘tungkra’, and, of course, a good number of ‘ken thnat syiar. The number depends on how spicy you want it. The gravy goes on simmer for good fifteen or so minutes and then is served hot with steamed rice and vegetables.
That’s one hot, pungent, aromatic, and lip-smacking meal you’ll want to eat time and again!
We hope you enjoyed our story about the 11 chilli varieties of the Northeast. If you’re already on the spicy trail, we’re sure that you’ll have something to share too. Why not tell us about your experiences in the comments section, or write to us?
It’ll always be a pleasure to hear from you.
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