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.