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."
And so while I usually eschew stunt eating, preferring my spiciness to come from authentic recipes rather than masochistic hubris, Jitlada had been so good and the flavors had held up so well under intense heat that I figured this was my chance to be a little macho. Which is how I found myself, one recent evening, surrounded by a table of friends on whom I'd inflicted acute suffering.
In the spirit of science (and perhaps cowardice), we decided to alter the guidelines of the test. Instead of each person ordering his own spicy challenge dish as the rules dictate, we ordered one (chicken with curry sauce) to split among us along with several other dishes, all of which we asked to be "Thai spicy," a code that a South East Asian friend taught me years back to use to indicate to waiters that you can take the heat. By ordering the challenge dish as well as some traditional menu items, we hoped to evaluate the competition's extremeness and to examine whether such a spicy dish would lose complexity of flavor. 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."
The multiple entreaties worked. As the dishes appeared, each was spicier than the last. The coco mango salad, a seemingly cooling concoction of sliced green mango, shredded coconut, and cashews, was a stealthy inferno. The fish kidney curry stew, kaeng phuung plaa kung sap, was a cauldron of stinky, sour sublimity, with a sting hot enough to rapidly increase my pulse, sending me into a brief state of panic. A revisit of the turmeric-scented beef had been taken up the Scoville scale by tens of thousands of points, leaving a resounding sting with every bite. The spicy challenge dish itself sat untouched, mocking us with its fearsome power.
All around me, my dining companions were dropping like flies. One friend kept his fork, heaped with curry beef, poised in front of him for minutes at a time, willing himself to take another bite as tears streamed down his face. He later complained that the venomous vittles had left him partially deaf in one ear as the pressure from the heat built in his head. Another reported erect nipples as his forehead rained quantities of sweat heretofore seen only in Iron Man competitions. Hysteria ensued when it seemed like our waiter had forgotten us and our dangerously empty water glasses.
By the end of the meal, two of us remained standing to sample the menacing spicy chicken. I started slowly, braving a small piece, while my partner in pain dove in headfirst. The resulting taste was similar to the beef—slightly soupier, and, because we'd left it untouched for so long, fully steeped in sauce. Though the flavors of turmeric and galangal persevered even in this dish, my friend put it aptly when he said, "The other dishes taste like beef with spice or fish with spice. This is spice with chicken." Then he wiped his brow and his eyes and his nose.
Though I had fared the best during the actual meal, the next day was, to put in delicately, painful to endure. But by later that evening, I felt better and was re-energized, ready for that one-two punch of endorphins and masochism, and so I had Spicy Challenge leftovers for dinner. Though I'll admit I tempered them with a bit of coconut milk. I'm not crazy.