I piled my fork high. A thumb-sized chicken piece smothered in the thick, scary scarlet sauce. It didn’t matter how hot it was going to be, I had to pile it high. The Rupali’s proud proprietor Rukon says he has high hopes for me. Only one reporter has ever successfully finished a full portion of his notoriously hot dish; if anyone can do this, it’s a spice writer. My mate’s not helping either; he’s goading me with beef. And not the tasty sort. There’s also the small matter of being British. Like most other chaps on our fair isle, I refuse to be beaten by anything... Especially not a dish.
Biting down, my instant reaction is relief. The chicken is more succulent than I’d assumed, the sauce is actually quite sweet with the slightly burnt notes all good chilli bases have. “Not bad!” I proclaim with mouth still half full. Rukon just smirks. He knows what’s coming. He’s seen it all before. He has two pints of iced water on standby.
Then it hits. Rivers of searing heat gush out from the centre of my tongue, flowing down my throat, spurting upwards towards my nose. My ears pop, my eyes run uncontrollably. The top of my head tingles and rushes. My temples throb. My skin prickles. Suddenly I decide I can’t sit down in such a condition, I get up and stumble around in a strange circle clutching my head, muttering the odd rude word and requests for ice cream. One part euphoria, two parts delirium, four parts pure pain: I can safely say I’ve never had such a physical reaction to any dish.
Then it hits. Rivers of searing heat gush out from the centre of my tongue, flowing down my throat, spurting upwards towards my nose. My ears pop, my eyes run uncontrollably.
“I hear it’s a grower, right?” grins Rukon who’s never actually tried it himself. He’s a wise man. “I’ll never try it! I remember my dad’s stern warning when I was about 11. He told me never to eat it.”
You might know Rukon’s father; for many years Abdul Latif played a prominent role in another British institution, Viz. His tongue in cheek adverts and agony uncle column ran for years.
“He was very forward thinking,” smiles Rukon. “He tapped into that sense of humour. Being in Viz has been huge for us. People have travelled from all over the country because of that.”
They also travel far and wide to sample Curry Hell. Abdul invented it himself 24 years ago and the recipe has become hotter and hotter ever since. Over the years it’s attracted all sorts of personalities; Chris Evans, Adrian Chiles, Christina Blakely, Alan Carr, the Masood family from Eastenders, Gordon Ramsay. All of whom, like me, manage no more than a mouthful. In fact an average of 120 people visit each month to sample the devilish dish. All of whom, like me, visit in the firm belief that they can never be beaten by a curry.
“Dad understood the macho thing,” explains Rukon. “You get blokes coming here trying to show off to girls that they can eat it! Why? Seriously, why would you do that?”
When asked if he believes whether it’s a strictly British behaviour he answers simply: “Of course it bloody is!”
Ridiculously I feel a buzz of pride. One part stupidness, two parts competitiveness, four parts complete and utter manliness; Abdul’s invention celebrates a characteristic that many British men can’t avoid. Fat Les’s Vindaloo, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, separate the men from the boys... Let’s show the world I can eat something that’s far too hot to be comfortable.
The adrenalin-fuelled anticipation alone was unforgettable; waiting for my Curry Hell to arrive felt like the moments before I’ve done a bungee jump or got a tattoo. There’s no surprise, then, that 99% of the people who request the dish are all men, all of them aspiring for an elusive spot on the Rupali’s online wall of fame and get their paws on the all important certificate, another one of Abdul’s canny marketing strategies.
Naturally Rukon and his brother Kukon are following their father’s creative footsteps. They’ve pimped the recipe with naga chillies grown especially in Bangladesh and have started to bottle it for the mass market. You can now be a typical Brit and blow your head off in the comfort of your own home, but a pilgrimage to Newcastle is the best way to sample the true Curry Hell experience.
And indeed the rest of their impressive menu... From their home style Bangladeshi daily specials to head chef Khalid Miah’s specialities such as the pokey tukra or the sticky rezzala. They’ve recently won Best North East Restaurant in the English Curry Awards and it’s easy to see why; the Rupali is a genuinely great curry house with an emphatic understanding of both British influenced curries and authentic Indian cuisine.
“I actually try and convince people not to order Curry Hell,” admits Rukon. “You’re missing out on so many great curries if you just order that.”
He’s absolutely right, of course. But Curry Hell is a unique physical sensation that I’ll personally never forget. And a challenge many British chaps just won’t be able to turn down...
Visit their website, admire the hall of fame and start planning your trip: www.therupali.co.uk
This story appears in the current edition of Chaat!, the UK's only curry lovers' magazine. Brought to you by the British Curry Club. Visit here for full details: www.britishcurryclub.co.uk/chaat
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