Most hot chillies are botanically speaking members of the plant species known as Capsicum chinense or Capsicum chinense Jacquin, in honour of the botanist Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin, who first identified and named the plant in 1776 in the mistaken belief that it was of Chinese origin, despite the fact that he'd collected his seed from the Caribbean.

The heat of a chilli is measured in terms of Scoville Heat Units (SHUs), a scale established by a chemist named Wilbur Scoville in 1912 whilst working for Parke Davis. Scoville developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test, which basically involved repeatedly diluting ground chillies in a sugar-water solution until the heat of the chilli no longer registered. Nowadays however, everyone uses high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to precisely measure for the presence of the group of heat producing compounds called Capsaicinoids, of which the most significant is Capsaicin, otherwise known as N-Vanillyl-8-methyl-6-(E)-noneamide, although there are also what are known as minor Capsaicinoids being Dihydrocapsaicin, Nordihydrocapsaicin, Homocapsaicin and Homodihydrocapsaicin.

Since 1994 the world record holder was generally recognised as being the Red Savina, an example of which had generated a measurement of 577,000 SHUs. It might however, be more properly known as the Red Savina™, as it is indeed a trademark of GNS Spices Inc of Walnut, California and is protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act #9200255, United States Department of Agriculture, PI 562384 PVPO; that particular cultivar having been developed by Frank Garcia, one of the founders of GNS Spices, after he discovered a plant with red fruit growing in the middle of a field of Orange Habaneros in 1989.

However it should be noted that whilst GNS Spices might have produced one specific Red Savina that was capable of registering 577,000 SHUs, this did not mean that every example of that particular cultivar possessed the same heat level. As Ben Villalon of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station once noted, whilst capsaicin "can and is quantitatively measured by high performance liquid chromatography" such measurements are only applicable "for that particular pod, that particular plant, that particular location, and that particular season only". In fact it doesn't appear as if anyone else has ever managed to grow a Red Savina that came anywhere near the record breaking level; indeed when the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University conducted a wide-ranging field test in 2001, their Red Savina crop came in at only 250,000 SHUs and was beaten into third place by the Orange Habanero and Chocolate Brown Habanero, both of whom came in at around the 300,000 mark. It is therefore very probable that someone could have found an example of an Orange Habanero or a Chocolate Brown Habanero which would have beaten the record set by the Red Savina had they been willing to go the trouble and expense involved.

The Naga Saga

As the twentieth century came to an end a number of challengers emerged to the Red Savina's crown which gave rise to what might be referred to as the Naga Saga.

It was on the 6th September 2000 that the BBC reported on the claim made by R.K.R Singh of the Defence Research Laboratory at Tezpur in Assam, that they had identified a chilli which had registered 855,000 SHUs. This chilli was variously referred to as being the 'Tezpur chili' or 'Indian PC-1', but most chose to call it Naga Jolokia or Naga Jalakia, the 'chili of the Nagas'. (The Nagas being the warrior clan who had given their name to the Indian state of Nagaland.) This claim was met by scepticism by many western sources, particularly Paul Bosland of the Chile Pepper Institute who claimed that the Indian scientists hadn't calibrated their HPLC equipment properly. It was also doubted that the Indian Defence Research Laboratory were correct in their identification of this new cultivar as being an example of Capsicum frutescens, to which they had given the formal name of Nagahari.

Such scepticism however didn't stop Bosland from despatching a researcher to Assam to collect some seeds to take back to New Mexico for testing in 2001, and the Chile Pepper Institute subsequently claimed that they had thereby obtained seeds of a chilli variety known as Bhut Jolokia or 'ghost chili'. However they experienced a number of problems in getting their plants to produce fruit, and so it took a few years to build up sufficient stocks to begin proper analysis, and it wasn't until 2005 that they had enough to carry out a comparison test at their plant science research facility near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Chile Pepper Institute grew Bhut Jolokia along with examples of both the Red Savina and Orange Habanero, and the resulting HPLC tests carried out on the 9th September 2006 showed the Red Savina registering 248,556 SHUs, the Orange Habanero at 357,729 SHUs, with the Bhut Jolokia coming out well ahead with 1,001,304 SHUs.

However by this time an Indian agricultural development company known as Frontal Agritech based at Jorhat in Assam had already cultivated a variety of chilli they called Bih jolokia and which had registered a SHU level of 1,041,427 in 2004, whilst in October 2006, scarcely a month after the Chile Pepper Institute had tested their chilli crop, Gardeners World from the United Kingdom completed their own hot chilli trial and sent the resulting fruit to be HPLC tested at the University of Warwick. Their winner was a British grown variety called the Dorset Naga, which claimed to be a selected strain of a chilli known as Naga Moresh from Bangladesh, and registered an astonishing 1,598,227 SHUs.

The casual observer might therefore have been tempted to have constructed a one-two-three of the world's hottest chillies, with the New Mexican Bhut Jolokia lying in third place. However it was Dr Paul Brosland who was the one who sent away his test results to Guinness World Records Limited and duly obtained a certificate in February 2007 proclaiming that his chilli was "believed to be" the "hottest of all spices". It is therefore the New Mexican Bhut Jolokia which holds the 'official' Guinness World Record as being the world's hottest chilli. Being 'official' of course, to the extent that one believes that a publishing company based in London is the sole arbiter on such matters.

What's in a name?

Although the first decade of the twenty-first century had apparently thrown up a variety of new Indian chillies with names such as Bih jolokia, Bhut Jolokia, Naga Jolokia, and Naga Moresh, sources from the sub-continent itself where unanimous in insisting that these were all just different common names for the same chilli. In Assamese jolokia means chilli, and so in Assam one finds Bih jolokia or 'poison chilli', Bhut jolokia or 'ghost chilli', and the Naga jolokia is the 'chilli of the Nagas', although since Naga is the Sanskrit for 'cobra snake', it also often referred to as being 'snake bite chilli'. However in the states of Nagaland and Manipur where they speak Hindi, it is known as Raja Mircha or the 'chilli of kings', since mircha is the Hindi for chilli, whilst in Bangladesh where they speak Bengali or Bangla it is known as Naga Mirch, Naga Morich, or indeed Naga Moresh.

On the other hand, the UK based Chileman has grown plants raised from seed of Bhut Jolokia from New Mexico, Bih jolokia from Assam, and Naga Moresh from Bangladesh and concluded that there were differences to be found between the different strains, although to what extent these differences are persistent traits rather than natural variations has not been determined. The Chile Pepper Institute did indeed send their Bhut Jolokia for DNA testing; specifically they used random amplification of polymorphic DNA (RAPD) and concluded that this Bhut Jolokia was indeed an example of Capsicum chinense, although it was also found to posses some Capsicum frutescens genes as well, and it was therefore hypothesised that it was an inter-species hybrid. As yet however, no one appears to have similarly conducted RAPD testing on examples of Frontal Agritech's Bih Jolokia or the Bangladeshi Naga Moresh to work out how similar they are to each other or indeed the New Mexican examples.

Does any of this matter?

Of course there is a certain machismo involved in growing the world's hottest chilli but in truth the real motivation is, as always, money. If it is possible to reliably produce a crop of chillies that register one million plus on the Scoville scale, compared to the quarter of a million a Red Savina would produce, then you have four times as much Capsaicin to sell, and Capsaicin is a valuable ingredient.

Apart from it being the major ingredient used in the manufacture of hot sauces by a wide variety of food manufactures both big and small, Capsaicin is also used as the basis for a topical analgesic used for alleviating muscle and joint pain, such as that attributable to osteoarthritis, and sold under such brand names as Capsin, Capzasin-P, Dolorac, Zacin and Zostrix, whilst pepper spray, otherwise known as Oleoresin Capsicum spray, which is beloved of law enforcement agencies across North America, is produced from the oils extracted from chilli peppers. (Which is incidentally the reason why the Indian Defense Research Laboratory was interested in the first place.) In particular the Assamese Bhut/Bih/Naga Jolokia can apparently frighten off elephants, and the Assam Haathi Project has been experimenting with the construction of smoke bombs containing dry chilli and smearing fences with chilli oil in order to deter wild elephants from encroaching on farmland.

Please note that in the above article the spelling 'chilli' has been adopted in accordance with the preference expressed by the Oxford English Dictionary, rather than chili or indeed chile which is in any case, a country in South America.


  • India claims champion chilli, BBC News, 6 September, 2000
  • Chili pepper from India sets record for heat, US researcher says, The Associated Press, February 17, 2007
  • World's Hottest Chile Pepper Discovered, ScienceDaily (Oct. 28, 2007)
  • Wasbir Hussain, World's Hottest Chili Used as Elephant Repellent, November 20, 2007
  • Sethuraman Subramanian, Everything you wanted to know about chili peppers but were afraid to ask!
    Part 6: The hottest chili pepper in the world, Dec 5th, 2007
  • Habanero Hot Peppers (Red Savina™)
  • Capsaicinoids - What Makes Chillies Hot
  • Mark McMullan, Guide: The Capsicum Genus
  • Bih jolokia or Naga jolokia
  • Products of Bih jolokia or Naga jolokia
  • Oleoresin Capsicum
  • Dave DeWitt, Chile Pepper Institute (NMSU): Heat Levels Reported
  • The World's Hottest Chile Pepper
  • The World’s Hottest Chilli

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