I survived X-rated chilli!
What's 1,000 times hotter than a jalapeño and can be used to keep wild elephants at bay?. . . a bhut jolokia
Kapow! The tiniest explosive device has detonated at the base of my throat. My tongue is lolling back and forth, numb as a skinny dipper in the middle of January. Waterfalls of agony sluice down my cheeks.
Is it my imagination or have the walls turned to jelly and started oozing towards the carpet?
I'm in a trendy Dublin eatery sampling the world's most terrifying dish: a bowl of beef sprinkled with an ingredient so fiendishly hot it has been used in tear-gas in India and is blamed for the deaths of several adventurous foodies over the past 10 years. It is called the ghost chilli and is gaining a cult fanbase among gourmands who like to live on the edge.
Even the tiniest quantities can inflict a world of pain on the tastebuds. The chef at Damson Diner has applied a mere sliver to a hearty serving of chilli con carne. I've just risked my first mouthful.
Quite what would happen were I to devour the entire helping – or, heaven help us, consume a raw ghost chilli – doesn't bear contemplating. Suffice to say that, in the latter case, a visit to a&e would surely feature and it is unlikely my lower alimentary canal would ever forgive me.
Spicy dishes were, until recently, regarded with boundless suspicion by the average Irish person. However, with the national tastebuds turned increasingly adventurous, we have started to shed our long-held aversion towards super-hot foods.
This is no longer the Ireland where anything spicier than a chicken korma from your corner Indian was approached with unease verging on horror.
"Irish people are getting used to more exotic flavours," says Damson Diner's Oisin Davis.
"In the '90s we got used to this lovely flavour called 'garlic'. After that we started embracing other bits of cuisine. You saw people experimenting with Thai food. In the last few years we've grown even more adventurous. You have restaurants from practically every corner of the globe in Dublin alone now. When it comes to spice, we are definitely more up for it."
But not, perhaps, quite up for ghost chilli. No Dublin restaurant serves the spice – Davis had to source some especially for our taste test.
For once, Irish consumers are in lock-step with the rest of the world. The existence of this x-rated chili was for decades largely a rumour. Originating in a remote corner of northern India – where it goes by the name 'bhut jolokia' – only in the past few years has awareness of the ghost chilli spread to the west.
Before that, it was employed as an 'extreme' medicine by locals, who used it to treat upset stomachs and, counter-intuitively, provide relief from the summer heat.
However, a global vogue for hotter and hotter foods has transformed the ghost chilli into a gastronomic cause célèbre . In 2007, the Guinness Book of Records recognised it as the world's hottest spice.
Registering at more than one million 'scoville' units (the scientific measure of spiciness) it is nearly 1,000 times more scorching than a jalapeño pepper and delivers 600 times the punch of Tabasco. The eyes water simply contemplating its ferocity.
Such is its intense heat, villagers in India have historically utilised it to keep wild elephants at bay. The Indian government, meanwhile, is currently trialing a 'chilli grenade' which uses bhut jolokia's pungent odour to 'smoke out' terrorists.
To convey just how hot the preposterously scorching ghost chili is, the chef at the Damon Diner (who has been wearing gloves throughout the preparation process) has put together two further chilli con carne dishes, one from the notoriously hot scotch bonnet, the other with the restaurant's regular jalapeño (which, Davis reveals, is the secret ingredient in their popular Bloody Marys).
I start with the jalapeño, fiery but safely within my zone of comfort. The tongue twitches, the eyes water moderately. However, there is no horror show (not having touched red meat in over a decade I'm more concerned on the impact of all that ground beef on my digestion).
Next, the scotch bonnet. As with the ghost chilli, this has a semi-mythic reputation among gourmands. With a sweet and fruity aftertaste, it is probably the most straight-up tasty of the three.
But, goodness, does it pack a wallop. Its potency was made painfully clear to a shoplifter in Bristol who last year popped several of the chilis in his mouth as he fled a supermarket.
He was found doubled over in the car-park throwing up grandiosely.
More tragic was the 2008 case of Andrew Lee who ate a tomato sauce heavily spiced with scotch bonnets in a dare with his brother. Later he complained to his girlfriend of itching. He was still complaining as he fell into a sleep from which we would never awaken. An inquest confirmed a pre-existing heart condition exacerbated by toxins in his system.
After some nervous chewing I set the scotch bonnet bowl to one side and switch my attention to – drum roll – the main event. Garnished with an innocuous sliver of chilli, the third dish does not look like anything special.
If you didn't know better you could mistake it for the normal chili con carne served at the Damson Diner.
Of course, I know that it contains ghost chilli and I'm nervous.
Before coming to the restaurant, I researched bhut jolokia. The results were not comforting. Spend a few minutes scouring the web and you will come across all sorts of horror stories regarding foolhardy foodies rushed to hospital after an unfortunate bid to go toe-to-toe with ghost chilli.
I've been assured that the quantities involved today are far too mild to cause discomfort (Oisin Davies has already sampled some and proclaimed it hot but not terrifyingly so).
Aside from the inner lining of my stomach, what have I to lose?
Several mouthfuls in, I realise two things. Firstly the ghost chilli is hot. Darn hot.
Hotter than . . . well, nothing truly compares to it.
Imagine the craziest vindaloo you've ever had, doused in Tabasco then served at the mouth of an active volcano, the flames of which are stroking your toes. The ghost chilli's like that – only hotter.
My second realisation is that, actually, I'm enjoying this. Yes, I have the sweats and every nerve ending from the roof of my mouth to the extreme back of my throat is quivering. And yet, this isn't pain in the ordinary sense.
The sensation is one of intense warmth rather than extreme discomfort. In its own, out-of-body way, the bhut jolokia is kind of delicious.
I'm not sure it is ever going to be on the specials chalk-board at your short-order cafe.
But it has something going for it – especially if you buy into the concept of eating as an extreme sport.