Of red hot chilli peppers

Shonali Muthalaly tries to tame a ghost at the Park Hotel’s Chilli festival

November 06, 2014 07:59 pm | Updated 07:59 pm IST

FOR THE LOVE OF CAPSAICIN The different types of chilliwith bhut jolokia in the middle PHOTOS: K. PICHUMANI

FOR THE LOVE OF CAPSAICIN The different types of chilliwith bhut jolokia in the middle PHOTOS: K. PICHUMANI

Machismo is expressed in myriad ways. Many of which are, quite frankly, ridiculous. Last week, the members of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra decided to spice up their music with some incredibly hot chilli peppers. So every single musician ate one. Mid-performance. The video, posted by their un-ironically named conductor Chili Klaus, already has almost two lakh views and a string of enthusiastic comments.

Elsewhere on the Internet there’s a report on 55-year-old Doctor Ian Rothwell who started hallucinating halfway through his ‘Widower chicken curry’ (now there’s a name to set your tastebuds on fire) at the Bindi Indian restaurant in Lincolnshire, England. Made by chefs wearing goggles, the curry had been tackled unsuccessfully by 300 people before Rothwell. In a statement to the press proclaiming that Rothwell would go down in the annals of history as the first man to eat the world’s hottest curry, the restaurant's executive chef said (and I quote), “Apart from a few tears in his eyes, and the short period of hallucinating, he was cool and collected and seemed to cope very well.” Ah. One more satisfied customer, short hallucinations notwithstanding.

At the Park Hotel in Chennai, I study a tray filled with brightly coloured chillies held out by Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan. As Director of Food Production at The Park Hotel in Chennai, he’s curating an unusual chilli festival at Lotus, their Thai restaurant. The crowning glory of his collection is the deadly red bhut jolokia, sitting pretty in a ceramic dish. Also known as the ghost chilli and the red naga chilli, it is cultivated in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. In 2007, it was certified as the world’s hottest chilli pepper. Wikipedia states it is ‘401.5 times hotter than Tabasco sauce’ (apparently the Western gold standard for measurement.)

To be more scientific, let’s take a look at the Scoville scale , which is how the pungency of spicy food is measured. The bhut jolokia, rated at more than a million Scoville heat units (SHUs), is known as the world’s second hottest chilly. Number one is the Carolina Reaper chilli (grown by – I kid you not – the PuckerButt Pepper company in USA) at about 1,569,300 SHU.

Of course ‘top three’ lists are always debatable. Especially in the world of chillies, where growers are constantly trying to outdo each other with hotter hybrid varieties. So, let’s just say Chef Rajesh’s arsenal is seriously hot. Besides bhut jalokia, he’s got shiny habaneros, perky bird's eye chillies from Kerala, relatively mild yellow banana chillies from Thailand and different sizes of local green chillies.

The most tempting thing to do with weaponry like this, of course, is to attempt the world’s hottest curry. Fortunately, the team of the Chefs at The Park are more ambitious. After all, just making food hot doesn’t require much finesse. They do, however, succumb to the temptation to create deadly chicken wings for a ‘Conquer The Ghost’ competition at the Leather Bar. “Unlimited beer for any customer who can finish a plate of eight wings,” says the Chef. “No takers?” I grin. “You’d be surprised,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “A customer from Andhra Pradesh ate the whole plate.”

I’m less bombastic I admit. I start gingerly with the tofu, crusted with coconut and dry red chillies. The cottony tofu is an ideal counterfoil for the spice, which is comfortably hot. While the festival will undoubtedly get attention because it’s so alluring to show off your chilli-eating bravado, what makes it interesting is the fact that the heat is used judiciously. “Each chilli has its own unique flavour,” says Chef Rajesh. “The bhut jolokia, for example, is hot, but it’s also fruity. You just need one quarter to make a curry.” The idea for the festival, in fact, came from his team, many of whom hail from the North East, where the chilli is grown. “They keep it preserved in vinegar and add a tiny bit to their rice,” he says.

In India, where the chilli is an established part of our cuisine, a festival like this needs to be approached as a way to showcase flavours. Hence, the flaky charcoal-grilled fish is topped with a blend of green peppercorns and placid yellow banana chillies, which lend more complexity than heat to the dish. It’s followed by a startling orange salad, spiked with roasted chilly powder, and a fragrant clear soup laced with lime and fresh red chillies.

That pleasurable tingle in my mouth has spread to a raging fire by the time the main course arrives. Here’s a tip for newbies — water is no help at all. Also, this is one form of pain that even wine can’t medicate. Chef Rajesh’s solution is a bowl of curd, and although it does make me look like a five-year-old, I cave and have a couple of soothing spoonfuls while I steel myself for the biggest challenge of all: bhut jalokia chilli glazed grilled chicken. As expected, it’s seriously hot — tears in my eyes hot. Also, inexplicably, it makes me start sneezing. The chefs gather around in a sympathetic knot. I haven’t quite conquered the ghost. But, in my defence, I did at least say hello. The Chilli festival is on at The Park Hotel till November 8. Details: 4267 6000

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