From the Naga Hills to East Pakistan to London

- The journey of the little Red king

It rather sounds like the title for a doctoral thesis, doesn’t it? Well, I hope it inspires research work as this is an intriguing, fascinating tale I have been told, even though what I have heard is fragmentary and can lead to a bonanza of stories.  

The title then: the little Red king is undisguisedly our majestic raja chilli, and it is probably no longer news that our raja chilli has been doing the rounds of select London restaurants for some years. Not too long ago, a London restaurant introduced raja chilli in a dramatized rendition by prominently parking an ambulance on their grounds. The ambulance was kept ready for one purpose: if any customers who were willing to take up the dare to try the world’s hottest chilli should be adversely affected by the initiation, they would be driven to hospital to get medical help! There was no follow up to this juicy bit of news so we don’t know what happened afterwards. It, however, made some headlines in the inside pages of London tabloids. 

Interestingly, we Nagas are not the only ones conducting raja chilli-type eating competitions. It is one of the exotic items that a London eatery promotes. At one such event, one of the contestants was a young woman of Nepali origin, born and brought up in Kohima.She described the contest as divided into three rounds with the first round being a serving of chillies not nearly as hot as the raja. Round one eliminated the majority of the contestants. In Round two, they were served raja chilli which eliminated all but three people, one of them being our heroine. In Round three, they were served a chilli that was ‘even hotter than raja.’ I can’t stretch my imagination that far. The only one left standing was our young Kohima woman. Hurrah! She was crowned champion of the chilli eating contest while the other two staggered away, defeated. 

‘Didn’t you experience any pain?’ I had to ask her. Her answer was a candid no. ‘I was enjoying it,’ she said. No guesses who is going to retain the championship!

Wikipedia will tell you that our beloved raja chilli is known as Naga Morich, and that it is grown in Northeast India and Bangladesh. The London restaurants that serve raja chilli are run by Bangladeshis. My first thought was,how did the Bangladeshi get hold of our raja chilli? Well my informants tell me that the shortened name used by the Bangladeshis for the chilli is‘Naga.’ By their own accounts, they say that the chilli was brought to their country by soldiers of the Underground Naga army.At that time, our men referred to the future Bangladesh as East Pakistan or simply Pakistan. Bangladesh was born in 1971. 

Many years before that birth, the soldiers of the Naga Underground had succeeded in making connections with the Pakistani military, and Naga groups often travelled on foot to East Pakistan where they could get arms. On these journeys, they carried with them dried raja chilli for the purpose of livening their bland diets. Their East Pakistani hosts took a liking to its burning heat and its unique flavour. Somehow, seeds from dried raja chillis were planted in the erstwhile East Pakistan. To cut a long story short, our raja thrived in its new home and became part of Pakistani cuisine. They would pickle it or rub it on their food preparations.  Next, immigrants from East Pakistan to London became very successful in setting up eateries simply known as Pakistani restaurants. Nowadays, many call themselves Bangladeshi restaurants and the little red king rules in these premises. 

Now what would be a marvellous conclusion to this story is if some young scholars would take it upon themselves to interview our elders and affirm this account. I will consider my job done having opened up the subject. Let us have the pleasure of your follow up reports on this marathon journey of the little red king!Fortunately, we still have with us sufficient numbers of the groups that we refer to as ‘those who went to Pakistan,’ members of the Naga Underground who travelled on foot to East Pakistan in the sixties to procure arms and receive training. Researchers, do explore this area of our oral history as it can reveal many, very interesting peoplestories in its unfolding. It certainly carries a people’s history of political journeying. The raja chilli can be hot in more ways than a culinary one!

(Oral sources: Methsoi Lam Basi, Sede Webb, Lanu Jamir, UK)