Eating Fire

at 12:35 AM

I have no idea how it happened. Both my sister and I, offspring of Midwesterners whose idea of "spicy" is Cantonese-style with a little ginger or garlic, love it hot. Perhaps we are changelings. For me, it's not hot enough unless it makes my nose run and my eyes water.

Jalapeños don't really cut it -- they've been bred down to the lowest common denominator so the masses can enjoy their poppers without crying foul, or filing lawsuits for assaulted dignity. Chipotles, for the most part, retain some fire, and I use them often in cookery to good effect. My favorite chipotle-bearing recipe of the moment, black bean and sweet potato stew, is sweet, hot, smoky and substantial. Serranos are decent, and most of the year they are my fall-back pepper when I need one freshly diced. But my true love is the habañero: loud as sirens, bright as flames and positively stuffed with Scoville units, the most common measure of a pepper's wallop. The lurid orange color of their skin is an added bonus, as is the fruity edge that moderates the heat a tad.

Recently I heard about a pepper new to the West, the ghost chile of Assam. Also called the poison pepper, its appearance is deceiving. Roughly three-and-a-half inches long and a demure orange-red, it looks a bit like any number of its milder cousins. But this baby is so hot, the legend goes, that to eat it is to feel you're dying.

To put things in perspective, jalapeños typically don't exceed 10,000 Scoville units, while habañeros -- my Caribbean queens -- pack between 300-600,000. The ghost chile, by contrast, tops one million Scovilles - a million! The roof of my mouth blisters at the very thought. But I know I've got to try it. No self-respecting chile-head would hesitate.

Stand by with the fire extinguisher, will you?

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