The Fire Inside

By Diana Spechler

What are the limits of spicy food consumption? Diana Spechler goes in search of the hottest, most intestine-burning food in all of New York, and (barely) lives to tell the tale.

The dreaded bhut jalokia, otherwise known as the ghost chili.

The dreaded bhut jalokia, otherwise known as the ghost chili.

Like most sources of pain, my penchant for spicy food dates back to childhood. At Mexican restaurants, my father would heroically drag his chips through the hottest salsa while I, his reverent daughter, tried to keep up. I wanted to be brave like my dad, the man who escorted me into haunted houses, sat me beside him in the front car of every roller coaster, and took me scuba diving in impossibly strong currents in perpetual search of sharks. By the end of my childhood, thanks to my fearless father, very little could scare me, and no food was hot enough for my tongue.

Just as heroin users need higher and higher doses over time, so do spice addicts require an ever-increasing progression of heat. My pizza is always hidden under a layer of crushed red pepper, and I’ve become immune to meals that drench normal Americans in sweat. So lately, I’ve been craving a good old-fashioned spicy-food high. I want the rush of endorphins, the tingle on my skin, the agonizing fire I used to feel in my mouth before I built a tolerance.

In search of the ultimate fix, I plan a mission: to find the dishes that only the most diehard pepper hounds would touch. No matter how daunting, I will eat the spiciest food that New York City has to offer.

My first stop is Brick Lane Curry House, home of the P’hall of Fame Challenge. Phaal, for the uninitiated, is the world’s hottest curry, and admission to the P’hall of Fame requires finishing an entire order.

The author, with the chef at Brick Lane Curry House — who wears a gas mask to shield himself from the heat of the spices.

The author, with the chef at Brick Lane Curry House — who wears a gas mask to shield himself from the heat of the spices.

When I arrive with three friends, Ganesh, our waiter, gives me pointers on completing the challenge: Eat the curry as quickly as possible; go easy on the rice; and avoid water, since drinking increases the effects of spicy food by spreading capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers, through the mouth.

At our table for four, only my friend Adam and I brave the phaal. I order mine with tofu, and Adam orders his with chicken. Lyndsey orders saag paneer, and Marc orders chicken vindaloo. Vindaloo is another spicy curry, but comparing it to phaal is like comparing Extra-Strength Tylenol to cocaine.

When the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” featured the Brick Lane P’hall of Fame Challenge, every diner in the restaurant gathered to watch, chanting, “Man versus curry! Man versus curry!” Adam and I enjoy no such fanfare. Our cheering team consists of Marc and Lyndsey, whose conversation sounds something like this:

Marc: I think Diana’s going to finish.

Lyndsey: I think Adam will.

(A few minutes pass.)

Marc: Looks like they both might.

Lyndsey (yawning): Great.

Marc: I would never do that. Unless I had a gun to my head.

Lyndsey: I’m so bored. When can we talk about something besides curry?

Personally, I wish they would stop talking about anything. Their voices only aggravate my agony. The heat in my mouth feels like lava, and I go a bit deaf as my ears fill up with a high-pitched ring. Halfway through my meal, I call upon my yoga practice to help get me to the finish line.

“It’s mind over matter,” I tell Adam, swallowing a fiery chunk of tofu. “And breathing. It’s all about breathing.”

“I’m channeling my masculinity,” he replies, glancing at my food, which is disappearing more quickly than his. I watch a drop of sweat slide down his temple.

The author with her Brick Lane victory certificate, proclaiming her a “Phaal Curry Monster.”

The author with her Brick Lane victory certificate, proclaiming her a “Phaal Curry Monster.”

When I finally finish my phaal, I feel as though I’m encased in a cocoon. I observe the other diners and the exposed brick walls from a delirious distance.

“I think I’m high,” I say, as Ganesh rewards Adam and me with free beers and certificates of induction into the P’hall of Fame.

Despite achieving a higher state of consciousness at Brick Lane Curry House, by the next day, I’ve already convinced myself that the phaal was a cakewalk. I’m ready for a greater challenge. An Internet search convinces me that for the hottest food in all five boroughs, I’ll have to go to Sripraphi in Queens, where ordering my entrée “extra spicy” won’t suffice. The servers at Sripraphi are sick of puffed-up Americans claiming high heat tolerance and then sending their food back, declaring it inedible. In response, they’ve instituted a “no exchange” policy on their hottest dishes.

Diners on Chowhound.com’s outer borough message board suggest ordering an entree “pet mah,” which is Thai for “very spicy,” or “phet phet,” which means roughly the same thing. But other diners argue that those code words are yesterday’s news. “If you like your food HOT,” one commenter writes, “and I mean REALLY, REALLY HOT, ask for it ‘bomb.’”

On Friday night, Sripraphi hosts a mix of Thai and American diners. My spice-averse dining companion, Elana, orders chicken saté with peanut sauce. I order drunken noodles, then lock eyes with the waitress, raise my eyebrows meaningfully, and add, “Bomb.”

“What?”

“I want it bomb.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Bomb!” I say. “Pet mah? Phet phet?”

The waitress looks me up and down, her eyes narrowed. “You’re not allowed to send it back.”

“I won’t.”

She shrugs and collects our menus.

“Hot as you can make it.” I grin bravely. “I can handle it!”

She raises an eyebrow, as if I’ve just announced that I’m ready for big-girl underpants.

Sripraphi’s drunken noodles — “bomb” style.

Sripraphi’s drunken noodles — “bomb” style.

Maybe she doesn’t take me seriously, or maybe Thai food isn’t as hot as Indian food, or maybe the blend of ten spices that Brick Lane uses is unsurpassable. But compared to the phaal, my noodles are about as spicy as aspic.

Elana swipes a piece of cauliflower from my plate and takes a cautious bite. “You don’t think that’s hot?”

“It’s hot,” I say. “But it’s not…hot.” I’m starting to feel like a male movie star or a governor, dissatisfied with even the most beautiful strippers.

I know what I need. I hoped my quest wouldn’t come to this, but I’m resigned: To achieve the spice high I really crave, I will have to eat a ghost chili, straight up.

Grown in India, the bhut jalokia, or “ghost” chili — so called because whoever eats one will want to die to escape the pain — is the world’s hottest pepper. Even the tiniest sliver can render a hot sauce nearly unfit for human consumption. Ghost chilies are so potent (four hundred times spicier than Tabasco sauce) that the Indian military uses them in biological weapons. YouTube offers a smattering of bhut jalokia home videos: A man takes one bite and compares his agony to that of a woman in labor. Another man rocks back and forth on the floor, curls up on his couch in a fetal position, then, hours later, moans that he needs to go to the emergency room.

I ask Adam, my phaal partner, to join me in a bhut jalokia tasting. He asks me if I’m insane, but when I show up at his apartment with a bag of dried ghost chilies from Kalustyan’s, he nibbles one with me. Our mouths are instantly searing.

Ten minutes later, however, the burn has decreased, and I’m feeling let down.

“Adam,” I say, “I’m going to eat a whole one.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“That one little bite was child’s play!”

“You could get ulcers.”

I pluck a pepper from the bag and bite the whole thing off its stem.

“Ulcers!” Adam repeats. But then he eats one, too.

The heat makes me lightheaded. “Holy God,” I say.

Adam nods. “That’s hot. Wow.”

The pain intensifies second by second,

becoming so fierce that I’m soon writhing in my chair. I try to stay calm, but instead of breathing slowly, I find myself sucking air through my mouth to cool my tongue. This strategy, though, only worsens the burn, as does sticking my tongue out and fanning it with my hand. Whimpering doesn’t help, either. After fifteen minutes, Adam and I give up. We sit in our chairs, stunned.

Finally, Adam cracks us each a cold beer. I press my tongue to the bottle. Of course, beer also worsens the burn. I consider jumping to my feet and running through the apartment like a person on fire, screaming, “Help me!” But nothing can help me now. Eating a ghost pepper is not a mistake that can be undone. The only solution is general anesthesia.

I’m about to tell Adam to push me out the window when he asks if I feel sick.

“No. Why?”

By way of response, he runs for the bathroom.

I wait in my chair, finishing off my beer,

wondering if I should be jealous that he’s vomiting. Would throwing up bring some relief, or merely provide a fresh wave of fire?

Adam returns. I pause in fanning my tongue to study him. He looks shaky.

“I’m sorry,” I say. Then I resume my tongue fanning.

Within thirty minutes, the burn starts to cool. This is a pleasant surprise, because in the YouTube videos, the chili-eating men (and they are always men) suffer for hours. I chalk up our good fortune to having eaten the slightly tamer dried version.

“I feel awesome,” I say, blissed out on a full-throttle body buzz. I’m sitting in lotus, as if preparing to levitate. Life is groovy. But Adam’s cheeks are still drained of color, and sweat pastes his hair to his temples. I try to make a sympathetic face, but Adam’s one of those jock types who’s built of solid muscle. He’s a guy who’s not above flexing, or above mocking me for being a vegetarian. So I secretly find his suffering funny.

A few hours later, walking home, I’ve all but forgotten the ghost chili. After getting sick, Adam made a full recovery and went out for wings to reclaim his masculinity. I thought we were in the clear. But true to its name, the ghost returns to haunt me. More accurately, it punches me in the gut while I’m heading south on Central Park West. I sit heavily on the curb and rest my forehead on my knees. I feel sweat dampen my upper lip.

I call my mother from my cell phone. “I ate the world’s hottest pepper with my friend Adam, and I’m dying.”

“Why would you do that?” she asks, alarmed. “Lie down! Drink water!”

I imagine trying to combat the ghost with water. The ghost laughs, winds up, and socks me in the digestive tract. I moan and hail a cab.

At home, I chew Pepto-Bismol tablets, lie in bed, and squirm for an hour and a half until the pain finally begins to subside. I promise the ghost that I will never again eat spicy food. I’m reminded of mornings when I have promised some other invisible force that I will never again drink vodka if he’ll please, please let me live through my hangover.

Later that night, talking to Adam, I’m ashamed to admit that ultimately, the ghost reserved its worst torture for me.

“That sucked,” Adam says. “I have no desire to ever eat one of those things again.”

“But that buzz! I had such a fabulous buzz.”

Adam pauses. Then he asks, “Why am I craving phaal?”

I think about the phaal we ate and my mouth waters. “I am, too,” I say. “This is sick.”

We decide to return to Brick Lane Curry House soon. My spicy-food-abstinence oath is as hollow as my recurring alcohol-abstinence oath. And New York City, peddling the world’s hottest pepper, requiring spicy-food code words, and encouraging its residents to fry their tongues, is the ultimate enabler.

Diana Spechler’s debut novel, “Who By Fire,” is available now through Harper Perennial. For more information, go to dianaspechler.com

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