My dining companions' postprandial expressions displayed fear, stunned paralysis, and intense, burning pain. Their brows were beaded with sweat, and their faces were stained with tears.
We had just finished dinner at Jitlada, a small, homey establishment in L.A.'s Thaitown, known for its fiery hot southern Thai specialties and home of the ominously titled "Dynamite Spicy Challenge."
My first experience with Jitlada's igneous dishes had come a few weeks prior. New to Los Angeles, I had been drawn to the restaurant, like so many chowhounds before me, on the recommendation of the king of Southern California food adventures, LA Weekly's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Jonathan Gold. Back in 2007, he had described Jitlada's kua kling phat tha lung, a turmeric-infused dry curry made with shredded beef, as "a searing, tongue-scouring, chile-intensive dish that pins your nervous system into the red." The moment I read those words, I grabbed my keys and headed to Hollywood.
As promised, the beef was aromatic and flavorful, stir-fried to chewy perfection. But to my surprise, it wasn't mind-numbingly spicy. Noticing my disappointment, the waiter offered to take the kua kling back to the kitchen to spice things up, and when the plate returned, it was a scorcher. One of the most memorable dishes I'd eaten in years.
Later that evening, with the flavor of turmeric still lingering pleasantly on my taste buds, I studied the takeout menu I'd nabbed on my way out of the restaurant, preparing for the return visit about which I was already fantasizing. Would I try the jungle curry with lamb? Have another go at the miraculously delicate salted egg yolk stuffed fish balls? Then my eyes caught the words "Dynamite Spicy Challenge" and its accompanying warning, "If you do not eat spicy food, do not order this! This is Real Chili, Real Spicy!"
The deceptively simple challenge required participants to choose a sauce (spicy mint leaf or curry) and a protein from a list that included frog legs, chicken, and lobster tail. Challengers had then merely to finish everything on the plate. Having just stood up to the dish that Mr. Gold deemed "the spiciest thing you can eat in Los Angeles" (and having sent it back to make it even hotter), I felt emboldened. Surely, I could take this on.
Anxious that the server would underestimate our desires, I stressed not once, not twice, but three times that we needed the dishes to be "extra, extra spicy."
A quick survey of basic cable reveals the ubiquity of such challenges. Over at the Travel Channel, Man v. Food's Adam Richman has made a name for himself wreaking havoc on his digestive system, gorging on ultra-spicy tuna maki, habañero fritters, and scores of hot wings. YouTube is rife with homemade videos of men (and, less frequently, women) torturing their tongues for a chance to appear on their local wing joint's Wall of Flame. Online forums offer advice on building tolerance to heat and EatFeats.com, a competitive eating database, offers a list of upcoming spicy eating challenges. Major League Eating, the international body that oversees professional eating competitions, primarily focuses on quantity based matches (three pounds of haggis anyone?), but they too regulate a spicy wings competition and several jalapeño-oriented matches with names smacking of Olympic-like rigor such as "Jalapenos, pickled, short form."
Clearly there is great appeal here. Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, calls the seemingly perverse inclination to eat pain-inducing foods "benign masochism." According to Rozin, "Humans, and only humans, seem to get pleasure out of innately negative experiences when they are aware that the body's signals are not really threatening." Other manifestations of this urge include roller coasters, horror films, and bitter foods. Studies have also found that capsaicin, the component in hot peppers that makes them so spicy, prompts the body to release endorphins, giving us a high that in turn pushes us to eat more despite the pain. In eating competitions this thrill is only further intensified by what Rozin called in an email, "the general macho thing."