By Claire Williams.
I always thought of myself as pretty hard when it comes to spicy food. I grow a number of different chilli plants in my little makeshift window conservatory at home, and I put them – seeds and all – straight bang into my food. I’ve been known to eat a chilli raw for a bet (granted, after I’d cleared the alcohol cabinet of its contents). I mean, I’ve even attended a chilli festival for fun. So when I was presented with the task of trying out the World’s Hottest Chilli Menu at critically-acclaimed Pan Asian restaurant, Gilgamesh in Camden, I didn’t think twice.
“Just how hot can it be?” I naively thought to myself.
Well, the resounding answer to that question is: bloody hot.
On entering the restaurant, we were ushered to a table by a waitress.
“Two of your hottest chilli menu meals, please.”
The waitress looked at us. “You want to try it all?”
“Yes, please. And a bottle of wine, to go with it, if you may.”
She looked at us for a minute, and then dutifully went through the menu, explaining the origins of the chillis used and how they are spread throughout the dishes. I’m a massive fan of Asian food – especially from Southern and Eastern regions – so her warnings about the heat of the food fell on deaf ears. All I was listening to was green mango, papaya, monkfish…
“And we suggest you try a refreshing, milky cocktail to go with it. Really brings down the heat.”
“No, no. We’ll be fine.”
The waitress looked at us again. “I’ll bring you one, anyway.”
We went back to our conversation after she left, talking about god knows what, when Chef Ian Pengelley (the chef who once co-owned a restaurant with none other than the famous gutter-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay) came and sat with us at the table.
“Guys, these are hot chillis. No joke.”
I looked over at my dining partner. Two people warning us of just how hot the food is, and one of them was the chef! Perhaps we weren’t fully thinking this through.
Ian went on to tell us about the types of chilli used in the dishes – the Naga, the Scotch Bonnet and the Trinidad Scorpion – and the fact that they are all 400 times hotter than Tobasco. In fact, the Trinidad Scorpion measures up to 1.4 million on the Scoville scale (the scale they measure a chillis heat). To put this kind of heat into comparison, the trusty Jalapeno chilli measures a measly 3,500 and US Grade Pepper Spray measures 2 million. So we were about to eat a chilli that measured closer in scale to a weapon than a normal chilli.
It slowly dawned on me just how hot this food was going to be. And when the waitress came out with a disclaimer form, telling us we’d receive a certificate at the end of the meal if we managed to get our way through the food, I realised this wasn’t going to be the walk in the park that I had expected it to be.
And I wasn’t wrong.
Our dishes came out all at once. We started off with what we thought would be the easy option: the dish of stir-fried cashew nut, chicken, dried red chilli and holy basil. The waitress came up with our cocktails that we greedily gulped back, dowsing our mouths and our taste buds in milky, cooling liquid. The red wine lay untouched.
“It’s… a bit… hot,” I gasped.
My partner nodded back at me. He was busy gulping down water.
“Actually,” the waitress said, “that’s probably the hottest of the dishes.”
We spooned the green mango and papaya salad onto our plates, hoping for some refreshing relief from the now burning sensations in our mouths. But we were offered no such respite. Every dish was as hot as each other. But as we continued eating (we didn’t talk, we didn’t even touch our wine) the flavours started to zing around our mouths. The heat was almost addictive. Just when I thought I couldn’t manage anymore, I reached in and spooned another piece of chicken onto my plate.