20 November 2009

Burn Baby Burn

I'm not sure why I'm addicted to chilli but I am. Since my first introduction to Indian food I've been fascinated with the spicy side of cuisine. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not the sort of person who constantly selects the hottest thing on the menu, and then gripes about how "mild" it is (no matter what damage it might actually be doing to my taste buds), oh no. If something is hot, I'll be the first to let you know about it. Meals that are considered "hot" are generally a little too hot for me. And yet I seem to have a consummate obsession with fresh raw chilli.

There is no such thing as too hot when it comes to fresh chilli in my opinion. Like I said cooked food and I'm a Madras man all the way, but when it comes to fresh raw chilli… I'm a mad man.

Here's an example of my dementia and why I seriously think I've got a problem (one for which there is no rehab program). A bunch of guys from work were down the pub (as usual), talking crap (as usual) when the subject of the conversation got around to chilli sauce (as it sometimes does).

The thing about these conversations is they are never going to be about flavour, oh no. Sure flavour gets a mention every now and again, but it is strength, potency, pure macho chilli power that is at the core of the topic.

Now if you are anything like me (which I sincerely hope you are not), you'll know that even really spicy chilli sauce doesn't stand up very well when compared to the insanity and pure potency of raw fresh chilli. You see any manufactured sauce has to meet certain standards of safety and comply with health regulations etc. Fresh grown chilli has no such regulation. There really is nothing like it. The burn can be instant and numbing, the effect on your physical system shocking to observe. The sudden onset of hiccups, the involuntary reddening of the face and copious facial sweating, panting… hell vocal exclamations, moaning, hell even genuine tears of pain if it's a good one.

Let's get something clear here, I'm not talking about the kind of chilli you get drizzled over your Kebab on a Saturday night, I'm not talking about the chilli they chop into cute little rings and scatter over your Pad Thai, hell I'm not even talking about the nuclear chilli they grind down in sealed underground bunkers for use creating the legendary Indian Phal… No, I'm talking about the really hot shit here, chilli that makes a Phal taste like a lemon cheesecake, chilli so hot that to handle it with your bare hands is a hazard… (no really I'm not kidding). And the amazing thing is that you can buy chilli this hot over the counter in a 1000 different London establishments, no warning, no guidelines, sometimes not even a name… nothing. Pay ya money, take your chilli and burn your face off.

I've wandered again (sorry I do that). Anyway, we were in the pub and we're talking chilli. When I remember there is a local shop not one hundred yards from the pub which is always open and which sells some of the most dangerous fresh chilli in existence… not the strongest in the world for sure, but pretty damned close… the third strongest to be precise. The Red Savina Habanera.

Now to put this in context there is a handy scale that has been created to measure spiciness. It's called the Scoville Scale and the Red Savina is right up near the top. The humble Jalapeno pepper which you are no doubt familiar with, rates at between 3000pts and 8000pts on this scale. The Red Savina on the other hand, rates at between 350,000pts to 550,000pts (gulp).

I stick in an order for a pint and then explain that I'll be back shortly and run to the shop. I purchase about a quarter of a kilo of the deadly vegetable and hasten back to the pub. Sure enough even the sight of one of the most deadly spice bombs (and have no doubt in the wrong circumstances that's exactly what they can be) is enough to get a few of the guys backing away in their seats.

So I offer them around…"who wants a bite?" I ask… "no thanks", "not for me, thanks", "thanks but no thanks" come the responses. And to be honest I respect their caution. I know what these little bastards are like, I've had them before. Finally we get a taker and it is just they guy I knew would not be able to resist. He's got rep when it comes to hot food, I once saw him eat three different Phals from three different Indian take always all in one sitting … just to work out which was the hottest! Like I said, he has reputation… but so (I like to think) do I.

Now it's suddenly a competition. We both know it and I'm pretty convinced we both know I've already lost, but we have to play the game anyway. I decide to go first, I'm sure the damned thing is going to burn my head right off and hopefully that demonstration will be enough to evaporate his self control and restraint… I'll melt and then hopefully he will too (so goes my thinking) then we can share the camaraderie of "the insane hot chilli guys" and bathe in the respect and admiration of our shall we say "chicken shit" buddies. ;)

I take a bite.

It's hard to describe the initial pain of stupidly hot chilli burn, it comes on pretty fast with these particular peppers. It comes on fast and hard and builds and builds until you think it can't possibly get any hotter at which point it really kicks in and just does. Then come the secondary effects, the sweats, the numbness of the lips and the cheeks, the uncontrollable hiccups (something I managed to bypass this time thank god). But the fire is unbelievable, it is self torture, it is nothing but a macho demonstration of pain control. And a demonstration I am failing. No sane person would do this.

I've made my move, tears of pain are running down my face, I'm red and sweating. Some of the guys are taking photos, one is even recording the sound of my pained cries. But all are laughing and enjoying the show. I've demonstrated just how painfully hot these little bastards are, and now it's my opponents turn.

He takes… he bites… he chews, he looks me square in the eyes just as the heat is building and we exchange a knowing moment of secret communication, an unspoken compacted conversation that does indeed confirm I've lost this little battle of wills… his eyes tell me… "oh my god yes this chilli is extremely hot" …BUT he can control his reactions… he is about to show those assembled, that he can retain his composure, he will not display the same reactions that I have already demonstrated… quite simply he is cooler than I am (Yes Jaid, you are the chilli master). He can do it, but we both know that he'll be able to do this only for a short while, which fortunately is all he needs to win in the eyes of our peers. Once he has shown his composure, he will stop, he knows that continuing to eat these fiery biscuits will make it harder and harder to control the natural reactions. That's another effect most people don’t appreciate, the initial burn is only the beginning, if you continue to eat a hot chilli it doesn't get easier as you become accustomed to the heat… it actually gets harder… the pain will continue to build and build the more you consume.

He bows out, and bows out the winner. Which does however give me an opportunity to preserve my own reputation… at least with him.

All I have to do… is eat more… more of the hellishly red lava rocks, more of the poison filled spider bladders, more of Satan's burning syphilitic pustules… more I say!

It is at this point that I realise for the first time that yes maybe I do have a problem… maybe I should bow out myself…maybe I should just face the facts that it's an addiction and one that can actually cause me some serious physical harm if I don't slow down and take stock…

But where's the fun in that.

… fuck it.



ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh !!!