Food snobs always moan about English curry. "Tikka masala doesn't even exist in India!" they cry. And so what? Neither do social equality or traffic laws. For better or for worse, the English "curry night" has now become an institution in its own right—a beery show of bravado that's a bit like the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter but with more football songs and embarrassed women.
Yet Britain's bastardization of Indian cuisine recently came back to bite me. I'd got in touch with the Cinnamon Club in central London because I wanted to try the Bombay Burner—their own creation and apparently the hottest curry in the world.
With the dish sitting in front of me, my eyes were streaming before I'd even picked up a fork.
I say it's the hottest curry because it's almost impossible to measure the overall heat of a composite cooked dish, as Vivek Singh, creator of the Bombay Burner, explained to me.
The curry consists of minced lamb stuffed into 24 halves of the hottest Scotch bonnets you can find outside of the Caribbean, and blended with a combination of other chilies, including habanero, jalapeño, bird's eye, Thai green, and the Dorset Naga, a sub-strain of the Bhut Jolokia and up there with the hottest in the world.
I could try to work out the overall level on the Scoville scale, but the bottom line is that this was a plate of fucking hot chilies stuffed with even hotter chilies and slathered in chili sauce. You'd be hard-pressed to find something spicier outside of a can of pepper spray.
The chefs coughed and spluttered after checking the smallest bite of the curry for seasoning, which wasn't a particularly promising sign for the well-being of my digestive tract.
I had to sign a disclaimer stating that I understood the risks associated with eating the Bombay Burner and was doing so at my own volition. I'm not sure how well it would stand up in a court of law if I were killed, but it certainly added to the sense of ceremony.
I didn't really have a game plan, so opted to handle the challenge with a short burst of speed eating, figuring I could knock back all of the stuffed chilies before the spice caught up with me.
I was wrong; turns out trying to solve this with tactics was like trying to tactically approach a swimming pool full of burning oil. After just two half chilies, I was already struggling; the heat was so intense that I could feel it in my hands and face as much as in my mouth.
The chemical that gives chilies such a fierce heat is capsaicin, a substance so potent that, when used to make pepper spray, it causes temporary blindness in protesters who've become a little too human rights-y for the police to handle with batons and shields alone.
Just as I was beginning to face up to the physical strain of my dinner, the more transcendental effects of the capsaicin began to take hold. Self-styled "chili heads" often describe a mildly euphoric endorphin rush brought on by substantial chili ingestion. There was nothing euphoric about my experience; it felt more like I was K-holing in a house fire.
But unwilling to throw in the towel, I picked up my fork and stab-chew-swallowed until the plate was clear.
Molten tears and glowing lips aside, it was a delicious curry. The general rule behind a dish this intense is to create something that still hits all the flavor marks you'd expect—otherwise, why not just serve up a plate of Nagas and be done with it?
Unfortunately, the chefs weren't satisfied with my completion of the dish, so they brought me out a plate of Nagas, which were stuffed with the same vicious blend of chilies that make up the Bombay Burner.
This second serving didn't bother with the courtesy of trying to provide any flavor marks—it just destroyed my taste buds and set fire to my tongue.
After two mouthfuls I threw in the towel, drained a couple of lassis, and tried to focus on blander, happier times. Still, Vivek said that 400 people have tried the Bombay Burner and I was now one of only five who'd been able to finish it. I didn't think I'd done too badly.
A few hours later, that warm glow of pride gave way to something else entirely. What started as a slight rumble grew steadily more violent, and by the time I got home, my stomach sounded and felt like a washing machine full of spanners.
I turned to an age-old remedy for extinguishing spice, which—on reflection—may not have been the best decision. I don't know if you've ever drunk four pints of milk in one hour, but it doesn't exactly make for a settled stomach.
As is often the case with curry, the heat unfortunately remained intact throughout the entire digestion process. Later that evening, I relived all the fun of the afternoon, only this time (luckily) without any of the waiting staff there to witness my pain.
I really don't recommend you try the Bombay Burner. But you should definitely order it, then duck out and let your friends have a go.
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This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in March, 2014.