Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Chile Lab

In New Mexico, of course!:
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Jit Baral, a researcher at New Mexico State University, stepped into the lab and pulled a plastic gas mask over his face. He and two students strapped on heavy rubber gloves and lab smocks. They activated an exhaust fan to cycle air quickly from the room.

Then Baral gingerly lifted the object that triggered all the precautions — a small, wrinkled red chile. This was no ordinary pepper. Baral was about to prove that the bhut jolokia, originally from northeastern India, is the hottest chile in the world.

He plopped it into an electric grinder, and caustic fumes filled the room. Next, Baral ran the powder through a machine to measure its spiciness, which registered as 100 times that of a typical jalapeno. The research landed the pepper in the Guinness World Records and was another coup for a school with an unusual academic flavor.

...The school houses a Chile Pepper Institute to educate the public about the plant. Agriculture professor Paul Bosland founded the Institute in 1992 after he and other professors were deluged with e-mails from people worldwide with hot pepper inquiries. The most common question: How does one get rid of the sting on the skin after chopping chiles? The answer: Douse your hands in milk.

...Bosland won Harvard's "Ig Noble Prize" for dubious achievement in science after developing a heatless habanero, which is used to thicken salsa. "I got e-mails accusing me of selling my soul to the devil after that one," Bosland recalled.

...Early last century, a Mexican-born NMSU agriculture professor, Fabian Garcia, virtually created the state's chile industry by breeding a milder pepper that would appeal to Anglo palates. One strain was taken by a farmer to Southern California, where, to the chagrin of New Mexicans, it became known as the Anaheim chile. The other strains were planted in the lush fields that follow the Rio Grande as it winds past Las Cruces.

...But since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the state's chile crop has plunged almost 50% as cheaper foreign imports from Mexico, Peru and China pushed local growers out of the market. Chile farmers are selling to developers who replace fields with subdivisions.

"This is an industry we can't afford to lose," said Gene Baca, president of the New Mexico Chile Assn., a trade group. "Losing the chile industry in New Mexico is the equivalent to Napa Valley losing grape growing and wine production."

...Capsaicinoid, the chemical in chile peppers that generate spiciness, is also the active ingredient in pepper spray.

The Indian military drew NMSU's attention to the bhut jolokia. Without explaining why it had been investigating the fruit, the Indian military announced that it believed the pepper was the world's hottest. A friend of a Chile Pepper Institute member traveled to India and bought the seeds at a local market. Bosland and researcher Baral grew the peppers and tested them late last year.

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