Tuesday 14 January 2014

The Wrath of Khan

The Trinidad Scorpion, the world's hottest chili.
I thought I would spare you another week of ranting about the Abbott Government and advertising, and discuss curry.
What's brought this up?
Well I recently completed my first book and published it on the net at Smashwords, (now that's not a plug for my book, really!) and a lot of this book is set in the British Isles where curry is king, and so I thought I'd tell you a little about it.
Curry of course comes out of India, England was the dominant colonial power on the sub-continent for most of the 19th century, and the British extracted a lot of wealth from this country, in the form of agricultural products and gems, mostly taken from the palaces of the Moguls and Maharajahs.
But also, the British got a taste for curry, the signature dish of India.
This began with the large number of middle class Brits going over there to work as civil servants to administer the continent.
Then, after WW1, the trend was reversed and many sub-continentals went the other way to live and work in Britain.
Most went to the industrial towns like Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool, and where they went, they took a desire for their national dish and so opened up restuarants.
Today it is thought that there are 9,000 curry houses in the UK, or one house for every six thousand people.
To give you some idea of the popularity of curry in the UK, there are only 3,000 chinese restaurants in Britain.
So curry is popular, but why so?
Well there are a few reasons, some certain, many not.
The first and most pervasive family of myths to do with curry are about rancid meat.
It was thought that the hot chili would cauterise any less-than-presentable meat, killing off any bacteria and making it safe to eat.
However, this doesn't seem likely, certainly there is no attested source to this, and it is far more likely that the cooking process itself, often involving boiling for lengthy periods did far more to kill off any offending bugs.
A sub issue of this is that the hottest curries available today in Britain are so mesmerically, skin-blackeningly hot, that anyone fool enough to eat one, is unlikely to be worried about ordinary microbes.
More on the topic of insanely hot curries later.
Then there is the issue of curry herbs and spices covering the taste of any off meat.
This is again not attested, but there may be some truth in it.
Certainly the poorer Brits, and the Indians themselves, rarely got hold of quality meat, and so anything to disguise bad flavours would have been welcomed.
There are stories from colonial times in which starving settlers had to wait until dark to eat so they couldn't see the insects, weevils for one, crawling all over their food.
In the modern era therefore, the need to disguise the flavours of off meat lessened due to increased restaurant hygiene, but by then curry had gotten a hold over the Brits and was here to stay, and so why is that?
Well, climate is a big factor.
The hottest curries on Earth are served in Britain, and this is certainly because the climate is so rotten for more or less nine months of the year that going to the curry house and eating a hot one provides you with an internal fire to see you home in the rain.
I can personally recall walking back from the Star of India in Birmingham to my digs and (completely fancifully) feeling that the rain hit the heat aura around my body and dissolved in mid-air before it hit me as liquid water.
This British taste for curry was probably best juxtaposed by Comedian Alexei Sayle, who said: "Are there pissed Indians in Mumbai who come out of their drinking establishment and say 'by Gandhi, I could murder a steak and kidney pie'".
So while climate is a factor and the chilly northern latitudes provide a neat dovetail with a raging hot curry, by a wide margin, the main reason curry is popular in Britain is due to the regulations surrounding drinking over there.
All the pubs in Britain close at 11pm, but if you want to carry on drinking you have to (mainly) go to a restaurant
Some go Chinese, but most go for a curry.
For you see, you are allowed to have a pint if you order food, and so the curry is ordered and then the pints flow.
Now this lead to some interesting situations, one of which occurred in Plymouth.
Homer ate this insane chili on The Simpsons and wasn't seen for 24
hours while he explored the outer reaches of his sub-conscious.
The police noticed that the lights were on and beer was on tables in a local curry house at three in the morning, four hours after drinking was officially ended for the night, and so they raided it and arrested everyone there for after hours drinking.
The pints were visible, but there was no food in front of anyone, a clear case of illegal drinking.
However, when they eventually got to court, the magistrate ruled that the police couldn't prove that the patrons had not been drinking from that same pint since they had ordered dinner four hours previously, and thus they all got off the charges.
Clearly the police had happened across the slowest drinkers in the history of the human race.
Curry heat even has a formalized structure in the UK.
The lowest heat is found in Kormas, these are mild curries, containing no chili, just the flavours.
Next up is Curry itself, as in Chicken Curry, which is medium heat.
Then we climb up to Madras, hot.
Then there are Vindaloos, these are extra hot curries.
Finally, at the top of the scale are Phaals.
Phaals are what the weapons inspectors were looking for in Iraq.
So coruscatingly, exfoliatingly hot are these things that they often cannot be served as they contravene local strategic arms limitations.
When I got to Britain I wasn't much of a curry head, but the climate got to me, and I began to go up the scale, enjoying increasingly hot curries to ward off the nightime chill.
And so it was that my friend from Sydney Uni Soccer, Misha, met up with me one winter afternoon in South London.
I was playing rugby and after the game we had a load of pints in the clubhouse and then headed to the Beckenham Curry Cottage for an Indian.
Misha has a stomach lining that you could use to retread tyres, and so we decided to have a go at "The hottest thing on the menu".
In this case it was a Phaal, the first time I had eaten one.
The waiter rolled his eyes upon hearing our order as it is a common thing for these staff to hear after the pubs shut, and went away to the kitchen and no doubt said, "Hey Ashraf, we've got a couple of yobbos in, they want a Phaal. Make 'em a good one, so we can all have a laugh".
The chef duly added enough chili to the plates to take the roof off the kitchen and the waiter brought it out.
We began eating and to the surprise of everyone except Misha, we finished them.
As the meal wore on the waiters began observing our progress more closely, then members of the kitchen staff began peering around the door to see if we were going to finish.
Eventually we did and while there wasn't a round of applause, there was certainly a measure of grudging respect from the assembled Indians.
We walked home with a dark red glow trailing behind us in the night like curry scented fireflies, thinking we were hot shit, which was, on reflection, pretty accurate when the next morning came.
I was in town shopping for books near Piccadilly, when suddenly I was rent by a pain lurching sideways across my lower intestine like I was a Japanese warrior committing Hari-Kari.
I didn't have long, and thankfully a found a bathroom nearby, and draw a veil over the events that followed, but it was an experience I can tell you.
However with our triumph at the Curry Cottage, I thought I could handle anything.
I might add, some months after Misha and I returned from the UK, he rang me and said, "Hey Lock, I've found a place that sells Habaneros (at the time Habaneros were the world's hottest chilis), why don't I get some and bring them round and we'll make up a curry sauce?"
I said, "Great", and a few days later he arrived with three of them.
So I put them in my blender, with some other spices and some liquid, and whizzed them up.
After the liquid had gooified, I opened the lid of the blender, and suddenly it was as if tear gas had been released.
We staggered backwards out of the kitchen with our eyes and noses streaming.
We were then trapped in the hall, and in the end I had to get a towell from the bathroom, wet it, then wrap it around my eyes and grope blindly into the kitchen till I found the lid, put it on, and then grope blindly toward the window and open that to vent the damn joint.
Needless to say when it came to eating the stuff, we had the fire department on call.
But back to England.
With my triumph at the Curry Cottage I thought I could handle it all.
Oh, the arrogance of youth.
A few weeks later I met my housemates, Don, Matt and Pete in town for a drink, that is ten pints, at a pub near their workplace.
When 11 pm came around we went to a nearby curry house to eat and have a couple more pints.
The place was called the Strand Tandoori, and I was about to discover that my triumph in the suburbs was as nothing when I came into town to play in the first division.
Among my housemates' work colleagues was a nice man from Hong Kong, Tim.
Full of bravado I said to the assembled group that I was going to have a Phaal.
They looked at me in surprise, asking, "Are you sure? Do you know what you're doing?".
I said "Of course, I finished a Phaal at the Curry Cottage, so I know what to expect".
Tim, then said, "Oh, really, well if you're going to have one, I will too".
So the order was placed and the meals came.
Tim with his Asian heritage ate his smoothly with barely a ripple crossing his smooth, olive brow, but I knew from the first bite the sin of hubris.
To say my meal was hot barely hints at the scale of the firestorm that went on in my mouth.
I only managed three bites of the stuff, and the second and third were only consumed after the sort of revving up that I had only previously experienced before rugby matches.
Anyway, I was done.
I fell back with my head against the restaurant window and due to the chilly damp air outside on this November night an enormous cloud of condensation, looking for all the world like a grey afro, formed around my head.
Those watching said I looked like a caucasian Jimmie Hendrix after hour ten of a drug binge.
After that I stayed away from the things and stuck to the edible Madras, but that was in 1993, and I have since learned that the curry stakes have heated up.
The world's hottest chili is now the Trinidad Scorpion, so called as eating it, and I can attest to this, is like being stung by a scorpion.
Thus the Phaal, already a chemical weapon, is now even hotter, so if you attend a restaurant where this dish is being served by people in full biohazard protection suits, expects to see smoke-blackened skeletons at a corner table.
Next week back to the usual format of moaning about the government and advertising.

1 comment:

  1. That scorpion chili looks the business!

    G'day Lock, Have you caught any of Rick Stein's India? An array of spices and methods such as I have never seen. It has renewed my interest in cooking curry and I am off to Fiji Spices in St Peters this weekend. Can I send you any spice mix so you can recreate your Chili Hendrix Experience?