Growing up, I remember being amazed that my dad could eat jalapenos without looking like he was going to die. Watching in awe, I hoped that one day I could do the same. At the tender age of nine or so I had discovered my life’s mission. Doctor, lawyer, teacher? Sure, respectable goals. But they all paled in comparison to being able to eat something spicier than my dad could handle. Let’s just say I was a competitive child.
I started with pickled jalapenos, working my way up to fresh jalapenos and then the deliciously smoky chipotle. As my love of food in general grew, I discovered Thai chiles, serranos, chile pequin, scotch bonnets and habaneros. Yes, they are all hot. Sometimes insanely so, but I found myself addicted to the heady feeling I got while working my way through a dish that had been prepared with plenty of glorious capsicums.
The first time I tried som tum (green papaya salad) was at a Thai festival in Dallas. My friend ordered it “Thai hot” and I dug into the stuff with a pair of chopsticks thinking nothing of it. My mouth immediately started to burn like mad. I had nothing to drink and since all of the lines were ridiculously long I knew there was no reprieve in sight. I tried shoveling rice into my mouth, but it made no difference. So what did I do? I kept eating the som tum. It was hot as hell outside, I was beginning to sweat a bit and I felt fantastically bizarre.
Ahh, the good ole spice high! If you’ve never felt it I’ll try to describe it for you. First your mouth burns to the point where you think that perhaps, just maybe, you should give up. But you don’t. Next, you feel pressure building in your ears. Still, you don’t stop. People may try talking to you, however you can’t really focus on what’s happening outside of your body. The world shrinks into this tiny space within you until all of the uncomfortable feelings give way to an incredibly heady feeling. You feel amazing. You feel like you can do anything.
Yes, spicy food is like a drug to me. I crave that feeling over and over, seeking it out on a regular basis.
Last night I took my mom to Papaya, a Thai restaurant in Robinson Township, PA. I ordered my usual, the tom yum soup and som tum. When the waitress asked me how hot I wanted my food – level one through ten – I said “ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty” and hoped for the best. When the soup came to the table it didn’t look like they had spiced it up much. I dipped the spoon into the broth, lifted it to my mouth and tasted it. For a moment I wondered if I was crazy. Was it really as hot as it seemed at first bite? After a few more bites I was in mild shock. This was one of the hottest things I’d ever been given at a restaurant. No way were they using the same chiles they had the last few times I’d eaten there. I stirred the soup with my spoon, looking at everything in my bowl. And then I noticed thin red strips of something. Could it be?
On my last visit to Papaya the bartender was talking about bhut jolokia … the infamous ghost chile, which I am very familiar with. Named the hottest chile on the planet in 2007 by the Guinness Book of World Records, it has since been surpassed by the Chocolate 7 Pot and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. The ghost chile is still the most readily available to the general public, but when you get to this level you’re not that far from pepper spray.
I’ll quit swooning over chocolate pot, scorpions and pepper spray and get back to the bartender. He said that people like me come in sometimes, begging for insanely spicy food and whining a little when it isn’t quite the way we want it. He had recently ordered some dried ghost chiles to offer as a condiment – on the side – so said people would finally shut up. Next time they’d be prepared for me.
And they were. Only I wasn’t. The ghost chiles weren’t on the side like he had previously mentioned. They were shredded thinly and added to my bowl of soup and sprinkled throughout my green papaya salad. Sneaky, spicy, tasty little buggers. I was definitely burning, most certainly feeling the spice high and loving every moment. The most amazing part of the experience was my mom’s interest in tasting a tiny bit of the broth from my ghost chile tom yum!
Yes, I’m an idiot. Because what goes in must be processed by my stomach, make its way through my intestines and well, eventually out. When I was younger I could get away with spicy food not killing me every single time. Now that I’m 34, diagnosed with GERD and no longer dying to prove that “anything you can eat, I can eat hotter”, I go into my spicy food sessions with (a wee bit) more trepidation. It’s kind of like playing Russian Roulette with three bullets in the chamber instead of one.
So when I woke up this morning, picked up my toothbrush and opened my mouth I was horrified. Actually, terrified. The inside of my mouth and my tongue were completely coated in a greenish-black substance. Now, I’m not a religious person, but I prayed to the Holy Habanero right then and there. Please, please, please don’t let me die. I must be dying, right? Is this blood? My stomach is certainly bleeding. It’s coming up into my mouth, right? Oh, I’m dumb. I’m dumb. I’m dumb. I lost my stupid game of Spicy Russian Roulette. Only this time the result was much, much worse than a little bit of gastrointestinal discomfort.
I shakily brushed my teeth and tongue and rinsed my mouth with Listerine. Twice. I then walked downstairs, picked up the laptop and googled “black tongue”. The first few things I read about didn’t sound like what I was going through. In a complete panic at this point, I wondered if I should call my doctor’s office or just go straight to the hospital. I’m going to die!!!
Thankfully my eyes fell onto two words. Pepto Bismol. Hmm, I thought. I ate one of those nasty, chalky tablets last night. Should probably check that out. And with one simple click all of my fears were washed away. Because apparently Pepto tablets can cause this to happen. Whew! I’m going to live!
But I probably didn’t learn my lesson. Still want to try the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion.