What is a Cobra Pepper?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cobra pepper is an Indian pepper cultivar which has the dubious distinction of being one of the hottest known peppers in the world. A single seed from a cobra pepper can cause extreme discomfort, and these peppers are primarily used for pest control, rather than actual food. They are also used in the manufacture of an incendiary self-defense spray which is utilized in some parts of India; cobra pepper spray can be intensely unpleasant, and it supposedly deters all but the most determined criminals.

Cobra peppers are used in self-defense pepper sprays manufactured in India.
Cobra peppers are used in self-defense pepper sprays manufactured in India.

This pepper goes by a number of alternate names. It is believed to be a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, and it is also sometimes known as the ghost pepper in English. In India, the cobra pepper is known as the naga jolokia or naga morich. As the “cobra” suggests, the pods of these peppers do look somewhat like snakes, turning a deep red when they are mature, with a coarse skin.

Cobra peppers are also known as ghost peppers.
Cobra peppers are also known as ghost peppers.

Cobra peppers require a hot climate to grow, with well-drained, loose soil and full sun to part shade. The heat of the peppers can vary, depending on how they are cultivated, but cobra peppers can exceed one million Scoville units. Just for comparison, the famously hot habenero pepper hovers around 200,000 Scoville units, while jalepeno peppers range from 3,000-8,000 Scoville units.

In India, the cobra pepper is known as the naga jolokia or naga morich.
In India, the cobra pepper is known as the naga jolokia or naga morich.

Technically, these peppers are perfectly edible, but they need to be handled carefully, because they are so hot. It is very advisable to wear gloves while handling cobra peppers, because if the oil from the peppers comes into contact with the skin, it can cause irritation. The oil can be extremely painful if it enters a wound or touches the mucus membranes which line the nose, mouth, and eyes, making handwashing essential after dealing with cobra peppers, even with gloves on.

Cobra pepper oil can be very painful if it enters the eyes.
Cobra pepper oil can be very painful if it enters the eyes.

Cobra peppers are generally used sparingly in cooking, whether fresh or dried. In the event that someone takes a bite which turns out to be too hot to handle, eating something acidic can help to cut the heat from the peppers to make the diner more comfortable. Lemon or lime juice is ideally suited to this; while it cannot totally resolve the pain, it can make it a little less severe.

In India, people smear cobra peppers along fence lines to keep out elephants and other undesired pests; the fact that the cobra pepper is hot enough to deter an elephant gives you an idea of how intense it is!

Wash your hands after touching cobra peppers.
Wash your hands after touching cobra peppers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

whitesand

@Sierra02 - My mother works in a hospital too and whenever she works late she always carries a can of pepper spray in her hand out to her car. She lives in Texas and here the spray is legal for self defense only.

As far as I know pepper spray is legal in every state except New York and Massachusetts but each state and city have their own restrictions on it's strength, size, and usage so it's best to check with your local law enforcement agency first.

Sierra02

I was wondering if it's illegal to carry a can of cobra pepper spray in the United States. I work at a community hospital that's located in a pretty bad neighborhood and sometimes I get off work very late at night. Even though the parking garage is well lit, it's still a little scary walking to my car all alone after dark.

turquoise

@turkay1-- Yea, you can survive after having cobra pepper. My family is actually from the place where these are cultivated. We call them Bih Jolokia and Naga Jolokia there. My mom pickles them really well. I actually know how to but have been scared of handling them, fearing that it might get in my eye or something. My cousin said that even after washing it several times, it keeps burning and you can't touch your face or it burns your face too.

I do have powdered naga jolokia though. I use it very minimally and measure at the end of my smallest measuring spoon. It's great for salsas, chutneys and chili, gives food a nice kick.

candyquilt

I've actually run into several videos of people who tried to eat this pepper as part of a challenge. Not a very smart thing to do!

Some of them said that it felt so hot in their mouth that after some time, they couldn't taste much anymore. But apparently, the burning sensation kept returning every couple of minutes or so. Another person said that it felt like ants were crawling on his body and he couldn't feel parts of his body sometimes.

It's sound scary! But I'm also surprised that these people have been able to eat it without having permanent health issues. I didn't think that anyone would survive after having a cobra pepper.

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