Extreme chili: a beginner's guide
Being a consummate chilihead brings with it several advantages, the majority of which are far too boring to mention in any great detail. They mostly involve being able to frighten the life out of anyone who engages in any other mundane activities, such as alligator wrestling. However, there is one discernable downside to being a capsaicin junkie, and that is the ever increasing need to push the heat boundary in order achieve that elusive endorphin rush. I suppose you could say that this is my version of extreme sport: there is sweat, pain, a recurring sensation of "why-do-I-do-this-to-myself?", plus a tendency to kill any conversation stone dead whenever someone asks me what my plans are for the weekend.
As with any extreme activity, you can only truly push yourself with dedication and training. Seriously, I'm not kidding: anyone who fancies stretching their heat-bearing capabilities to the limit will risk pain, discomfort and a severe lack of normal friends. So here are a few guidelines to help you on the rocky road to chili addiction.
Love the chili, live the chili.
This may sound a little redundant, but no serious chilihead can be in the game merely for the heat. First and foremost we are in it for our innate love of the capsicum pepper. This is particularly important because, once your heat tolerance starts to increase, you will need additional motivation to stick with the weaker chilies. Plus, some of the super-hot chili varieties out there really do have some remarkable flavours.
Our metric is the Scoville or SHU (Scoville heat units): by this number doth the chilihead know his greatness.
Okay, messianic banter aside, the heat is the thing that keeps us pitiful mammals coming back for more. Our ongoing challenge is to push our taste buds further up the ladder of tolerance, in order to obtain that magical hit.
Are we crazy to keep pushing ourselves? Most certainly. Are there joys to be had beyond streaming eyes and running noses? Indeed there are. Is there an element of masochism to the whole state-of-affairs? Ask my therapist.
But be warned...
Learn the grades and start low.
A natural follow-on from Rule 2, any apprentice chilihead must learn to pace himself. Your body will tell you what you are able to tolerate, and will have some choice words for you if you choose to ignore it. Anyone who tries to learn anything by jumping in at the deep end is not only wasting his time, but also taking unnecessary risks (although it does have the constructive side-effect of filtering the gene pool for the rest of us). Above all, take your time and enjoy it; the fire won't start without you.
Learn your level and gradually push your limit: in the early days you may be happy to settle for a simple shot of Tabasco on the tongue, maybe pushing you to 8K SHU but most likely leaving you lingering around 4K SHU (mere child's play). On the other hand, raw Cayenne will comfortably put you in the 30K to 50K SHU range, whilst anyone who regularly garnishes their cheese sandwiches with whole Thai chilies (guilty!) will potentially feel the heat pushed to the 100K SHU boundary.
Beyond this point we enter the realm of the heavy hitters:
- Habanero and Scotch bonnet chilies will easily rise above the 100K level and habitually hover between 200K and 350K SHU
- Red Savina will mercilessly show you 500K SHU without a second thought
- Naga Jolokia, Dorset Naga and Naga Viper will drag you kicking and screaming past the magic 1 million SHU line, beat you senseless and leave you barely conscience somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million SHU
- Trinidad Moruga Scorpion won't even fire a warning shot; the next time anyone hears your name will be on the local news when the authorities find your eviscerated carcass in a burnt-out heap somewhere around 2 million SHU
Just to put it into some perspective, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion has a kick on it that is roughly on a par with most law-enforcement-grade pepper sprays. I say "most" because in some cases it is actually stronger!
Sauces are good.
Unless you're willing to risk the persistent presence of chili juice under the fingernails ("let me just get this lint out of my eye... Arrrrgghhhhh!!!!"), or having to wear latex gloves every time you make lunch, a great place to start exploring the world of super heat is with hot sauce specialists. By "hot sauce" I mean the real thing, not the pseudo-spicy-waste-of-shelf-space stuff that passes for hot in the supermarkets.
To get you started, here are some of my personal favourite (UK) online retailers:
Don't be afraid to experiment.
A good chili is incredibly versatile. You only have to try a decent chili vodka or chili ice cream to know what I mean.
Try out different things; think about how something could be improved with a little heat; look for new and interesting combinations; and above all, enjoy yourself. I personally find it hard to beat a good chunky peanut butter, mixed with fresh Naga paste and smeared thickly on malted toast, for the ultimate breakfast pick-me-up; or several slices of roast beef, topped with a thin layer of Fatalii puree as an amazing mustard substitute.
Right, I'm hungry now...
Have fun my friends!