“I just started growing a few days ago, I used to grow in the US and make my own sauce, but right now, it’s part-time.” This is James Jolokia, an IT engineer, who, despite residing in Thailand – somewhere between Bangkok and Ayutthaya – has his sights set on Vietnam. “That said, I’ve been shown enough interest in the last few days that I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it full-time.”
Taking time out from the high-flying world of… computers, Jolokia has undertaken a project to begin farming his own chilli peppers with a view to creating a mouth-melting spicy sauce that he hopes will ignite Saigon’s taste-buds. Hailing from a not-so-small corner of the world that brought us the highs of Dan Rather, Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin along with the unforgettable lows of Lyndon B. Johnson, Jolokia developed a taste for the hotter things in this world back in his native Texas. “It’s perfect in that area – hot, humid, fertile soil, very much like a lot of Thailand and southern Vietnam.”
This eye-watering undertaking of Jolokia’s is already in motion and the scope of it sounds promising for all those who get a kick out of sweating while eating. “I’ve got jalapeños, habaneros, peach ghosts, tombstone ghosts, Trinidad scorpions, Moruga scorpions, serrano peppers, Hungarian hots and Thai chilli peppers – both hot and sweet.” The mere mention of ghost peppers sends a tremulous shiver through my intestines – these are the evil fuckers that once, after losing a bet one dire Sunday morning, rendered me temporarily blind as I writhed about in a friend’s garden. My agonised pleas for milk were met with rapturous laughter and the entire day was spent worshipping at the porcelain altar. This was after one solitary pepper.
Lesson learned. Do not mess about with ghost peppers. “The scorpions are the hottest peppers in the world available… wait, sorry, I said something that wasn’t accurate, the Carolina Reapers are the hottest available, but scorpions are close.
“These ghosts are also two of the hotter strains. The sweet chilli peppers aren’t very hot, maybe a thousand SHU. Jalapeños are around 5000 SHU, the Hungarian around 15,000 SHU, the Thai around 100,000 SHU, habanero around 500,000 SHU and the rest 1,000,000+”
Allow me to pour another stiff drink and once more don the lab coat for a real brief science lesson on the critical importance and utmost value of understanding what the fuck SHU means. Anything over one million should scare you shitless and if you’re stupid enough to indulge in a whole scorpion pepper, you will likely wish to remain shitless for some time. SHU stands for Scoville Heat Units – in effect a measurement of how singed and desiccated the blackened remains of your tongue will be should you thoughtlessly ingest such a material. Some context might help get my point across better, the bird’s eye chilli peppers, so favoured by the Vietnamese come in at about 100,000 SHU, whereas the pepper spray utilised so competently by police tends to push the upper limits of 5,300,000 SHU and, as anyone who’s ever watched the news will tell you, the results don’t look fun.
This all stems from the active ingredient present in most chilli peppers, capsaicin. The more capsaicin, the higher the likelihood of clawing frantically for milk or being blinded at a peaceful protest, depending on the application. “I typically will use the pepper to heat something up, for me, hot sauce.” Jolokia explains. “I love making hot sauce. I’ll make it with a fruit I love, like Thai sweet chilli and then kick up the heat by throwing a super hot chilli in. I don’t just chop them up and throw them in my food regularly.”
So there’s the what, but what about the how? How does an IT Engineer in Thailand go about conjuring such fiery fiends? “Optimally, I start the seeds in a warm, well-lit room. I’ll place groups of seeds in a wet paper towel, and put those in plastic baggies to let them germinate. Then, when they start showing seedlings and small roots, I’ll plant them in tiny planters with good soil. I’ll leave those on lit racks for a few weeks.
“Racks that I’ve made that have UV lighting build in to each row. When they start getting their third set of leaves, I’ll put them in a bigger planter, and place them outside to harden them so they can get used to weather and more harsh lighting.” With this process explained to me, I wondered if this could be in any way safe, but primarily down to my own inexplicable tendency to wind up with chilli in my eyes. “Absolutely. Even down to insecticides. I prefer natural insect prevention, like Asian beetles and even growing lavender around where plants are.”
And voila – that’s how you plant pain kids, but Jolokia has no plans for pain – only pleasure. “I don’t have too many details yet. It’s an idea I’ve been throwing back and forth for a while, with one of my good friends, the owner of Saigon Hot Wings, and it started with us talking about making a mind-blowing hot sauce.” With the farming just starting out now, Jolokia’s not looking to add to the already skin-scorching heat of summer, at least not just yet.
Like many folks who’ve set foot in Vietnam, Jolokia was also taken aback by the distinct lack of spiciness in Vietnamese cuisine. “I was very surprised about the food in Vietnam. I expected a lot more spice, that’s one of the conversations that started the whole idea of growing in Asia.” So Saigon best stock up on milk or maybe just batten down the hatches when Jolokia’s peppers hit the streets because it’s sure as shit going to blow more than a few minds when these sauces come trickling in.