Challenging eating

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Eating is all too often a boring activity. Where’s the excitement? Yet eating is pretty mandatory, so you might as well have try to have some fun with it. I like turning eating into a challenge. The most natural challenge would just be to eat as much as possible, but of course, that’s a really bad idea. The next best thing is to try eating really spicy foods, which is what I’ve been doing. This isn’t nearly as bad as you think. Capsaicin, the chemical in peppers that makes them spicy, interacts with neurons to produce a burning sensation but has no other effects. So spicy foods don’t give you heartburn or the runs, despite the common misconceptions.

Two months ago I was overjoyed to discover that my local supermarket sells fresh habanero peppers by the pound (thank you, large Latino community). I’ve been buying a lot of them ever since and using progressively more and more in my cooking. Today I made chicken stir fry with spicy szechuan sauce and two whole fresh habanero peppers, diced into small bits. Needless to say, it was insanely spicy. Habaneros are the spiciest peppers commonly available; they are rated at 100,000-350,000 Scoville units (the Scoville scale is used to measure spiciness of peppers). JalapeƱo peppers, in comparison, come in at a wimpy 2,500-8,000 Scoville units, so low that I can eat them raw without even coughing. Just cooking the habanero-laced stir fry is risky. Some of the capsaicin vaporizes in the wok and escapes as steam. Accidentally inhale some of that and you’ll have a hacking/coughing/sneezing fit. You’ll also experience what it feels like to have burning lungs. Nevermind how badly your tears will tear it.

Eating insanely spicy foods is a challenge, but it is exhilarating. I can’t really explain it, but it’s almost like I get a habanero high from eating really spicy food. I get light-headed, my heart starts racing, I’m panting heavily, and my mouth is screaming out in agony, saying no more, no more — but the overall experience is pleasurable. I suppose you have to be a fellow enjoyer of really spicy foods to understand what I’m describing.

The upside of eating really spicy food at home is that I never, ever wimp out when I’m eating out. No one running a food establishment is insane enough to make foods as spicy as what I make for myself, so I can always eat any spicy food that I might run across in restaurants and at social functions. You can definitely build up a tolerance to capsaicin, a training regimen which I would highly advise. You don’t want to be like my sister — even dishes at Chinese restaurants labeled on the menu with one red pepper are too spicy for her, and as a result, she can’t eat a good chunk of the menu at any typical restaurant. It’s a shame, and she has no idea what she’s missing. I, on the other hand, can go to a restaurant and order anything of the menu regardless of spiciness, and that is truly liberating.