Any New Yorker can tell you: Greenpoint/Williamsburg is where it’s at. Between cutting edge art galleries, bustling literary and music scenes, a colorful film culture and an explosive foodie community, North Brooklyn is the hottest spot in the city. So it’s no surprise that it should also be home to the hottest pepper in the world. Just ask Jay Sheldon.
Sheldon, an artist and sculptor living in Williamsburg, launched a new business venture in March of 2010 and introduced the neighborhood to Bhut-Jolokia, also known as Ghost Pepper. This pepper, grown in Bangladesh, India and parts of Sri Lanka, is widely considered to be the hottest pepper in the world. The Ghost Pepper has a distinctive shape and characteristically rough, thin skin and aside from its physical attributes, it serves an array of practical purposes: It is often used in balms designed to soothe muscle pain, in homeopathic remedies to ease indigestion and, in certain instances, in smoke bombs designed to dissuade elephants from trespassing onto personal property. And now, thanks to Sheldon, this hot little pepper has found its way onto our plates.
Sheldon is the founder and proprietor of Ghost Pepper, a company that manufactures and sells Bhut Jolokia in various forms as a cooking aid. Sheldon says the unique flavor and intense heat of Ghost Pepper proves to be an invaluable ingredient in everything from hard candy to hot salsa. But even for Sheldon, coming around to Ghost Pepper was no easy task. Initially, it was daunting.
“When I heard about Ghost Chili or Ghost Pepper I thought, I have to get my hands on this. At the time, not too many people had it but I found it in its dried form. I got it home and was mildly frightened, but I did it in stages,” Sheldon said. “Jalapenos are hot as well, but eating this little guy that’s ranked in the Guinness Book of World Records…it’s like a bee sting on the tip of my tongue.”
Sheldon first encountered Ghost Pepper in Kansas City, which is known for its barbeque. After tasting the pepper, something clicked. Sheldon knew this pepper was big news, and wanted to come up with a way to brand, market and sell it. But first, he had to take a test drive.
“I bought a BBQ meat smoker so I could smoke ribs and make my own spice rubs. Being creative and loving food, I love spicy pork and I thought to get ahold of this pepper again,” Sheldon said. “Then I thought: Maybe I could start a business selling this unique little guy. Within 48 hours I had the design and image.”
Ghost Pepper is sold in three forms: hand-crushed flakes ($15 for a one-ounce jar), whole dried peppers ($12 for three packets) and sweet-spicy watermelon hard candies ($10 for two packets).
Apart from its flavor, Sheldon was undeniably drawn to the lore and mystery of the explosive pepper, and likens his love for Ghost Pepper to his affinity for strange, rare and often overlooked things.
“As an artist I’m always looking for strange objects. I collect weird things, and this had abnormalities about it,” he explained. “The actual pepper is this shriveled up thing. If you follow what my art work looks like you’d be able to see why I am drawn to this pepper. The name is also mysterious—Ghost Pepper—what is it? The reason is because the heat sneaks up on you.”
But by no means should you be afraid of the Ghost Pepper. According to Sheldon, once it is used as an ingredient rather than a stand-alone spice, it blends beautifully with other flavors.
“I tell people to take one flake out, put it on your tongue and it’ll wake you up; it’s a great caffeine boost without the caffeine. Your body will release endorphins. It’s also good as a decongestant and it’s sold in sports creams. People rub it on horse’s legs when they get injured. But also, I have friends who put it on their pizza. I tell people to throw out their crushed red pepper flakes and try this instead.”
Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde
•1 1/2 lb tomatillos
•1/2 cup chopped white onion
•1/2 cup cilantro leaves
•1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
•1/2 tsp sugar
•1/2 Tbsp olive oil
•1/2 cup water to re-hydrate the pepper
•1/2 cup fresh water (to add to salsa mixture)
•1 dried ghost pepper (no stem)
•Salt to taste
1. Remove papery husks from tomatillos and rinse well. Cut the tomatillos in half and place cut side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place under a broiler for about 5-7 minutes to lightly blacken the skin.
2. Meanwhile, re-hydrate the ghost pepper by adding it to a sauce-pan with 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a boil and let the pepper simmer for 5 minutes after boiling.
3. Place tomatillos, lime-juice, olive-oil, onions, cilantro and re-hydrated chili pepper, sugar and 1/2 cup of fresh water (discard the water used for re-hydrating the pepper) in a food processor (or blender) and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and mixed. Season to taste with salt. Cool in refrigerator.
Makes 3 cups. Serve with chips!
•1 pound ground beef
•1/4 cup finely chopped onion
•1 tablespoon fresh parsley
•1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
•1/8 teaspoon ghost powder
•1 clove garlic
Mix all ingredients and shape into 4 burgers. Grill over medium heat 10 minutes or until cooked through, turning once.