Return of the ghost peppers

Oct 12, 2016 at 10:23 am
Return of the ghost peppers

Ghost peppers are a thing now, it seems, as I see more and more products hitting the market trumpeting that they contain ghost peppers, which are among the hottest peppers on the planet.

Native to India, the pepper’s actual name is bhut jolokai, and at about one million Scoville units — the system of measurement for spicy foods — it is roughly 400 times hotter than Tabasco, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. That makes it about 10 times hotter than a habanero, which is, scientifically speaking, really freaking hot. (Just look up ghost pepper or “Ghost pepper challenge” on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Once it rose to fame as the hottest pepper on the planet (a distinction it has since yielded), the ghost pepper took on a life of its own, sparking many of the aforementioned videos, hot sauces, specialty food items for people who love endorphin rushes, and even T-shirts mocking the popular film “Ghostbusters,” with such slogans as, “I ain’t afraid of no Ghost.”

Taco Bell briefly offered burritos called Fiery Ghost Pepper Grillers (in some markets), and Salsarita’s had the truly hot (and delicious) BurHEATo, made with ghost chilis. A year or two ago, Popeye’s Fried Chicken offered ghost-pepper wings on its menu. I dug into them for Taste Bud writing purposes at the time, and discovered that the magic blend of spices included only trace amounts of ghost pepper. The unique flavor of the pepper was perceptible at times, but the heat was medium at best.

Of course, this makes total sense from the perspective of any restaurant that would serve a dish laced with ghost peppers. What if Popeye’s had battered its wings in full-on ghost chili powder? The entire chain would be bankrupt now because of all the idiots assuming they could handle the heat and then ending up in the hospital, excitedly dialing their lawyers from their beds.

Well, now White Castle is in on the act, with its Ghost Pepper Sliders. Since White Castle is such a time-honored tradition for Louisville, I couldn’t resist giving these things a try to see if they measure up, and to see if White Castle was making good on the name or just trying to capitalize on people’s willingness to take a chance.

The Ghost Pepper Slider is exactly what it claims to be on one level: It’s a classic White Castle hamburger, scattered with onions and bulging with that weird, onion-y flavor that White Castle burgers have, on a steamed-soft bun and with square meat that has holes in it. But the Ghost version is also topped with a gooey, white cheese peppered with red and orange flecks; it looks much like its jalapeño-cheeseburger counterpart that has long been a White Castle staple (and, for the record, my favorite thing on the menu).

I decided to eat four of the Ghost Pepper Sliders one night after having spent the evening at the Germantown Oktoberfest, in part because we all know the best time to eat sliders is after (or while) drinking beer. I don’t eat much fast food these days, so I figured I could treat myself in the name of research, ordering four of the sliders.

Well, the heat in one of these sliders is almost immediate — there’s a burn that hits the back of the throat halfway through the first bite and doesn’t subside. To that end, the Ghost Pepper Sliders do seem to be hotter than their jalapeño counterparts. What I had difficulty differentiating was the source pepper’s distinctive flavor. So, I decided to go to the nutritional content, which was easily located online. The cheese contains most of what you expect it does (milk, cream, sorbic acid), and the flavor comes apparently from two sources: “spice” and “dried peppers.” Hmm. Not much help.

But when I ripped off a sliver of the cheese and ate it separately, then I got the sense of some Ghost. It wasn’t prevalent, but it was there — it apparently just has a tough time cutting through all the steamed onions, which is perfectly understandable. The more I noshed, the more the flavor managed to seep through. Still, it’s anyone’s guess just how much actual ghost pepper is in the cheese, since heat can come from many other sources.

Still, if you’re into the endorphin buzz (and you’ve had enough beer), you could do much worse than a Ghost Pepper Slider. Well, at least until the next morning rolls around. A slider is a slider, after all.