In the plains and undulating hills of Northeast India, the bhut jolokia thrives. The ghost pepper, as it’s known in Western kitchens, steeps in the warmth and humidity of this monsoon-drenched land. Its gleaming skin of scarlet, vermillion or emerald beckons one closer. But beware—there is reason to fear this demonic fruit, once the Guinness titleholder of World’s Hottest Chili Pepper. A mere touch could cause skin burns. As for its effect on the mouth, it’s somewhere between blazing and combustible.
“I love that the heat profile has a bit of a ten-second delay,” explains Noah Chaimberg, owner of the Brooklyn-based hot-sauce haven Heatonist, and arguably the nation’s first (if not only) hot-sauce “sommelier.” “A Scotch bonnet or habanero hits you in the mouth as you taste it, but with the ghost pepper you get all the flavor components that are in the sauce first. Then the heat sets in.”
Chaimberg captures this unique quality in one of his best selling sauces: the Heatonist #1, a dusky concoction of ghost peppers with olive oil, lemon, ginger and the surprising element of Sichuan peppercorns. It’s floral in aroma with a menthol-like tingle on the tongue.
His store carries roughly 100 curated sauces, a far cry from the typical floor-to-ceiling purveyors hawking all iterations of liquid fire. Heatonist functions more like a tasting room, where customers can try before they buy, and discuss everything from provenance and composition to balance—the sort of qualities one might associate with wine tasting (hence the sommelier appellation). Naturally, pairing comes into play.
“If someone comes in and says they’re making hamburgers, I might recommend a hot sauce that has a more vinegar splashiness to it, so that the vinegar works to cut the fat and provide high contrast within each bite,” Chaimberg says.
But what about dishes not traditionally served with the condiment, such as sashimi? Chaimberg chuckles a little, admitting that he’s discovered a sauce with umeboshi plum and shiso leaf powder, which he personally relishes with raw fish. Leveraging the traditions of Japanese cuisine, he has even developed a bright, citrusy hot sauce featuring golden habaneros wedded with yuzu. “I can’t really go back to soy sauce and wasabi,” he says. “It’s like watching a film in color versus black-and-white.”
For Chaimberg, an outstanding hot sauce boils down to flavor and originality. Put aside price—more expensive isn’t always better, especially with novelty in play. Neither is it a heat-tolerance contest; losing all gustatory sensation is quite simply not that fun. “The quality of a great story and great ingredients being crafted into a tasty product,” he says, “to me, that’s what makes the best hot sauces.”