The Heat Seeker: Spicier, Please!

Travel Stories: Alison Stein Wellner likes her food hot and spicy. To find out how hot and spicy, she searched the world for heat. Part three of five: Into Kumarakom.

05.13.09 | 10:34 AM ET


Of course, I knew that a hotel restaurant—even one in India, and even one that served plenty of locals—wasn’t my most likely source for the hottest food I could stand. So when my friend Diana joined me in Mumbai, we dined in restaurants large and small and even in private homes. But still, no matter how I asked, I was unable to get anything spicy enough to create more than the sniffles that you’d get with a good head cold. 

We made our way south to the state of Kerala, and down to the Backwaters, a series of canals that lace through India’s rice bowl. On these waters glide hundreds of riceboats, almost all hand-constructed from bamboo, the wood of a betelnut tree, woven palm leaf and coconut coil. We’d arranged a cruise.

In Kumarakom, on the shore of Lake Vembanad, a crew of four greeted us. As soon as we had a look around at our simple accommodations—a bedroom and bathroom to share—the chef, Prasama, handed us a coconut juice and asked us a most important question: How spicy did we want our food?

“Not spicy for me,” Diana said.

This was the expected answer. Prasama nodded and Ajeesh, the guide and official spokesperson for the crew, reassured us that the food would be very flavorful but not hot. 

“But very spicy for me,” I said, widening my eyes. Prasama looked at me with interest. I explained that I had yet to have anything that I found too spicy in all of India. He nodded.

MORE OF HEAT SEEKER: Part one | Part two | Part four | Part five | Video: Alison Stein Wellner—The Heat Seeker

In the evening, beneath the shadow of palm fronds, with the sounds of the frogs and the crickets and water lapping up against the boat, Diana and I assembled at the table for our dinner.

Prasama set out huge bowls of food: vegetable sambar, shredded cabbage with coconut, shredded carrot with coconut, yogurt sauce and chapatti bread. And then he brought out chicken—one in a spicy sauce for me, and another in a mild sauce for Diana. I dug into the chicken, and yet again, it was just a bare tickle on my spice-o-meter scale, which I reported sotto voce to Diana.

I didn’t realize that Prasama had been standing just around the corner, listening for our reaction to the food. He came over with an offer—would I like to try what the crew was having for dinner? Of course I would. He returned from the kitchen with a small bowl of sardines, in a sauce spiked with whole chile peppers and whole black peppercorns.

My heart sank a little, because truly, I am revolted by sardines. But the captain and the assistant captain had followed Prasama, which meant that now the entire crew faced me expectantly. There was nothing I could do but manfully seize fork and knife.

Oh, this was getting closer! There was a good heat in that sauce, which had been simmering with vegetables—enough to mask the taste of the sardines. The heat filled my mouth, sent tendrils up my nose, warmed my stomach. I intoned a “Yummmmmmmmmmm,” along the lines of a good Om that I’d use to close a yoga class.

This satisfied Prasama, and he walked away smiling. I sopped up the sauce around the sardines with a piece of chapatti bread and wondered whether I’d ever experience what my grandfather did that day in Westchester. I was loving what I was eating, but I was nowhere close to beating myself on the head yet.

Alison Stein Wellner pursues many tasty adventures from her home in New York City. She’s the culinary travel guide for, a blogger for Perceptive Travel and Luxist and has contributed to Business Week, Glamour, Men's Journal, Mother Jones, New York Magazine, Robb Report, Yankee and Yoga Journal.

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