I like a little bit of heat in my food every now and then, but if I add too much hot sauce, I'll be chugging glasses of milk for the rest of the night with tears in my eyes. Somehow, at the Dutch Chili Festival, people are electing to eat entire Carolina Reapers and Moruga Scorpion peppers like it's no big deal.
Now in its sixth year, the Dutch Chili Festival attracts more than 6,000 visitors every year, showcasing a wide variety of the world's hottest peppers and hot sauces. I attended this year's festivities to witness people's personal hellscapes as they ate through demonic peppers to get a better sense of why these masochists enjoy the rippling heat wave of Scoville torture.
MUNCHIES: Jan, when did you become a chili fanatic? Jan: I accidentally rolled into the world of chilies. First, I grew cacti, but in 1985, a girl from California came to visit me and gave me a couple of Tabasco seeds. At that time you couldn't really find them around here. I planted the seeds, and that's when my love for chilies began. There's nothing left of my cactus garden these days because I've found something else that stings.
What's so special about chili peppers? It's like a drug addiction, really. You're looking for the ultimate rush and aim for it to get hotter and hotter every time. But it should also remain tasty, because it's also about eating good food as well.
Does it really give such a kick? I grow the plants myself and occasionally show them to people at trade fairs. If someone makes fun of us, we give that person the hottest sauce, so they immediately see how serious it can get. Someone recently fainted and it was hard to wake him up. I warned him, but that's what you get when you try to provoke someone.
When did your love for chili peppers begin? Twan: It started with my love for food, of course, and a lot of visits to a Thai restaurant. Cooking some nice dinner and having barbecues with friends is great, and when you start adding some peppers grilled meat, you'll want to get something hotter every time.
What do you think is the best way to increase one's tolerance for hot peppers? You should slowly build up to it and see what your body can handle. It really is a slow process whereby you can progressively eat something that's hotter. In this way, you'll also get to know the flavor and heat of the pepper. It's not just hot; there's a rich aftertaste to it. Some peppers give a brief, warm feeling in the front of the mouth, while others remain hot as hell. Build up to it slowly: It's no fun if you have to drink a gallon of milk after every meal.
Do you cook separate portions for your friends who don't like spicy food? Yes. I'll put a lot of jalapenos in my salad, and keep them out of the other salad. It would be funny to let newbies taste some hot peppers, but you can't do that to them because it's mean.
Why are you here? Syliva: I'm from Indonesia and I've lived here for two years now. I grew up with hot food—my family used to grow our own peppers in our village. I'm here today because I'm looking to buy some good hot sauces and fresh peppers.
Why do you think hot peppers are so special to so many people? The heat gives it an extra dimension, a dimension that you don't really find in other flavors.
Mandie, your friends tell me that you're a real chili fanatic. What's up with that? Mandie: I'm originally from Finland, and my father is a real chili fan—he even has his own hot sauce company. Growing up, he often told me, "Take a bite of Tabasco so you can get used to it." We mainly eat bland IKEA-food in Finland, you know—meatballs and salmon, so my dad got hooked on eating chilies to make things more interesting.
Do you handle hot peppers well? There's a stall over there that just challenged me. The man said, "I dare you," and as the daughter of a chili farmer, I have something to prove it to myself, but that was a bit too much. I was drooling over a trashcan while my friends desperately searched for milk. They don't sell milk at the bar here. Unbelievable, isn't it? Beer or vodka also works really well with the heat. I think it's probably because you'll have to deal with another pain in your mouth, which reduces the initial pain.
There are a lot of dudes here. Is the chili world bro-y? Yeah, a little bit. Oh well, I'll survive. They often say: "Peppers are like women: They're very tasty and hot, but eventually only give you tears."
Olaf, 38, Siem, 33, and Guus, 34
You all just bought your own pepper plant? Siem: This is my new chili pepper. I'm going to name him Johnny, because it's a "Ring of Fire" pepper. I'm not even sure how hot this one is, but with a name like that, I just got to have it. I just hope I won't get a "ring of fire" after eating it, if you know what I mean. It's also about being tough: eating delicious food with friends and trying to be the one that can handle the hottest pepper at the same time.
Guus: The worst chili-related thing I've heard was when my chef-cousin went to touch his girlfriend after cooking with hot peppers and forgot to wash his hands. He didn't get any action for a week.
Olaf: Eating hot food is a part of the Rockabilly lifestyle for us: having one too many beers, getting and regretting bad tattoos, and eating shit that's too spicy.
I've noticed that there's a lot of people with band T-shirts here. Do you think it's punk to eat hot peppers? Julie: It's not some kind of soft food truck festival here. Chilies are not without huge risks, which actually makes them really exciting and dangerous, so maybe it is punk.
I see you've made your own sambal. Do you also grow the peppers yourself? Wilbert: I have always been a real fan of spicy food. We often cook with peppers at home, and we've started planting seeds for fun, which has grown into very large pepper plants. You cannot eat them all at once, so I've started making sambal to deal with the amount of chilies.
How does it feel to have just consumed the spiciest burger in The Netherlands? Guus: It still burns. I was called on stage because they were still looking for people, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I've never eaten anything so hot in my life.
You do have a little redness around your mouth now. Are you OK? You get thick lips and red in the face from eating so many red hot chili peppers. I can still feel the heat in the back of my throat.
What do you think is so great about a chili festival? Elif: This is not a wimpy food fair where mothers try cute snacks with their daughters. It's something much tougher. I feel comfortable here.
What's the hottest thing you've eaten today? I just ate a burger and asked for a little bit more heat to it. Normally, this works out fine in restaurants, but for a moment, I forgot that I'm at a chili festival, so after a few bites, I couldn't stand it anymore and had to throw away my burger.
Have you ever had a real chili catastrophe? My roommate often cooks but is a bit reckless at times. She had happily bought all kinds of sauces and oils from the shop and threw them into the pan. After a few bites, half of us at the dinner table were lying on the ground, and someone had to puke. It turned out to be an extra-strong pepper oil. We don't trust her cooking choices anymore.
What you've got there? Marcello: I've bought two chili plants for a friend who often eats spicy food. Her birthday is coming up soon and this seemed like a good gift.
Do you eat much spicy food yourself? I've always eaten spicy food but now that I have an Indian girlfriend, I eat even spicier stuff. Funnily enough, I can handle it better than she can.
Did you buy that jewelry here? Ann: I already had the pepper necklace, but I've been looking for a pin. I came here for the food and the hot sauce, of course, but mainly for the jewelry. I'm doing a burlesque act with Mexican theme, so the pin will come in handy.
Mexican burlesque? Yes, a bit like Moulin Rouge, but with Mexican music.