If you’ve eaten at Cinnamon Bazaar, Vivek Singh’s restaurant in Covent Garden, you’ll know that some curries are so hot that customers have to sign a disclaimer before ordering it. “I sign voluntarily and not under the influence of alcohol I choose to eat Bollywood Burner,” the note reads. “I have been advised that this is an attempt at the hottest curry in the world, so I will most definitely find it very, very spicy.”
I did it. Painfully so. Sweat, tears and gasps are in store for the naive Bollywood Burner consumer. But there’s little room for pride in the world of competitive chilli drinking – all you can do is wipe your brow and hope for a friendly waiter.
Singh created the original curry about 15 years ago when it was featured on the TV show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Made with a blend of Dorset Nagas – then the second hottest chilli in the world – it paired minced lamb with caps of sesame, tamarind and Scotch. Requests came in from all over the world, a phenomenon Singh never quite understood. “We started to feel 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 the habanero, and about half a million Scoville heat units (the measure of a pepper’s potency) hotter than its predecessor.
It’s a level of heat that makes you wonder: when is something too spicy? For Singh, who sources the spices used by his restaurant group directly from India, the Bollywood Burner goes beyond its own limits – a dish more indicative of a “childhood fascination with heat” than Indian cuisine. Instead, he prefers to target the aftertaste, using spices that leave a light, lingering heat. Take garam masala – “hot spice” – a blend of cumin, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, and traditionally made without chillies. (Other Cinnamon Bazaar dishes aim for a diverse range of spice levels; consider the Bollywood Burner a reckless and exciting risk.)
Balancing flavors is a delicate art for spice-loving chefs. Skilfully executed, the effects are jubilant and deviate from a Michelin guide long criticized for being “too French”. At the West African restaurant Akoko in London, most dishes are flavored with kaani, a sauce made up of equal parts scotch bonnet, onion and sweet pepper; it “gives you warmth without pain,” says founder Aji Akokomi. Similarly, 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 San Francisco-based Heena Patel of Besharam, the balance is often found in her use of silk pepper, a mild pepper that scores around 5,000 to 10,000 on the Scoville scale.
At a spicier end of the spectrum are the dishes of Luke Farrell, a chef turned chili farmer who has spent 15 years in kitchens across Thailand and Southeast Asia. Plaza Khao Gaeng, his new restaurant at London’s Arcade Food Hall, uses 15 different chillies, many of which are grown in his greenhouse in Dorset. Farrell uses the most pungent Phatthalung pepper, which he combines with dee plee, a long pepper, to create a long, punchy heat in a fierce kua kling moo (spicy ground pork stir-fry).
The way to use hot peppers, 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 flavor without blowing your mind,” he adds. Each dish at Plaza Khao Gaeng captures the unique flavor profile of each pepper; as long as you love spice, the menu offers a deliciously intoxicating twist around some of Thailand’s lesser-known ingredients. (Another way to capture flavor is to dry roast peppers; Wes Avila does it with potent árbol chiles at new Yucatán-inspired restaurant Ka’teen in Los Angeles.)
Leigh Cowart, author of It Hurts So Much: The Science and Culture of Intentional Pain, says that chili peppers have the power to provide both pain and pleasure. Besides the natural endorphins that are released when we eat spicy foods, “overcoming an aversive stimulus can be a lot of fun,” they say. “It can make you feel like you’ve survived something.” Add that feeling to a meal shared with friends, and the experience immediately becomes something communal – a sadistic bonding experience, if you will.
The allure of the chilli is so thrilling that even innocent onlookers can feel the kick. Just watch the hit YouTube series Hot Ones, where celebrities are interviewed while eating a platter of industrial-grade hot wings. Recent episodes have seen Khloé Kardashian cry; actor Daniel Kaluuya, meanwhile, was mostly able to keep his cool. “[I] don’t pander — sometimes to my stupidity,” he said.
As for the recommended amount of spices, the limit varies from person to person. “Pain is always subjective,” says Cowart. “Whether someone likes hot peppers or not has to do with their physiology, their personal history, and their desire for connection and new experiences.” Consider the Bollywood Burner, then, a matter of personal taste. For some, this invites an intoxicating experience; for others, it’s just pure, intolerable heat. I do not know in which camp I fall. But I know it will be a while before I order it again.