Heat-seeking eater seeks nuclear noshes
July 2nd, 2010
01:00 PM ET
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It took two glasses of water and a bowl of white rice to douse the fire set by a forkful of Washington D.C. Kung Pao chicken.

I love spicy food, and so did my dad. He's where I got my masochistic love of foods that taste like the business end of a flamethrower. Growing up, grilled Serrano peppers were a frequently side dish to any Mexican food my mother whipped up. Legend has it that my mother tried to get me to stop sucking my thumb as a kid by soaking the digit in jalapeno juice. This plan backfired.

My dad loved exploring new cuisines.  Often, I wish my dad were still around, because I could share with him the spicy dishes I've discovered here in New York City. Vindaloos, tortas, Thai noodles. I remember one nuclear Chinese stew that was nothing but fish heads, pork blood, and Schezuan peppercorns. It was intoxicating. My tongue went numb, and I broke out into a sweat.

The old man would have adored that experience.  But even that boiling pot of liquid hellfire was not the spiciest dish I ever ate.

I had that with my dad at a grubby Chinese food restaurant in Washington D.C. I don't think it's there anymore. He loved Asian cuisines. Allow me to pile regret upon regret: Flushing, Queens, where I now live, is a mini-metropolis of authentic pan-Asian food. Ah, well.

So we were at this little joint on a Sunday afternoon. My dad had to work and I was hanging out with him. He ordered kung pao chicken.

The waiter asked if we wanted it spicy. My dad said "Yes, very spicy."

"Are you sure?" the waiter replied.

This insulted my dad. He frequently acted like he singlehandedly invented the habanero pepper. This started a game of brinkmanship.

"Yes. I want the Kung Pao chicken very, very spicy."

The waiter clucked and shook his head, as if to say "It will be too spicy. He won't finish it. What a waste."

My dad decided to up the ante.

He looked at the waiter and jabbed a finger at him. "You tell the chef that he can't make this Kung Pao chicken hot enough."

The waiter cocked an eyebrow. "Are you sure?" My dad repeated the challenge. Loudly. Clearly. The waiter shrugged and started to serve us.

Eventually, the plate of Kung Pao chicken arrived. In between chicken chunks, peanuts, and celery were Chinese red peppers glowing like Christmas lights. The whole dish radiated heat. Behind me, I heard the kitchen doors swinging open, then closed. My dad's head popped up.

The chef was standing by the doors. In the dining room. Watching us. Both men narrowed their eyes. The challenge was about to be met.

I was capable of only a few bites. My dad woofed down half of it, through tears. He ate grimly, but with determination. And respect. It was hot enough. Too hot.

Well done, chef.

Do you dig a nuclear nosh? What's the hottest bite you've ever taken? Brag it up in the comments below.

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Filed under: Bite • Cuisines • Culture • Hot


soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Brian, San Francisco

    "It takes a beer to kill a Vindaloo." - Red Dwarf

    Well, as long as there's chest-thumping about hot dishes, there's the 5-Pepper dish at Old Mandarin Islamic here in San Francisco. It was featured in a segment of The Amazing Race a couple of years back.

    April 27, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  2. Frank

    On a recent tour of colleges with my high-school senior son (who also adores spicy food), we found ourselves looking for dinner in Worcester, Massachusetts. We found an Indian restaurant and ventured inside. When our waitress came to the table, we both ordered chicken Vindaloo. "Spicy?" she asked. "Yes!" came our reply, in unison.

    When the dish arrived we could barely get through half of it – within two bites our mouths were burning, we were sweating, tears were flowing, and by the fourth or fifth bite we were numb. The experience was fantastic. Best curry I have had in a long time!

    April 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  3. Lulufa Vongtau

    When Im in the States and I order for 'spicy' food, the results are always laughable. In Lagos Nigeria, where I live, spicy or 'peppery' food is the norm.... If you want spicy food, look for an African restaurant, specifically Yoruba food from Western Nigeria. That is the definition of 'spicy'.....

    April 9, 2014 at 10:10 am | Reply
  4. Vinnie L Gambino

    Grew some jalapenos on a little island in the middle of East Brook in Delaware County, NY back in the eighties, from some seeds bought at the local Agway. Don't know if it was the variety, the soil, the weather, or all three factors, but the peppers turned eggplant black when ripe and were pretty lethal. One small bite produced copious tears. I gave a paper bag containing a dozen peppers to a co-worker; a Mexican food fanatic who swore that "there is no such thing as too hot". Three weeks later he handed back the bag, still containing six peppers, saying "Here, I'm done with these"...

    -VinnyG

    April 9, 2014 at 6:00 am | Reply
  5. Nicholas Sullivan

    Most definitely "Blairs Ultra Death Hot Sauce." It is extremely potent

    April 8, 2014 at 11:23 pm | Reply
    • Vinnie L Gambino

      I haven't had "Ultra Death" but we did have a bottle of Blair's After Death bought by my child as a HS field trip novelty. Had it for 10 years, using a drop at a time, until it dried up and I pitched the bottle, still 3/4 full...

      April 9, 2014 at 6:05 am | Reply
  6. Jim

    Hottest thing I ever ate was at the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA. They have a "Hell Night" every couple of months and served the hottest dishes you can imagine. They made a chili with Ghost Chilis, Scorpion Peppers, and a few other peppers. It was by far the hottest thing I ever ate. I could only get through half the bowl.

    April 8, 2014 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  7. James

    The best heat I've been able to find in this area (central NJ) is Four Seasons Thai Cuisine on Stelton Road in Piscataway. They ask you how you want it, Mild, Med or Hot, but will not serve you hot until you've been there a couple of times and have shown you can handle it. Oh yeah, did I mention that the food is fantastic. Love it. See you there some time. Njoy!

    April 8, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  8. richard maile

    eat a whole ghost pepper and chew slowly!! you can not beat that!! if you dont know what it is, its the hottest pepper in the world. special import from brazil

    August 8, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      Actually the "Ghost" pepper has been dethroned it is no longer the hottest pepper in the world. It was dethroned by the Trinidad Morunga Scorpion pepper, and then the "Butch T" scorpion pepper took the crown. That has also been dethroned recently; however I do not recall what the name of the pepper was that is the current record holder.

      Also the "Ghost" pepper is another name for the Bhut Jolokia. It is NOT from Brazil, but rather from India. And finally there is no need for special import from Brazil they are grown domestically by many pepperphiles such as myself. They do make fantastic hot sauces!

      April 8, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Reply
      • Tom

        WTF, why is it that CNN linked me to a story that is four years old? I suppose my comment was for naught.

        April 8, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Reply
        • Joe

          Hey so I'm not the only person in this old post lol

          April 9, 2014 at 1:18 am |
        • johnny hot pants

          Did he say that the ghost pepper is imported from Brazil....?And I lol'ed at the Chinese red pepper being hot

          April 9, 2014 at 1:44 am |
  9. Karen

    my grandfather loved hot peppers and he got me to love them, too. One time his brother sent him some homemade pickled hot wax peppers. My grandpa would just eat them like grapes. I asked if I could have one. He said, "No, darlin'. These are too hot." I said, "Nothing's too hot for me." So he gave in and gave me one. I ate it and it wasn't even warm...nothing. No heat. He said I must of gotten a dud. So I gobbled up another one and he was right. The last one was a dud. My mouth just started gushing water. I sucked on a whole loaf of Wonder White Bread and came to in about a half hour! Still love a hot pepper.

    July 6, 2010 at 11:37 am | Reply
  10. R2morrow

    Maybe y'all can help. I can remember the taste of a small, marble-sized chili that that was like liquid fire at the first bite. The second chili was not hot but had the most exquisite, absolutely beautiful taste. If one waited a few minutes between peppers, the next one was again liquid fire. Any ideas as to the identity of this pepper?

    July 5, 2010 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • HRW

      Tepin ?

      July 5, 2010 at 9:24 am | Reply
      • R2morrow

        It may well be. From the Wikipedia, "In Mexico, the heat of the Chiltepin is called arrebatado ("rapid" or "violent"), because, while the heat is intense, it is not very enduring." Thanks for the suggestion.

        July 5, 2010 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • Bob

      I would also say tepin.

      July 5, 2010 at 9:32 am | Reply
  11. Kip

    I was at a restaurant in Hong Kong (Shui Hu Ju) and we had a chicken dish that came out buried beneath a mound of roasted red chiles. I thought nothing of that, grabbed a piece of what looked like fried chicken and popped it into my mouth. I spent the next 10 minutes breathing fire and eating rice; it wasn't fried chicken, it was chicken 'breaded' with chile seeds. Once I got my head around that, I was OK (although it still was blisteringly hot). Good dish!!

    July 5, 2010 at 3:34 am | Reply
    • Franky the Tooth

      That's awesome! I was at that same restaurant in Sept 2009 and had the same dish...I have NO idea what it was called but it was absolutely mind-blowing and delicious, not to mention spicier than anything I'd ever eaten before. Good stuff. We had a crab dish as well that was quite nuclear.

      July 30, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  12. Stewie

    My husband loves very very very hot spicy food – but agrees it must have flavour. I bought him a food additive that I use when I cook anything spicy called "Satan's Blood" it registers at 800,000 scovilles, I also had to sign a waiver from the store saying that I would only add it to food and not use it directly on food, as a joke etc. I also had to sign a second location noting that if dropped to vacate the premisses as it acts like pepper spray. This is one of his favourite items.

    All our nieces and nephews know how much he loves spice – so they convince us to go to Wild Wings and ask for the "Manager's Special" These are not on the menu. These things were so hot – he couldn't even eat one wing. He took one bite and could barely swallow. I've never seen him do this – I mean he can eat stuff that most people can't go near. Crazy. – Lesson learned, don't ever let anyone convince you to order something not on the menu.

    July 4, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • Jasvinder Singh

      Hi Stewie,

      I too love very spicy food, Can you by any chance help me with Satan's blood? In exchange I can provide a lot of exotic spices from India. My son is traveling to USA in two weeks time on official work..

      April 8, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  13. christopher

    I got some Dave's Ultimate Insanity Hot sauce, made with pure capsasin oil. It says on bottle 1 drop per gallon of food! Used to put 3 drops on the coals of a grill then put the hamburgers on and let the smoke season the meat. Also, my coworker glenn makes an awsome salsa with the ghost chili's, very good smokey taste.

    July 4, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  14. Kit Kat

    Can you give the name of this Chinese restaurant and it's location. Would like to try the kung pao.

    July 4, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • speediejoe

      Read more carefully... "I had that with my dad at a grubby Chinese food restaurant in Washington D.C. I don't think it's there anymore."

      April 8, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  15. Kevin

    I can eat anything about as hot as you can make it, but not wasabi. That stuff burns my sinuses. My mouth and stomach can handle the heat, but not my nose.

    July 4, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  16. Shannon

    I went to a BBQ place just outside of Seattle once (can't remember the name of it). The Chef/Owner comes around with a pot of his hot sauce, daring you to try it with an evil glint in his eye. The amount that will sit on the point of a toothpick is pretty much all you need. It is fun to watch people take his challenge and slather their sandwiches with it, take a bite, and then not be able to eat another.

    July 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  17. Fire-eater

    I agree with Aggie. I love a good spicy meal from any ethnic background, but it must also have a good background flavor. Many of my friends "eat for the heat" only. Tobasco is fine on everything for them. For my taste, Korean red pepper paste is the perfect balance of flavor and heat - and you can make it as mild or hot as you want. It works so well with so many foods, a lot like jalapenos do – but of course a completely different taste. Wasabi is also a great backer - different heat, but so versatile in the hands of a good cook.

    July 4, 2010 at 3:51 am | Reply
  18. Aggie

    I love hot, spicy food, but it has to taste good also. For instance, I don't like the taste of horseradish, ginger, etc. I was greatly disappointed when I tried habanero; it wasn't hot at all, and it tasted like barbecue sauce.

    July 3, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  19. Cap

    New Mexico State Univ. has chili from northern India that registers over 1,000,000 on the Scoville scale. Jalapenos register 10,000.They call it Holy Jalokia. Capsicum chinense-"Bhut Jolokia". I have a bottle of it that is greatly diluted ,but still hotter than Hades. Guinness verifies it is the hottest chili in the world.

    The Chile Pepper Institute
    PO Box 30003 MSC 3Q .
    Las Cruces NM 88003 http://www.chilepepperinstitute.org

    July 3, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • Jim Bob

      Yes, 'Naga Bhut Jolokia' pepper of India. Naga = 'dragon', bhut = 'ghost', jolokia = 'chili'. Used as a weapon by the Indian military. Widely available on the international culinary market.

      July 4, 2010 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • Bob

      Is that also called a "tepin" pepper?

      July 5, 2010 at 9:28 am | Reply
  20. Quagmire Co

    I was in Ko Lanta on the west coast of Thailand traveling. I had had a bit too much to drink the night before (sang som and red bull buckets) and was fairly hung over. For some reason when I'm hung over I want really spicy food. Usually you spice your own food in Thailand but the dish I asked for came already spiced. I told them to "make it as spicy as you can". The food was amazing as per usual, but it also included about 50 full thai chilis that were interspersed among the pieces of chicken and veggies. I ate about 30 of them. Introducing that much spice to a stomach that had gone a full 12 rounds the night before was a bad idea. My mouth could handle it, my GI tract could not. I spent the rest of the day on the toilet with a bucket between my legs and managed to coin the term "dual exodus".

    July 3, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  21. Jim

    Putting salt on your tongue will stop the burning. Water won't.

    July 3, 2010 at 1:15 am | Reply
  22. Tyler

    I can't get enough of the Level 2 green chile at Horseman's Haven in Santa Fe. Green chile is an absolute staple in New Mexico, but Horseman's is the best (and the hottest) around. In college, we used to eat at Horseman's because their green chile dissolved our hangovers like a culinary paint stripper. I watched many unsuspecting diners try it despite the earnest warnings of the waitresses, and it always ended the same way: milk, tears, and shame. I can't eat their chile straight, but it's perfect when cut with some of the regular chile. Hopefully I can get back to Santa Fe someday.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Vinnie L Gambino

      Back in the seventies I was travelling with some friends in either Western NM or Eastern AZ (not sure which, the trip agenda was to get as lost as possible). We stumbled across a small, isolated Mexican diner a littte before noon. We decided to order the "chili". on the menu in two varieties,"red" and "green". Being from the East, we were expecting ae dish with beans, ground beef, and hot peppers. What we got were bowls of stewed chile peppers and nothing else, red (for my friends) and green (for me). Very, very hot and persistently so. I finished my bowl (barely) and decined offers of leftovers from my companions, who could not finish (I did taste theirs; the red was extremely hot, but the green was hotter). I also learned the lesson that day that water can make the burn worse (which makes sense; some very concentrated substances must be diluted to reach the peak of chemical activity). We spent the next hour draped across the car, waiting for digestion to ease the discomfort. We were the only diner patrons at the time; to this day I don't know if they saw our East Coast tags and decided to have fun with the gringos, or if that was their everyday fare...

      -VinnyG

      April 9, 2014 at 6:22 am | Reply
  23. Mark

    global thermonuclear wings at Cluck-U. instant it touched my tongue, ran to fridge to drink milk and stuffed my mouth with other food to no avail. couldn't finish one whole wing. decided to leave in freezer for awhile. month later, still as strong as ever! never again

    July 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Reply
    • John Mulshine

      We really miss the hot wings at Cluck-U....back in CA there are none where we live. Bummer. Thanks for a nice memory!

      July 2, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      Same here, I could eat 2. It took about a half hour, but I did it. I tried to eat them again the next week and just couldnt do it. They are by far the hottest thing I have ever eaten.

      July 5, 2010 at 9:25 am | Reply
    • the royalty

      if you think those were hot, try the 9/11 wings. they make you sign a waiver

      July 5, 2010 at 10:43 am | Reply
  24. Bruce

    We had a similar experience at another D.C. Chinese restaurant. The actual dish is lost to memory, but there were wrinkled, blackened peppers throughout. One bite and it felt like the back of our heads exploded. We literally couldn't eat more for twenty minutes. When we asked the waiter what they were, he said "Oh, you don't wanna eat THOSE." Adding insult to injury, after we had recovered and started eating again, one of my friends ate what he thought was a mushroom—of course, it was another pepper, and was wiped out again.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Reply

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