We recently bought some chillies in a Spanish supermarket with the most brilliant name; they were called puta la madre chillies.
Puta la madre can be a serious insult in Spain, but in this case I’m guessing they were so called because after you popped one in your mouth you automatically exclaimed ‘sonofabitch’, or something similar, before dunking your whole head in the water jug.
Actually, they were mildly hot rather than ‘sumbitch’ chillies which reveals cultural differences. Generally speaking the Spanish threshold level when it comes to picante food is quite a bit lower than that of Brits weaned on Madras and Vindaloo curries. Curries so hot, eating them doesn’t just satisfy a curry hit, it also acts as a session in a sauna as well as bordering on indulging sado-masochistic tendencies.
Can you call it a pleasurable dining experience when the food is so spicy that rivers of sweat from your forehead threaten to thin out the curry sauce on the plate in front of you and you have to hold on tightly to the table to avoid fainting?
In a word – yes.
Unfortunately the really hot offenders make me hiccup loudly like a loon, which is not a particularly sophisticated thing to do in busy restaurants.
We’ve enjoyed some sizzling hot feasts on our travels; these are a few favourites (if that’s the right word). If you get the chance, try them – if you think you’re tough enough to tackle them on a culinary battlefield.
Mad Mango Juice in Hyde, England
At a Hindu wedding in Greater Manchester I pooh poohed the safe sandwiches laid on for the non-Hindu guests and asked for the little plastic platter filled with Indian goodies that looked far more interesting. When the person next to me sprinkled spices into his mango juice, despite words of warning, I followed suit. It proved a massive mistake, I think I actually fell to my knees and cried at the pain caused by the explosion in my mouth.
Thai Curry, Phuket
The balance of flavours that good Thai cuisine brings is a bit like having a party in your mouth where only really cool and interesting people turn up. In a restaurant in Phuket the curry I ordered consisted of a bowl of sauce, pieces of chicken, a bowl of fragrant rice and a plate with little pyramids of spice. As I was about to stick the first spoonful into my mouth, a waitress appeared and asked where the spice pyramids on my plate had gone. The spoon was halfway into my gob, so I pointed to the curry sauce.
“You’re not supposed to put all the spices in,” The girl’s hand shot to her mouth. “You’re only meant to use some to suit your taste.” She added as the curry laughed manically from the confines of my mouth and did a Tasmanian Devil thing around my cheeks, tongue and lips.
At least the laughter from the kitchen drowned out the hiccuping.
Hellfire Sauce, Jamaica
Jamaican cuisine has plenty of potential for lip searing spiciness, especially anything that has had anything to do with Scotch bonnet chillies. I’ve had jerk pork from a roadside barbecue that had me whimpering but was so seductively tasty that it was impossible to resist. But the thing that packed the most potent punch was a few dollops of Hellfire sauce on red snapper at the Hungry Lion in Negril. Unfortunately I was a bit too cavalier with the sauce as I shook it over the rice, prompting the waiter to run towards me in what seemed to be slo-mo with arms outstretched as he shouted ‘nooooo…’
It was too late.
Pimientos de Padrón, Various parts of Spain
Spain does have at least one dish that can kick start a bout of hiccups, but it’s a very hit and miss affair, which is part of the fun about eating pimientos de Padrón.
Apart from the fact that these fried, green peppers sprinkled with rock salt have a high yum factor, they add an element of suspense and nervous tension into eating tapas with friends. Although they’re not generally spicy, every so often there’s a rogue pepper that will lay into your tongue with ferocity. Pimientos de Padrón are the Russian roulette of the food world. You don’t always get a hot one which, oddly, is very disappointing. Good waiters usually know if their peppers have a bad boy element (it all depends on where they’re grown).
Nam Prik, Krabi
Every time I read generalisations that tourist places don’t serve authentic food I think of nam prik at the Rayavadee in Krabi. The first time we had nam prik was at their romantic restaurant beside the beach. It came in a little bowl surrounded by a selection of crudités. Being nam prik virgins, we dived in innocently. YOWZA – it was, and still is, the hottest and most pungent thing that I’ve put in my mouth. It was weird as the strong flavours only came afterwards, first this nam prik went straight for the jugular. My hiccups must have echoed around Phranang beach, probably freaking out the neo-hippies ‘chilling out’ on the sand. They sort of de-romanticised the scene at the restaurant as well.
But here’s the thing; despite having an aroma that has hints of rotting fish about it (thanks to fermented shrimp paste) and despite it possessing the potency to explode your head, nam prik’s evocative flavours are addictively good – once tried, you crave more.
It’s because of culinary surprises like nam prik that I’ll happily continue to embrace hot and spicy food and run the risk of an embarrassingly public attack of the hiccups.