The Quest For The Hottest Chilli On Earth Almost Killed Me
On red hot chilli peppers, and Australia's part in the global hunt for ultimate heat.
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This week, The Feed on SBS 2 is homing in on addictions, from fast food to drugs, from smoking to exercise, from technology to porn to chillis. We’ve partnered up with them to bring you this piece; for the full story, tune into SBS 2 from 7.30pm tonight.
The closest I have ever come to dying was one night at our local Mexican restaurant. Time slowed. I couldn’t get any air into my lungs. For a second I hovered behind myself at the table, watching my imminent death unfold. I came back into my body and looked down at my taco, and I realised that this taco would be the last thing I ever saw. Then, suddenly, I gulped down a lungful of sweet, merciful air! It was also air made completely of fire. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and the tears were made of fire too. I quickly could no longer feel my face. There was only the infinite burning of my entire digestive tract. My head, my ears, my being.
I put my forehead down on the edge of the table as the tears flowed and collected in a pool on the floor. Then I banged my head against the wall because that brief pain was preferable to the infinite pain of my face. I howled a guttural cry of primordial suffering. I madly drank all the liquids at the table: an entire frozen margarita and two beers, and then the only glass of milk that the kitchen could provide. This did nothing except make me feel vaguely ill and instantly drunk. I tried to settle into my new reality where there would be nothing, ever, apart from the burning. After about twenty minutes the acute agony subsided, during which I contemplated the nature of space/time. Then I miserably ate the rest of the food on my plate, which tasted precisely like nothing. My body still burned, only it was slightly less intolerable. By about four hours later, the sensations had completely subsided.
It was the worst day of my life. Until the next day.
Probably the most terrible part of this was that it had been completely accidental. I enjoy chilli, a lot. I have eaten the yellow chillies of Vietnam – I am no chilli naïf. When we sat down to our meal, after one shot of tequila, I had decided to liberally slather on the hot sauce. It was clearly labelled “VERY HOT!!”, which I took to be marketing hyperbole. But, oh no, my friends. This was a deathly serious warning.
This hot sauce, it turns out, was the hottest hot sauce on Earth. Literally.
Chilli heat is measured on the Scoville scale. A jalapeño or chipotle pepper is between 3,500-8,000 SHU. A habanero is getting up to 350,000 SHU. A Carolina Reaper, currently vying for world’s hottest chilli along with the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, gets up to 2 million SHU. Now, to reiterate: the hot sauce I ate comes in at NINE MILLION SCOVILLE UNITS. Pepper spray, a legitimate weapon used by police, comes in at 5.3 million SHU.
I later learned that you are meant to dip a toothpick tip in the bottle and add that microscopic amount to an entire bowl of guacamole in order to get something that will be (barely) edible. I put that stuff on my taco like it was barbeque sauce and then, because I was starving, I took a giant bite out of it. And then I thought I was dying.
This whole fiasco raised two questions:
1) What was this weaponised foodstuff doing in our sleepy town*, and
2) What kind of masochist freak would voluntarily eat it?
* The staff at this restaurant are very young, and we think perhaps someone put it there for giggles. If I ever find you, I WILL KILL YOU.
Why Do We Do This To Ourselves?
This fun New Yorker story from late last year investigates the hunt for the world’s hottest chilli, and the crazy, largely macho culture that revolves around the feats of mental and physical strength required to survive eating them. The writer infers that the reason why they are so addictive for some people is because chillies and hot sauces fulfil the same function as horror movies and rollercoasters: they allow us to experience extreme emotions and sensations that toy with our mortality, without putting us in actual meaningful danger.
Although it doesn’t feel that way when you are having a panic attack in front of your taco.
“Chilis, in other words, are slasher flicks we can eat, bite-size Cyclones.”
I must admit, looking back, that I did feel drunk with previously unimaginable power once I had survived this ordeal. This was my Everest. This was my psychedelic toad vision quest. I’d stared death in the face; I’d seen the nature of reality revealed to me in the moribund vision of that taco. The tasks of the everyday meant nothing. Don’t tell me I have to take out the garbage! I’ve seen the truth of existence!
I’m never one to let a good Internet k-hole go unexplored, so I looked up this evening-ruining-demon-blood immediately upon regaining my eyesight. My search led me first to the Amazon reviews for the hot sauce, all of which I am in fervent agreement with.
‘If you want to say you have had the hottest, this is it. Have it once and you wont want anything to do with it ever again, I promise.’
‘I use it as a close to weapons-grade mucosal searing gopher and deer deterrent for my garden.’
‘The hair raising heat was followed by the most intense headache and my body felt like it burst into flames.’
‘hot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! hot hot hot hot hot hot hot hot hot hot hlot hlot hlot hlt hlt hlt hgltlh tlg hl.’
Words are good, I guess. But what about video?
What a fun way to spend an afternoon.
You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best! The Hottest Chilli In the World!
On the New South Wales mid-north coast, part of a global war is raging: the war over the rightful ownership of the Guinness title of World’s Hottest Chilli. It’s a battle which will be explored on SBS’ The Feed tonight, as part of their ‘addiction week’ special.
Alex de Wit is Marcel’s brother and the co-creator of the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T Pepper, which Alex, Marcel and his wife Connie grow at The Chilli Factory near Lake Macquarie in the Lower Hunter Valley. In March 2011, their monstrous creation was officially crowned the world’s hottest. “The Scorpions are so hot that, in order to cook with it, the pepper’s cultivators have to wear chemical masks and body suits, and reported feelings of numbness in their hands for more than two days afterwards.”
Glory, however, was fleeting. In the hyper-competitive land of world records, things are in constant flux; as the Guinness site states, “Records change on a daily basis.” To wit: the chilli title was then claimed by Smokin’ Ed’s ‘Carolina Reaper’, grown by The PuckerButt Pepper Company, USA. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion was also briefly crowned the hottest. As of right now, PuckerButt still holds firm to the mantle.
But the Chilli Factory’s Alex de Wit contends this could have been an ill-gotten gain for the PuckerButt pepper.
“We had a MEAN or AVERAGE heat of 1,463,700 Scoville units based on 25-30 single chilli pods, we claimed that on MARCH 2011,” he writes over email, in red font often capitalised for emphasis. “THEN the Americans came a year later with this, to my opinion, FALSE claim.” That false claim being Smokin’ Ed’s bid to grow the hottest pepper, which was possibly not accurately calculated to the mean average, according to Alex. “And also in a lot of USA media they talk the same nonsense just as if Australia cannot claim it right or do it right,” he adds, patriotically.
When we speak on the phone, Alex is at pains to make clear that he doesn’t hold a grudge: “We just want the facts out.”
For now though, PuckerButt holds the title, with a Scoville rating of 1,569,300, peaking at 2,200,000.
I have to ask Alex about the Mad Dog Plutonium hot sauce, and its claim to 9 million SHU. He explains that extracts are made from distilled chillies and so are many times stronger than a fresh chilli, which will never reach that heat on the vine. There is such thing as an extract that measures up to 16,000,000 SHU, which I would prefer not to think about.
Has he ever tried the Plutonium hot sauce?
“Yes, it is hot, and yes I tried the extract, it tastes absolutely horrible!!” he says. “It tastes more like nicotine/tar. IT’S rubbish. It’s amazing you survived eating that much of it. NEVER will I ever try that again. Yuk.”
And neither will I. That time I ate a hot sauce more than four times hotter than the ever-contested Guinness World Record-holding hottest chilli was more than enough for one lifetime.
If you think this story would have been funnier if someone had covertly filmed the writer’s near death taco experience, please do not worry! On The Feed on SBS2, intrepid reporter Nick McDougall travels to the heart of scorpion country to taste the fabled death pepper. “I lost control of my face,” he promises.
The Feed screens at 7.30pm, Monday-Thursday on SBS 2, and this week is Addiction Week.