In an earlier post, Zizira brought out a story on planet Earth’s fiercest chili: Northeast India’s Assam Bhut Jolokia Chili, with over a million Scoville Heat Units that far exceeds Mexico’s Red Savina’s record of half a million Scovilles.
Bhut Jolokia is also known as Ghost Chili, Naga Mircha, Naga Morich or Raja Mircha
We learned that this fiery chili grows well in Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district. So, what better than for the Zizira explorers meeting the growers face-to-face, right on their fields, and getting you a live report.
Our Destination – Umtangi – to Meet a Bhut Jolokia Farmer
It was a bright day in mid-February when we set out. The newly-commissioned four-lane highway made our 35-kilometer drive from Shillong northwards to Umsning, in Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district, smooth, and quick.
A little ahead of Umsning Police Outpost is a metaled, narrow, and badly maintained road that branches to the right, eastwards towards Sohliya village. This road would take us to Umtangngi, our destination, which is 16 kilometers northeast of Umsning.
Eight kilometers on, at Jokiang, we turned right to a ‘motorable,’ dirt road that leads to Syngku, two kilometers away, then another six kilometers to Umtangngi. Beyond Syngku the road worsened, laid with sharp and broken stones, apparently being readied for metal topping.
This ‘motorable’ road abruptly ends at Umtangngi’s edge. A dirt pathway, motorable only by four-wheel drive, then starts. We trudged through this on foot, to the village headman’s house, two kilometers away.
It was past mid-day when we arrived and the headman wasn’t home. His little daughter, however, guided us to the fields where he was working, in the valley below. Though surprised at our unannounced arrival, Bah Storen Dohtdong and his wife Kong Matilda Sawkmie welcomed us warmly.
When we stated the reason of our visit, which was to learn more about “Beb”, the Khasi name for Bhut Jolokia, Bah Storen politely informed us that the season for the crop was over. We agreed, but would still like to learn about how they cultivate this unique spice, we said. Here’s what we learnt.
Bhut Jolokia Cultivation in Umtangi – a Farmer’s Account
February is the time to prepare the beds for planting Bhut Jolokia. Planting will start by the last week of March, and finish by the second week of April.
Bhut Jolokia, or Naga Chilli, as it is called, needs well-drained soil and is best planted on raised beds. ‘So, we plant them there’ says Bah Storen, pointing to the gentle slopes adjoining the low-lying paddy fields, now sprouting with potato and lettuce heads.
We noticed they were in the process of making a ‘bun’ (pronounced as ‘boon’ with a short ‘oo’ sound). Dead plant matter piled together into mounds, covered with earth and then set alight. The fire is left smouldering for about two weeks till the plant matter burns to ashes, leaving a residue of fertile, loamy topsoil for the plants. Manure or compost would then be mixed thoroughly before the seeds are introduced.
Buns are normally about twenty-feet long, three feet wide and a foot high. Bhut Jolokia seeds are planted directly in the bun, lengthwise in mid-section, at about eighteen inches intervals. Usually, fifteen to twenty plants occupy one bun.
Bah Storen tells us that, rather than transplanting, they find direct seeding works better for Bhut Jolokia. Three or more seeds are placed together at 1-2 cm depth, and covered lightly with fine soil. Seedlings start sprouting in about three weeks’ time.
Alongside Bhut Jolokia, on either flank, ginger rhizomes are inter-cropped. Bah Storen explains the rationale:
Intercropping benefits both plants, helps control pests and fertilises the soil. The three to four feet high Bhut Jolokia plant does not hinder sunlight from reaching the shorter-canopied ginger. This practice also saves labour and energy, and brings extra cash.
The Inputs Needed
Seeds come from the previous harvest. Manure comes from the farm itself. These farmers use only organic fertilizers, like green manure (growing plants ploughed into the soil as fertiliser), animal manure, and some organic bone-meal (crushed and powdered animal bone) as mineral supplement. As for animal manure Bhut Jolokia is more receptive to cow-dung, we learned.
Favourable climatic conditions
Ri-Bhoi is rich in moisture and sunlight. Temperatures averaging 30°C in summer actually helps keep the chili’s hotness, explains Bah Storen. The first three months’ harvests – August to October – yield the hottest chilies. Pungency then reduces as temperatures dip and the length of daylight and its intensity decreases.
Farm Implements and Machinery Used
Traditional implements are best as they are ‘gentle’ on the earth, Bah Storen feels. Still, the only mechanised equipment they use is the powered hand roto-tiller, hired to save labour. Hiring cost, however, is high, at Rupees 300 per hour which translates at Rupees 9000 for Bah Storen’s fields that significantly eats into his profits.
The Never Ending Story…
Every one of the sixty or so homesteads in Umtangngi is engaged in the growing Bhut Jolokia. There are other growers in adjoining villages too. When we visited, we did not see any plants, as the ground was being prepared, But, come April, perhaps team Zizira may make another visit. Young Bhut Jolokia saplings would then greet us and we can bring the next episode of this real-life account from the Bhut Jolokia fields of the Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya.
As always, Zizira is at the frontlines, exploring ways to come to the aid of farmers, to provide them with a visible and credible platform for their produce. Want to know more about Bhut Jolokia, and what we are about? Contact us. It would be delightful to hear from you.