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Some like it hot

Abdul Ali,  owner of the Kismot curry house, began to realise something was wrong when the first contestant hit the floor. Then a second went down. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it,’” he says. “We had to move them to the side so we could continue with the contest because we had a fully-booked dinner service coming in soon.” The reason for the body-strewn floor was the Edinburgh restaurant’s Kismot Killer, the self-proclaimed ‘world’s hottest curry’ and the centrepiece of a charity chilli-eating contest.

At the competition’s end – mid-way through the third serving of Killer – 53-year-old Beverley Jones was crowned champion, while two of her fellow competitors were on their way to A&E. One of these, a student called Curie Kim, would have to go to hospital twice, describing the sensation of eating the dish as like “being chainsawed in the stomach. With hot sauce on the chainsaw.”

A chilli’s heat is measured by the Scoville scale. Invented by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, it works on the principle of how much water the chilli has to be diluted in before it’s undetectable. Tabasco, for instance, requires around 2,500 parts water, while a jalapeño needs around 5,000. The Bhut Jolokia, which grows naturally in the northern region of India, hits a little over 1,000,000 on the Scoville scale and was declared as world’s hottest by the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ (the bible of the chilli community) in 2007.  It is so hot that it is used by the Indian military in stun grenades. It appeared – as far as nature was concerned – that this was as fiery as things should get.

But then Cumbrian chilli farmer Gerald Fowler stepped in. Through a three-way chilli crossbreeding of the Bhut Jolokia, the Naga Morich and the Trinidad Scorpion, Fowler emerged with the Naga Viper, which registers at an eye-watering 1,382,118 Scovilles. Testers said this chilli was “hot enough to strip paint”. Each batch of Kismot Killer contains around ten Naga Vipers.

Sensing a challenge, safety-suited spice-seekers pushed the envelope further and in March 2011 the Australia-bred Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper was declared the globe’s hottest by the ‘Guinness Book of Records’, hitting 1,463,700 Scovilles.

While the Frankenstinian chilli coupling has taken things this far, there’s only so much a farmer can do. “We try crossing this with that,” says Fowler, “but a lot of it is to do with nature. We had a really bad winter just before we created the Naga Viper. When chilli plants get stressed, their natural reaction is to boost capsicas [the heat-making part of the chilli]. If you think about the countries which have made some of the hottest chillis – Australia, America – they’re drought-ridden countries.”

“The Bhut Jolokia is so hot that it is used by the Indian military in stun grenades”

These super-hots don’t just burn your tongue, they can melt through Latex gloves. Yet the public can’t seem to get enough of them. England, once renowned for the blandness of its cuisine, is now home of a dedicated chilli festival and multiple chilli-eating competitions – which see contestants work their way up the Scoville scale.

Jenna Betts’s brother dared her to enter the Brighton Fiery Foods chilli-eating contest in September 2011. “I didn’t feel sick,” she says, “I felt a real rush from it. But a medic told me straight away afterwards that I should make myself sick. I asked, ‘what if I don’t?’ He said, ‘those guys are going to be shitting blood tomorrow’. I took the sick option.”

Chilli-eating is a challenge that can kill. In 2008, amateur chef Andrew Lee had a bet with his girlfriend’s brother over who could eat the most of a home-made super-hot chilli sauce. He died of heart failure in the night after consuming a whole plateful.

Fowler argues that such examples are rare and emphasises that people are actively seeking out the highs. “Some people like chilli to push them right to the edge,” he says. “The second hottest chilli we do – the Ten Minute Burn – is over the edge and not being able to get back. We use molasses to trick the brain so that the first thing you taste is sweet then – bang! – the heat hits you. Seconds later, you’re thinking, “what have you done to me?”’

“We were at the Brighton Fiery Food festival a couple of years ago and Health & Safety came over to our stall and said, ‘stop selling Ten Minute Burn. See those people rolling around over there? They’ve had your chilli’. The same thing happened at a chilli festival in Newcastle, a nice chap came up and said, ‘I’m from the festival’s PR firm. What do you think would happen if one of the dailies took a photograph off all the people outside rolling around on the ground hallucinating?’ Apparently they all thought the yellow lines on the road were snakes.”

Calling a chilli sauce “Ten Minute Burn” or “Satan’s Blood” isn’t enough of a warning: super-hots, and the competitions which feature them, come with disclaimers. There is, after all, an outside chance you’ll die. “We had to get legal advice and a disclaimer for the Kismot curry,” says Ali, “and the disclaimer does cover us.”

But the quest for hottest super-hot isn’t over. The very top of the Scoville scale is pure capsaicin – the “heat” in the chilli – which measures 16,000,000, so there is, arguably, a way to go. Recently the chilli-loving community has been abuzz with news of a new high: the Trinidad Maruga Scorpion. It has not yet been confirmed, but the New Mexico State University claims the wrinkled, squat red pepper hits 2,009,231 on the Scoville scale.

“I think reclaiming the title is beyond our grasp now,” admits Fowler. “I’ve had a plant breeder working for me for five years working on on breeding something even hotter but we’ve not even come close. We’ll strive for creating the hottest chilli again, but I think some intrepid explorer is going to have to fall over a chilli in
Outer Mongolia.”

Back in Edinburgh the Kismot is keeping the heat in the kitchen. They’re selling at least ten portions of the now infamous curry a week (admittedly it’s a ‘toned down version’, following complaints from the NHS and local council), and have booked in the second contest for 1st October 2012. “We’re definitely going to do it again,” says Ali, “We’re already getting emails from across the world, from Canada, America, Tokyo, even China. But maybe we’ll have a wee sitdown with the local council first.”

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