The chefs taking spiciness to new extremes
If you’ve eaten at Cinnamon Bazaar, Vivek Singh’s restaurant in Covent Garden, you’ll know that some curries are so hot that guests are required to sign a disclaimer before ordering it. “I sign willingly and not under the influence of alcohol that I am choosing to eat the Bollywood Burner,” says the note. “I have been informed that it is an attempt at the world’s hottest curry, so I will most definitely find it very, very spicy.”
I did. Painfully so. Sweat, tears and gasps are all par for the course for the naive consumer of the Bollywood Burner. But there is little room for pride in the world of competitive chilli eating – all you can do is wipe your brow and hope for a sympathetic server.
Singh created the original curry around 15 years ago, when it was wheeled out on the TV show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Made with blended Dorset Nagas – then the world’s second hottest chilli – it combined lamb mince with sesame, tamarind and scotch bonnets. Requests came in from all over the world, a phenomenon that Singh has never quite understood. “We started feeling sorry for those who wanted to try it,” he says. But now the Bollywood Burner is back and more masochistic than ever. In place of the Dorset Naga is the Carolina Reaper, a hybrid of the ghost pepper and habanero, and about half a million Scoville heat units (the measurement for a chilli’s potency) hotter than its predecessor.
It’s a level of heat that makes you wonder: at what point is something just too spicy? For Singh, who sources the spices used by his restaurant group directly from India, the Bollywood Burner lies beyond his own limits – a dish more indicative of a “laddish fascination with heat” than Indian cuisine. Instead he prefers to target the back of the palate, using spices that leave a light and lingering warmth. Take garam masala – ‘hot spices’ – a blend of cumin, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, and traditionally made without chilli. (Other dishes at Cinnamon Bazaar aim for a varied range of spicing levels; consider the Bollywood Burner a reckless, exciting risk.)
Balancing flavour is a careful art for spice-loving chefs. Artfully executed, the effects are exhilarating, and make a departure from a Michelin guide that’s long been criticised for being “too French”. At west African restaurant Akoko in London, most dishes are flavoured with kaani, a sauce made with equal parts scotch bonnet, onion and sweet bell pepper; it “gives you warmth without the pain,” says founder Aji Akokomi. Likewise, in Malaysia, One&Only Desaru Coast uses a sambal made from fresh red chillies and palm sugar to add underlying spice to classic dishes such as nasi lemak. And for Heena Patel of San Francisco-based Besharam, balance is often found in her use of silk chilli, a mild pepper that scores around 5,000-10,000 on the Scoville scale.
At a spicier end of the spectrum are dishes by Luke Farrell, a chef-turned-chilli grower who spent 15 years in kitchens across Thailand and south-east Asia. Plaza Khao Gaeng, his new restaurant in London’s Arcade Food Hall, uses 15 different chillies, many of them grown in his Dorset greenhouse. The hottest Farrell uses is the Phatthalung chilli, which he combines with dee plee, a long pepper, to create a lengthy, hard-hitting heat in a ferocious kua kling moo (spicy ground pork stir-fry).
The way to use hot chillies, says Farrell, is to bruise them, add the flesh to a soup or curry and remove the residue after the “liquor” has dissolved. “You can actually get the flavour without blowing your head off,” he adds. Every dish at Plaza Khao Gaeng captures the unique flavour profile of each chilli; as long as you’re keen on spice, the menu offers a deliciously intoxicating turn around some of Thailand’s lesser-known ingredients. (Another way to capture flavour is to dry roast peppers; Wes Avila does this to potent árbol chilies at new Yucatán-inspired restaurant Ka’teen in Los Angeles.)
Leigh Cowart, author of Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, says that chillies have the power to bestow both pain and pleasure. Aside from the natural endorphins that are released when we eat spicy food, “overcoming an aversive stimulus can be very fun,” they say. “It can make you feel like you have survived something.” Add that feeling to a meal shared between friends, and the experience immediately becomes something communal – a sadistic bonding experience, if you will.
So thrilling is the lure of the chilli that even innocent bystanders can feel the kick. Just look at the success of the YouTube series Hot Ones, where celebrities are interviewed while eating an industrial-strength platter of hot wings. Recent episodes have seen Khloé Kardashian brought to tears; actor Daniel Kaluuya, meanwhile, was mostly able to keep his cool. “[I] don’t fold – sometimes to my stupidity,” he said.
As for how much spice is advisable, the limit varies from person to person. “Pain is always subjective,” affirms Cowart. “Whether or not someone likes hot peppers has to do with their physiology, their personal history and their desire for connection and new experiences.” Consider the Bollywood Burner, then, as a matter of personal taste. For some it invites a heady experience; for others it’s just pure, intolerable heat. I’m undecided on which camp I fall in. But I do know it’ll be a while before I order it again.