I don’t know for sure when the addiction began. Like all good addictions, it crept up on me. The next thing I knew I was studying the Scoville Scale, seeking, craving – actually researching – a greater high.
The chilli. It’s only a fruit. A fruit. But with such gravitas, such allure, such mystery. Think Russian roulette; or if you know what you’re doing, think self-harm. This is true: self-harming can produce a similar chemical reaction in the body to eating hot chillies. Endorphin rush. But with chillies there are no scars. There’s a reason no one’s become hooked on plums.
I guess it must have started with my first curry-house curry, a chicken korma in Forest Hill. I was 21 or 22 and it was a revelation, as potent as any vision. A heightened awareness that I’d been missing out on something. Sure the korma was mild, a swipe to the cheek with a glove made of greens, but the spices were there, intense on my juvenile palate. I wanted more. Much more.
Instinctively, I moved up the scale – rogan josh, dansak, jalfrezi, madras, vindaloo, phall… Each step up, a new sensation, a higher pain threshold to savour. I wanted it to hurt because afterwards it felt so good.
Sometimes it was too much. The first bite opens up the pores in the mouth. The second extrudes the chemicals into those tender pits. The pits become wounds. The fifth mouthful feels like putting out fire with gasoline. You give up. You have no choice. (Water won’t calm it, incidentally – don’t even bother. The only liquid that quenches that molecular blaze is alcohol.)
Your dining companion sniggers and the waiting staff catch your eye.
That was fine. If I’d tested myself and failed, at least my resistance, my capacity for oral trauma, had increased. Eating stupidly hot food has never, for me at least, been about machismo. It’s all about the chemistry.
And I know this stuff now.
The chemicals in chilli that do the job are called capsaicinoids, the most common being capsaicin. They latch onto the receptors in the mouth that register heat, hence the burning sensation. Noting this pain the body releases endorphins, the natural painkiller, similar in action to opiates. Result: you feel great. (Strenuous exercise would produce the same effect. But really.)
Chilli heat is measured on the Scoville Scale, so named because it exists on a scale and was invented by Scoville (Wilbur, American chemist, 1865-1942). This ranges from 0 (your dumb sweet bell pepper) to 16,000,000 (pure capsaicin). Here you can rank your common chillies, which is when science and horticulture collide, to become interesting. Pimento, sometimes stuffed into olives (100-500), Jalapeno, beloved of Mexicans (2,500-5,000); Scotch bonnet, staple of West Indian cuisine (100,000-325,000); habanero, common to most super-hot chilli sauces (100,000-350,000).
I started collecting chilli sauces. None of your ubiquitous Tabasco (2,500-5,000) – though I’ll lick a pool from my palm for a surreptitious hit – but stuff that came in bottles labelled with skulls and demons. Dave’s Insanity Sauce (180,000), Satan’s Blood (800,000), or Blair’s 3AM (1,500,000-2,000,000 – the upper end of which equates to police pepper spray).
You don’t shake these potions over salads for a little added piquancy. No. You become fixated on buying them, because you love the label designs and they’re bottled chilli lunacy, that they fill your fridge and years later your wife throws them all out. Very rarely, out of curiosity, I’d pipette a few drops of Dave’s Insanity over of a slice of toasted cheese. Instant enema.
My local Dixy Fried Chicken, among its squeezy bottles of ketchup and mayo, offers a homemade chilli sauce so exquisitely lip-numbing – Scotch bonnet-based, I suspect – that I seriously, literally daydream about it. Even after the joint had been closed by the health inspectors due to a serious rat infestation, I was back at their counter, tongue-lolling, Homer-style. Addicted.
I remember Glasgow. Around 1991. There’s a curry house in an old cinema building, cavernous. They like their curries in Glasgow, and I know this. The menu contains items I have never before encountered and my eyes pounce on anything that sounds unreasonable. I order chilli pakora and tindaloo. Tindaloo. Like vindaloo, but with a t! What that means, I have no idea, but I like the sound of it.
The chilli pakora arrives. It’s half-foot-long green chillies, lightly battered and deep-fried. The waiter stays to watch me eat, and is joined by two colleagues, as if this is Rome and I am a Christian. Hmm, I think.
I bite into the first one. The sensation as I chew. Heat, pain and receptors meld to create joy as my whole being becomes alive like it’s Frankenstein’s monster. My eyes roll and I make this noise. The waiters disappear as I polish off the plate.
My girlfriend glares at me, grimacing.
“What?” I ask.
“You sounded like you were having an orgasm,” she hisses.
After that, the tindaloo was always going to be a let-down.