Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spice of Life

"Anything worth doing is worth overdoing."
-- Mick Jagger

It all started back in 1979, when I visited an Indian restaurant for the first time.  It was a bone chilling late February afternoon in Chicago, and a group of us had gone to see our friend Sheila perform in a chamber music concert.  Afterward, we decided to walk to Bengal Lancer, a cozy Indian restaurant on Clark Street.  As soon as I entered the place, I was in nirvana.  There were two fireplaces, weathered wood floors, windows that looked down on a snow-covered Clark Street, and the most heavenly aromas I had ever experienced.  I started with a Pimm's Cup and ordered bhuna gosht for my entrée.  The food took quite a while to prepare, but when it arrived, I could not believe the intensity of the flavors and my resultant euphoria.  Truly, I thought, this was my endorphins kicking into overdrive.

Several years later, I would head with a group of work friends to North Peking Restaurant on Roswell Road in Atlanta every Monday at noon, where one of our crowd had discovered an incredibly spicy version of General Tsu's chicken.  What started as a small group of three eventually morphed into a crowd of at least ten who would head to North Peking every Monday for "Tsu's".  We did this for about three years running. When we became accustomed to the Tsu's, we started ordering "House Chicken", which was even hotter. That era accelerated my hot food craving and took it to another level.

Last year, the girls took me for my birthday dinner to a Thai restaurant in the Atlanta suburbs, where I ordered this chicken dish with the "Thai Hot" seasoning option.  This is something I ordinarily do, but this time, what came out was stupendously hot, yet flavorful.  The chef and owner, a fashionable lady named Tham, came out to our table and asked how we were enjoying our meal.  When I complimented her on the delicious dish I was having, she told me that she couldn't eat her own Thai Hot food because it was too spicy.  Then, her staff brought me a beautiful birthday dessert, and that just topped the whole thing off.  I can't wait to go back to that place, actually.

Back in the summer of 2002, we took the girls to Gulf Shores for a family vacation, and on our last evening there, my younger daughter Hannah and I decided to have a so-called "Hot Food Eating Contest".  We each ate about a half basket of hush puppies which we dipped in Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce. I thought the entire idea was admirable, and I totally enjoyed my dinner, that is, until we headed back to our condo, when I noticed that the underside of my left forearm was breaking out in a rash.  After a three-hour wait at the local hospital emergency room, I was sent home and told to take Benadryl.  Would I do the hush puppy/pepper thing again?  You betcha.

In 2007, a group of my Indian friends invited me to another Hot Food Eating Contest, this one at lunchtime, where I was to compete with my new friend Andrew to see who could eat the hottest food.  I did not know until we arrived at the restaurant that Andrew was from Malaysia.  When I heard that, I knew I might be out of my league, but nevertheless, Andrew and I managed to stay neck-and-neck throughout the meal, and we agreed afterward that the meal wasn't really all that hot.  One night a couple of years later, my friend Tarun, who hails from Hyderabad, told me over a plate of hot wings, "Rico, you eat hotter food than any white man I have ever known."  I took that as a supreme compliment.

It's not that I don't appreciate a delicately flavored dish; in fact, savoring those subtle nuances can be a delightful experience.  And I realize that hot food is not for everyone, yet I find it amusing when I hear people say how this or that hot dish will be so tough on their stomachs.  Human stomach acid is actually almost as strong as battery acid and can, in fact, eat through steel (see the pH chart above -- acids are at the top, with zero pH being the strongest).  Granted, the heat has to get past the taste buds, and truly, they're the gatekeepers when it comes to elective ingestion.  But the thing is, once you get used to eating hot food and the spike in endorphin release that it produces, you can find yourself hooked fairly easily.  After all, endorphins are natural opiates -- they produce a feeling of well-being.  And let's face facts: it's far more respectable to be addicted to spicy basil fried rice than to hang out in opium dens.

These days, Hannah and I still enjoy going out for hot food, and I guess that sometimes it's a contest of sorts, but actually, we just like the way it tastes, and besides, it's a great father-daughter bonding activity with a historical precedent.  I just make sure to check for rashes now and then, and I always know where we keep the Benadryl.  Bon appétit!