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.
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 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.
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 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!