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,