Glut­tons for Pun­ish­ment

An ob­ses­sion with super-hot chill­ies has be­come a pe­cu­liar quirk of the male psy­che. And it’s heat­ing up, as grow­ers around the world com­pete to cre­ate the most vi­o­lently po­tent fruit. But how much heat can your body han­dle? And is there any ben­e­fit to fe


t be­gins with a warm, or­chard-scented taste. De­cep­tively del­i­cate, al­most per­fumy: is that apri­cot? Jas­mine? Or some­thing you’d find at an air­port Jo Malone stand? As I chew the Trinidad Moruga scor­pion – once de­clared the world’s hottest chilli by New Mex­ico State Univer­sity’s Chile Pep­per In­sti­tute – the flavour de­vel­ops. The warmth spreads to the sides of my mouth and be­gins to sink into my tongue. My saliva glands spasm. A lit­tle tear of sweat trick­les down my fore­head. And in an or­gas­mic rush, my mouth, my head and the whole world are full of lava.

“He’s mouth-suck­ing now!” says my host, “Chilli” Dave Smith, a former army para­medic and founder mem­ber of the Clifton Chilli Club in Bris­tol – the largest group of its kind in the UK. “Mouth­suck­ing” refers to when peo­ple breathe air over their tongue in an at­tempt to re­lieve the burn. You see it a lot at the chilli-eat­ing com­pe­ti­tions that Smith or­gan­ises at fes­ti­vals up and down the coun­try. But the re­lief is tem­po­rary. The burn re­turns.

“Just wait un­til it hits you at the back of your throat,” warns Jay “the Chilli Al­chemist” We­b­ley, a ban­danna-wear­ing former wine mer­chant, who has gal­lantly kept me com­pany on my cap­saicin trip. I don’t have to wait long: the fire promptly tun­nels deep into my ton­sils, ex­plor­ing minute chasms of pain. I cough. Smith of­fers to fetch me a bis­cuit. “Does that help?” I ask. “Not re­ally,” he says. But I have to ad­mit I’m sort of en­joy­ing this. I feel alert. Aware. Alive.

I have come to Smith’s house in subur­ban Bris­tol to talk chill­ies: their cul­ti­va­tion, their taste, their cul­tish fol­low­ing. “The word ‘cul­tish’ has a dark un­der­tone,” says We­b­ley de­fen­sively. “But, yes, it does bring peo­ple out of the wood­work.” These are the sort of peo­ple who like to dab­ble with sauces named Psy­cho Juice, Pain Is Good, Mega Death and Pure Poi­son – all avail­able at Dr Burnörium’s Hot Sauce Em­po­rium, which has been op­er­at­ing since 2008. If the names sound a bit the­atri­cal, that’s prob­a­bly be­cause chilli-eat­ing, at its most ex­treme, is all about per­for­mance. The largest crowd the Clifton Chilli Club has seen at one of its events con­sisted of 20,000 spec­ta­tors. “The event or­gan­iser told us more peo­ple watched the chilli-eat­ing than Ra­zorlight, the band that came on after us,” says Smith.

Most of the club’s com­pe­ti­tions are now over­sub­scribed. In­ter­ested par­ties must reg­is­ter in ad­vance, and the lucky few con­tes­tants – some might say “vic­tims” – are se­lected at ran­dom. Smith at­tributes this rise in in­ter­est to the pop­u­lar­ity of the club’s Youtube chan­nel, which has been viewed more than 78 mil­lion times. Its 191,000-plus sub­scribers tune in reg­u­larly both for re­views of the lat­est sauces and to savour the pained ex­pres­sions on com­peti­tors’ faces. Watch­ing it is one thing: a harm­less kind of Schaden­freude. But what mo­ti­vates some­one to put them­selves through it is a harder ques­tion. Chill­ies orig­i­nate in Mex­ico and were brought back to the Old World by Christo­pher Colum­bus. He called them “pep­pers” be­cause their pun­gency re­minded him of pep­per­corns, though the two species are un­re­lated. The spici­ness comes from com­pounds known as cap­sai­ci­noids, which are thought to have evolved as an anti-fun­gal agent.

Ripe chill­ies are bright red and are at­trac­tive to birds. What the plant “wants” is for a bird to eat the fruit, fly

I“Ex­treme chill­ieat­ing is pure per­for­mance”

away, then ex­crete the seeds. Birds are im­mune to cap­sai­ci­noids. Hu­mans and other mam­mals em­phat­i­cally are not. My Trinidad Moruga scor­pion comes in at 1.2 mil­lion Scov­ille heat units (SHU), a scale that mea­sures how much sug­ared wa­ter you have to di­lute the chilli with be­fore the burn be­comes un­de­tectable. Or­di­nary chill­ies range from 2,500SHU for a jalapeno to 100,000SHU for a Scotch bon­net – those lantern-like fruits you of­ten see in Caribbean green­gro­cers. In Ja­maican cook­ing, they’re of­ten used like bay leaves, left in the pot to im­part their aro­mat­ics and re­moved prior to serv­ing, never in­tended to be eaten.

Cap­sai­ci­noids in­ter­act with your pain-sens­ing neu­rons, which trips the body’s de­fence mech­a­nisms – in­creas­ing your blood flow, rais­ing your meta­bolic rate, mak­ing you sweat and, in ex­treme cir­cum­stances such as those at the con­test Smith and We­b­ley re­cently or­gan­ised in Read­ing, pro­duc­ing a phe­nom­e­non known as “the shakes”. You also have pain- and heat-sens­ing neu­rons in your di­ges­tive sys­tem. Not for noth­ing is Smith’s ring­tone Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.

But while chill­ies trick the body into think­ing they’re poi­son, they’re not ac­tu­ally toxic (un­less you have an al­lergy). It’s es­ti­mated that it would take more than 1kg of ex­tremely hot chilli pow­der, eaten in a sin­gle sit­ting, to kill the av­er­age per­son. Suc­ces­sive stud­ies have shown that, in smaller doses, chill­ies are pretty good for you. For ex­am­ple, a Chi­nese re­port that in­ves­ti­gated the di­etary habits of half a mil­lion peo­ple showed a high cor­re­la­tion be­tween the con­sump­tion of spicy food and longevity. By di­lat­ing your blood ves­sels, chill­ies are thought to re­duce your risk of hy­per­ten­sion, and the mech­a­nism be­hind that tin­gling feel­ing also in­creases your calo­rie burn – your me­tab­o­lism works over­time to bring your tem­per­a­ture back down. And what feels like pain can be in­ter­preted as a plea­sur­able rush. “Mind over mat­ter” is a com­mon re­frain among com­pet­i­tive chilli eaters.

But what do I know? So far, I’ve only tried the fifth-hottest chilli known to man. I use the gen­dered term de­lib­er­ately: the con­sump­tion of ex­tremely hot chill­ies is pre­dom­i­nantly a male pur­suit, as is their cul­ti­va­tion. It’s un­clear why this is the case. Per­haps we’re suf­fer­ing from a form of food bore­dom, hav­ing be­come im­mune to the now near-in­fi­nite op­tions at our fin­ger­tips. After all, once ev­ery­thing has been eaten and up­loaded to In­sta­gram, where next to go? So­cial me­dia has turned our eat­ing habits into a form of ex­hi­bi­tion­ism. In this con­text, chilli-eat­ing can be viewed as the Ironman triathlon of the gas­tro­nomic world. It’s the ul­ti­mate form of culi­nary one-up­man­ship, de­liv­er­ing a hit of en­dor­phins and easy brag­ging rights while re­quir­ing none of the skill or train­ing.

There are a few cheats. It’s worth know­ing that the cap­saicin is pri­mar­ily found in the stalk and the mem­brane run­ning down the mid­dle of the chilli – not, as is com­monly sup­posed, in the seeds. The tip is the least spicy part, so you might want to bite that bit off and say: “Ha! That’s noth­ing!” and then hand the more po­tent half to a friend. Milk and yo­gurt are com­monly used chilli an­ti­dotes – cap­saicin dis­solves in oil, so the fat­tier,

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