Sooner or later, any traveler in Asia will encounter food doctored with a level of spice completely beyond anything they have ever experienced. Whether it's the first time encountering the numbing heat of Sichuan cuisine, going overboard on some sinus-searing wasabi or biting down on a bird's eye chili in Thailand after mistaking it for a little carrot, everyone has one Asia story about the time they literally could not handle the spice.
Mine came in Singapore. I was sat with my friend Rich having a few beers in Little India. As the name implies it is mainly home to the shops, stalls, markets and restaurants of the subcontinent and is one of Singapore's busiest and most colorful neighbourhoods. After several cold ones, the conversation turned to food and, given the locale, a curry seemed appropriate. Rich perked up -- almost gleefully -- as he recounted eating what he had no compunctions about describing as the "hottest food in the world."
This Mecca of spiciness apparently served curries on their own Scoville level of one to 10, one being the mildest, 10 being the spiciest. Apparently first-time diners were only allowed to start at level six, and there was a waiver to sign before you went any higher absolving the restaurant from blame if anything "happened" to you. His words intrigued me.
I love a curry as much as the next Englishman and I reckon I can take a bit of heat. Growing up in one of the most ethnically Pakistani neighborhoods in the entire U.K. and spending eight years in Asia meant my taste buds were veterans of many a spicy battleground. That my courage was also pretty "Dutched" was probably the deciding factor on what would prove to be a culinary descent into Dante-esque level of suffering.
"What level did you do?" I asked.
"I managed a six," said Rich, "but that nearly killed me. I made a start on a seven in the same sitting though." In hindsight, that he was able to not only finish but then start another, hotter, curry has left me with an enduringly horrified respect for the man's intestinal capabilities.
"I don't reckon you'll be able to finish a whole curry there," he continued.
This slur on my curry-eating capacities could not go unchallenged. "I'll smash it," I threw back. "I'll probably have a 10. Where's this place? Let's go."
We got to the restaurant. Along one wall, 10 wires ran horizontally from one end to the other. At the end of each wire was a painted number, with 10 at the top descending to one. Affixed to the wires were clothes pegs. The 10 wire had no pegs, nine had a solitary one, eight a few more and so on. The rules were simple: finish your numbered curry including meat and all the sauce and you earned the right to scribble your name on a clothes peg and affix it to its respective wire. You could have beer or water, but drinking cooling milk-based drinks like lassi forfeited the challenge.
I ordered a lamb rogan josh at the beginner level of six, some naan bread and a beer. It arrived at the table and I took my first bite. Rich's eyes never left my face.
"Yeah, it's alright." I said to him. "A bit spicy, nothing I can't hand-"
The heat hit me.
By the end of that meal tears were streaming continuously down my red, swollen face. The table was covered with beer bottles as I poured glass after glass in increasingly incoherent and drunken attempts to ease the raging pain that permeated every crevice of my mouth. I was sucking on pieces of naan bread in between mouthfuls of curry in a futile attempt to find something, anything cooling. Eating the meat itself hadn't been that hard: A couple of quick chews and swallow. It was the brown slop that was gradually reducing me to a slobbering, sweating wreck. I was essentially spooning thick globules of liquid chili into my maw as the tears continued to fall.
At one point Rich took pity on me and helped me out, taking a solitary mouthful himself. I was ready to throw in the towel at that point, but a combination of drunken, stupid pride and his not-so-subtle manipulation of my machismo -- "Come on, you've only got a couple of mouthfuls left. Don't you want your name on a clothes peg?" -- forced me on to the bitter end.
I sat, finished, a broken man. I was drunk and on the verge of vomiting. I had -- quite literally for part of the way -- crawled up the stairs to the toilet and had to talk myself down in the bathroom mirror from reacquainting myself with dinner in the most unpleasant way possible. As I waited for the check, the owner came over to our table. A cheerful, maternal type, she advised me to "go to the 7-11 and pick up a few yoghurts to eat and settle my stomach." My teeth clenched against my roiling insides, I made no reply. However, I do wish I had said to her that if a meal ends with you advising your customers to line their stomach to avoid lasting damage, you might want to rethink your dining experience.
The next day was horrific. Come morning my bedroom was a fug of noxious emissions and by the time I got into the office I smelled like a Delhi toilet. A day of meetings would be periodically interrupted by my body suddenly contorting into a twisted Z-shape and my knuckles clenching white on the edge of the tabletop. Excusing myself, I would walk swiftly -- and with as much stiff-backed, clenched-buttock, small-stepping dignity as possible -- to the toilet. I would return, damp of hair and pale of face, apologizing and muttering about "something going around."
In all, it was one of the most unpleasant food experiences of my life -- and I've eaten caterpillars, boiled warthog and durian. Beyond searing heat, I can honestly say I have no idea what the curry tasted of. People tell me that the food is actually really good and a friend had his birthday there. I can't go back. It's a sort of gastronomic Vietnam War for me and if you weren't there you don't know man; you don't know what it was like.
And yet... I still receive mass emails from the restaurant. They invite to come back for a chili challenge night, encouraging me to try and dethrone the solitary conqueror of the nine. And you know what, some days I even reckon I could do it.