The Strange Appeal of Super Spicy Food
I have a friend I’ll call Derek, because that’s his name. He likes his food spicy–very spicy.
Occasionally, Derek and I go out for a curry, an activity I always find amusing but puzzling.
Derek routinely orders the hottest curry on the menu, and then asks the waiter to tell the kitchen to goose up the heat. Along with a fiery vindaloo or a particularly lively madras curry, Derek likes a side of peppery lime-pickle chutney that he slathers liberally on each forkful.
That’s when the fun starts. As I sit placidly enjoying my sweet, creamy, and cashew-flavoured korma dish (yum, yum) I watch as Derek digs into his meal. After the first mouthful, the muscles of Derek’s face begin to twitch, and there’s a sort of guttural speak along with a sharp intake of breath. Within a few seconds Derek’s face is contorted into an expression I can only diagnose as pain.
I ask Derek why he would unleash a lava flow of spices on his mouth. He simply says it’s delicious. It doesn’t look delicious.
I have my own theory gleaned from years of browsing psychology articles in Reader’s Digest: Derek is overcompensating for unacknowledged doubts about his own masculinity by subjecting himself to suffering to prove he can take it like a man.
The Scoville Scale
In 1912, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed a handy chart to let people other than Derek avoid risky chilies.
The humble and mouth-friendly bell pepper scores a zero on the Scoville scale.
At the other end of the chart is a creation called Blair’s 16 Million Reserve that boasts, you guessed it, 16 million Scoville Units (SUs).
It’s made by one Blair Lazar in New Jersey. A reviewer gave a description of this concoction: “Take infernal, multiply it by nuclear, then take a blowtorch to it - and you can begin to imagine Blair’s 16 Million Reserve ... the hottest pepper product ever produced.”
Blair’s 16 Million Reserve is not a naturally occurring pepper but a crystallized concentration of the active ingredient that causes the heat. It’s really the sort of stuff that should only be used for taking the barnacles off the hull of a supertanker.
To put the Blair Lazar concoction in perspective, the jalapeno only kicks in 5,000 Scoville Units.
The Vital Ingredient
What gives peppers their heat?
The active compound that sets the mouth ablaze is called capsaicin. It’s chemical name, although you probably don’t want to know this, is “(E)-N-[(4-Hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)methyl]-8-methylnon-6-enamide.” There, I said you didn’t want to know that.
Aside from causing eyes to water and faces to turn red, capsaicin does do some useful work; it triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s defence against pain. Doctors use it to treat the skin disease psoriasis and to dull the pain of arthritis. Studies have also shown that it kills prostate cancer cells.
On the other hand, capsaicin has also been found in the venom of certain species of tarantula spiders.
The Fire Eaters
As far as I know, my pal Derek doesn't pop raw peppers of the rocket fuel variety. Some people do and post the results on social media (see below). It isn't pretty.
The world’s hottest naturally occurring pepper is the Carolina Reaper, which checks in at 2.2 million SUs. It exists because of the work Ed Currie of the Pucker Butt Pepper Company. On his website, he says he developed this beast as “Founder, President, Mad-Scientist & Chef Smokin’ Ed Currie in his Rock Hill, South Carolina greenhouse.”
In a YouTube video three men take the Carolina Reaper challenge. As one of them says, “you chuck it in, you chew it a bit, and then you throw up.” They do just that. No price is too high to pay for fun like this.
(If you really, really have to watch this video there’s a link in “Sources” at the end of this article. No, don’t scroll down yet you’ll miss some good stuff. Best not to watch it before, after, or during a meal).
In another video Jamie Kocher, CEO of the Waimea Bay Chili Pepper Company goes mano-y-chili with the bhut naga jolokia pepper, also known as the naga ghost chili. The chili wins.
There is a man in Washington State called Ted Barrus who calls himself the fire-breathing idiot. For reasons that appear to be mysterious he and others post YouTube videos of themselves in combat with hot chilies. The chilies are usually victorious.
However, Barrus says after the initial burn wears off he experiences a high and sense of euphoria. That’s the endorphins going to work; you can get the same sort of rush from exercise. Just saying.
If the chef is wearing a breathing mask as he prepares your order you may want to try something a little less adventurous. But, I'm sure Derek is up for this; I'll pony up for the hazmat suit.
Between eight and ten different kinds of chilli go into phall curry, depending on whose recipe is used. One of the ingredients, our old friend bhut naga jolokia, is used in the making of tear gas.
Journalist Chris Bucktin tried out the dish at the Brick Lane Curry House in London, England. Some earlier diners vomited; others hallucinated, and a couple got an ambulance ride to hospital.
Bucktin says eating the phall curry was “Like chewing on a live grenade, knowing any second it was about to detonate.
“And when it did, my head felt like it was being blown off, my body went into survival mode and sweat poured down my face.” Bucktin managed only four mouthfuls, which the restaurant owner declared a “very respectable” effort.
Some of the hottest peppers have names that ought to serve as a warning to the unwary: Trinidad Scorpion “ButchT” (1,463,700 SUs), Komodo Dragon (1,400,000 SUs), Naga Viper (1,382,118 SUs).
Medical Daily suggests some ways of cooling down the raging inferno in your mouth after eating one of the brutes mentioned above:
- Drink a glass of milk;
- A teaspoon of sugar;
- Eat a bar of milk chocolate;
- Chew a slice of bread.
Water doesn’t work because the active ingredient, capsaicin, is oil based and water simply spreads the pain. Alcohol can bring relief but it might be a case of the cure being as bad as the ailment. The folks at Mythbusters tested hot pepper neutralizers and reported, “Truth is, you might have to drink 10 ounces of 70-proof tequila to dissolve one ounce of concentrated capsaicin compound,”
- “The World’s Hottest Pepper: Brings Pleasure and Pain Relief.” Kim Carollo, ABC’s Good Morning America, February 20, 2012.
- “World’s Hottest Curry: Our Phaal Guy Tries Dish that’s so Spicy Chefs Wear Masks while Cooking.” Christopher Bucktin, Daily Mirror, June 8, 2013.
- Blair’s Sauces and Snacks.
- “Three Men vs. the Carolina Reaper.”
- Scoville Scale.