The Heat Seeker: ‘This Raita Will Be Your Savior’
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 two of five: Getting Hot in Mumbai.
05.12.09 | 10:46 AM ET
I had expected my global search for the spiciest food I could take to be a private mission, one that would only capture the attention of others at the split-second I achieved my goal: feeling like my head was going to explode. And for a while, it played out as I imagined. I did not gain a second glance in Louisiana’s Cajun country, for example, as I downed fiery gumbos and Tabasco spiked ice cream, nor did I merit extra notice in Hong Kong, when I dug into dumplings bathed in orange chile oil on a side street in Kowloon.
On my first night in India, though, my private adventure sport started to morph into a spectator event. It was nearly 11 p.m. by the time I’d threaded my way through Mumbai’s maze of cars and haze of crowds, and arrived at Masala Kraft, a contemporary Indian restaurant. It happened to be located in the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, which, at the time of my visit, was still months away from the terrorist siege of Nov. 2008.*
My waiter brought my first two courses, both house specialties: Delhi-style corn on the cob, roasted and rubbed in lime, cilantro and a mild chile powder, and amazingly tender Lucknow lamb kebabs, a dish first prepared for nobles who were too lazy to chew. He deftly transferred each course from serving dishes onto my plate and hovered nearby in order to intercept any forward motion I might make towards the serving dishes. So his vigil would not be interrupted, a more junior waiter ran my dishes out from the kitchen.
But when it came time for my chicken and rice dish, which I’d ordered extra hot, there was a commotion. My waiter was ushered aside, replaced by a young man in a dark suit—the manager? The maitre’d? In any event, someone of greater authority. During my first two courses, I had been sized up, and it was decided that I was in over my head.
With a flourish, he presented a bowl of chicken, a bowl of rice, and then a bowl of something white and creamy.
“The chef sent this out because he thought it would be too hot for you,” he explained, spooning raita—a yogurt and cucumber relish—onto my plate. “This raita will be your savior, and then also the mango chutney.”
He pointed each out to me, seeking comprehension. I assured him that I was really into the spice, and he assured me that there was no way I could possibly imagine the heat that they could deliver from the kitchen. My mind flashed to the McDonald’s and the Subway that I’d spotted en route from the airport. Judge U.S. cuisine by those standards, and it’s easy to understand how anyone could reasonably think that we Americans are a nation rendered taste-insensate. I thanked him, he took a couple of steps backwards and joined my waiter and a busboy. They watched me.
I took my first bite.
Nothing! Not hot at all. Oh, it was delicious, and I loved it, but it was savory, not spicy. The manager came forward as I swallowed and anxiously inquired how it was, whether it was too hot for me and whether he should take it back to the kitchen and get me something more mild. I strove for diplomacy. Delicious, loved it. It’s not you, it’s me.
He frowned, then brightened.
“Oh, you’ve just tried the chicken,” he said. “The heat will really be in the rice.”
So I had some rice. He could tell by my face that it hadn’t made a ripple.
“Well really,” he said, laughing, “you should eat it like an Indian!”
He explained, as if he were talking to a child, that if he were dining that night, he would eat the chicken with a stack of raw chile peppers beside him, alternating bites of each. He was just kidding but, of course, I wanted that. He tried a couple of times to dissuade me but, with a sigh, sent for the chile peppers. They arrived, three of them, thin and green, on a white plate.
Again, the staff gathered to observe. The manager had become my coach.
“Eat it from the thick side, where there will be fewer seeds, the heat is in the seeds,” he advised. (Actually, I found out later that the heat is most concentrated in the membranes between the seeds, but that’s a small distinction.) “Take a bite of food, then a bite of pepper, just a tiny bite! The tiniest of bites! Then more food!”
I wondered whether he was going to fetch a towel to wipe my brow—or his.
No turning back now, though. I took a bite, and chased it with the chicken.
OK, this was no joke—it was hot. How hot was it? Well, you don’t have to be a chef or a biochemist to know that tolerance for spicy food varies. In chile peppers, the heat comes from a substance called capsaicin. Genetics determine our sensitivity to capsaicin, which means that individuals experience heat differently. In 1912, a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville was frustrated with the inexactitude of all of this, and found that no technology could detect capsaicin as effectively as the human tongue—namely, his. He dissolved extracts of different types of peppers into an increasing quantity of sugar water, until he could no longer detect the pungency. He then assigned scores, expressed in Scoville Units, to each pepper, starting with a zero for a bell pepper. Until quite recently, food companies selling things like spices and salsas would employ a panel of trained Scoville tasters and use an average of their assessments to assign a Scoville unit rating. This highly subjective objective measure was the standard until the invention of the High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph, which measures capsaicin levels precisely.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to get a chromatograph through airport security, so I’ll describe the way I experience heat to you in another way. You know how it feels to take a nap on a beach on a sunny day? The sun is warm on your face, but there’s a cool breeze, so you’re not hot, and you’re certainly not sweating. That’s how it feels inside my mouth when I’m getting what I would consider a basic level of heat. Now imagine the breeze dies down a bit, so now you’re noticing that you’re getting just a little bit toasty, and it sure would be nice to have a cool beverage or to duck under a beach umbrella. That’s what was delivered by the chile pepper I had at Masala Kraft.
While it was short of my skull-thumping goal, it was still a pretty fantastic experience. Capsaicin renders the mouth exquisitely sensitive, so that you can feel the precise texture of what you’re eating—each grain of rice, each shred of chicken. It also commands attention, a trait I value in a life lived in a state of quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder. When you’re eating heat, you cannot read, you cannot watch TV, you can’t even really carry on a reasonable conversation. Each bite is its own experience, each bite requires a breath, a preparation, a question of whether this morsel will burn as much as that morsel burned. I ate the entire plate of chiles and retired to my room upstairs, where my stomach burned just a little bit until the sun came up the next morning.
* I visited the Taj hotel before the terrorism attacks of Nov. 27, 2008, and I also wrote this story before the attacks occurred. If I were to write this story today, I’m not sure I could tell a light tale about it. But I’ve chosen not to revise what I’ve written here. The complete task of honoring a place, it seems to me, includes remembering the happy times while not forgetting the lives that were lost or changed there.