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In hot pursuit of India's 'ghost pepper'

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The heat of the ghost pepper isn't imaginary.

Every now and again, heat-seeking chili-heads discover a new pepper that is heralded as the "hottest."

Heat is measured in Scoville units. The most recent contender for hottest pepper was the red savina at 600,000 SUs.

For comparison, a jalapeno tops out at 8,000 SUs.

The ghost pepper, also known as the California death pepper and less sensationally as the naga or bhut jolokia, redlines at a tongue-blistering 1.5 million SUs.

Chef Ranjana Bhargava, who teaches traditional Indian cooking classes in the Chicago area, told me the ghost pepper is most common in the cuisine of Bengal, where it's been used in local dishes for years but is only now gaining international notoriety.

Though no heat freak, I wanted to experience the hottest pepper, just because it's there.

At Kama Indian Bistro, 8 W. Burlington in La Grange, I took the plunge and sampled ghost pepper sauce over lamb.

The first tentative taste was similar to the experience of stubbing a toe: It takes a few nanoseconds for the sensation to register.

One forkful of ghost pepper sauce, and my tongue felt as though it was being gently rubbed with fine-grain sandpaper: slight irritation but no pain. Seconds later, I felt a quick burn on the palate and a not-unpleasant wave of warmth that caused my cheeks to flush and perspiration to flow for about 90 minutes.

Alas, the lamb didn't have much chance of being heard; when ghost pepper is in the choir, it's singing louder than anything else.

Years ago, I had a spicy Thai lunch with Harold McGee, the food scientist and author of the landmark On Food and Cooking.

"Why," I asked as sweat droplets hung from eyelids, "do we like to eat such hot stuff- "

According to McGee, it's all about the joy of "constrained risk," the feeling of being in danger while remaining fully aware there's no actual threat. Like riding a roller coaster, the heart rate is higher but risk is very low.

There are, however, more than imaginary risks with ghost peppers. When handling them, Bhargava suggests oiling the hands to protect the skin. I cut them up using knife and fork, avoiding skin contact completely.

Used in moderation (a dime-sized slice for three scrambled eggs), the peppers deliver a satisfying though not tongue-numbing burn with slight sweetness and lingering notes of fruit.

Ghost peppers are powerful. National Geographic reports they're used in India to repel elephant attacks.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and a founder/moderator of culinary chat site Questions, comments, tips- E-mail