Monday, 14 April 2008

Hotter 'n hell

Surely eating spicy food is a bit like riding a bike; once you've had a go, learned a lesson or two along the way, you can always do it?

Well everyone makes mistakes.

And my first was believing my own homespun claptrap.

In my late teens, I used to be able to put away a Madras, albeit accompanied by two gallons of water, without any problems.

A couple of years ago, a bunch of Indian waiters who warned me against a “very-very-hot-madam Jalfrezi” had a bucket of raita and a fire extinguisher at the ready in case of distress. It was delicious. No problem.

Uncontrolled hiccups are the only drawback with Indian dishes above a certain heat threshold. They usually kick in during a medium jalfrezi but if one attempts to remain lady-like it can be dealt with swiftly and easily by swigging several jugs of water. If they persist, one can always invite one's dining companion to do something unexpected and startling but this is always an unsettling last-ditch strategy. Besides, a high-pitched squeal unnerves other diners.

Hiccups are never a problem with fiery piri-piri chicken in Portugal and the usual home-made chilli con carne includes a fair smattering of chopped bird's eye chillies, seeds and all.

Son no 2 is big chilli fan and used to delight in bringing home hot sauces from his travels, which we'd try together on breadsticks until someone's eyes turned red.

So my seasoned palate was well up the challenge of a piri piri chicken salad in some restaurant named after an unhappy Abba tune - Chiquita or such-like - the other night.

When I ordered it, the waitress looked and said enquiringly, as of a simple-minded person who's not safe to be let out alone, “Is hot?”

She struggled over with a two gallon jug of iced water and dumped it down on my side of the table. Not a good sign.

The salad was unremarkable - your ordinary boring green salad leaves covered with halves of baby tomatoes and strips of char-grilled chicken. It was all liberally drenched in a browny seed-laden chilli sauce.

The first mouthful lightly excoriated the tip of my tongue.

Coming from a nice polite Welsh family and not wanting to appear in any way wimpy, I was reluctant to reveal my true discomfort so as not to disturb other diners.

The second bite lacerated the insides of my mouth.

By the third piece of chicken - well-scraped of sauce now - I was convinced my tongue had doubled in size. The pain began to come in waves.

This stuff wasn't hot. It was straight from the fiery furnace of the seventh legion of hell.

I tried water. It made no difference. This was suffering. Suffering worse than casually rubbing an eye with a fingerful of chopped chilli juice - and THAT's suffering.

“Is my face ok?” I asked my dining companion. By now my lips were tingling - not in a good way - and were effectively anaesthetised. They felt swollen, like one of those pop-art blow-up sofas.

“It's a bit pink,” he said.

“Is that very hot?” he smirked, tucking into his not-very-hot chilli con carne.

Under normal circumstances, I might have been irritated by his smugness but millions of cells were already irritated so I was clean out of irritation - which might have been irritating itself it I could summon any..etc you get my drift.

The pain was increasing inspite of regular dousings with iced water.

I was tempted to try the breathe-through-pain techniques that helped me through childbirth but I thought the panting might be mistaken for that scene in When Harry Met Sally. You remember?

Sally's convulsing, hair all over the place, banging the table with her hands gasping “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The woman sitting across the restaurant says “I'll have what she's having.”

Any such panting or discomforting behaviour on my part would be been horribly misleading though.

No-one in their right mind would actually want what I was having.

Not even me.