I’m an endorphin junkie. I regularly crave a little squirt of my brain’s happy juice, and I will go to great lengths to satisfy that urge. I don’t jump off mountains hanging from a kite or go hurdling down raging rapids stuffed inside a plastic tube to get that rush. Instead of endangering my life in an attempt to stimulate my brain into an euphoric fog, I prefer to submit myself to the whims of the capsaicinoids found in the nightshade family. Before you get McGruff to sniff around my apartment for substances which clearly sound illegal and maybe even immoral, I am talking about chili peppers—those beautifully piquant fruits that love us until it hurts (and yes, they’re technically a fruit).
A few weeks ago I began a search for the spiciest dish in Chattanooga—and I don’t mean Tabasco-level heat. I’m a serious addict, and I crave the hard stuff. I’m looking to chase that spicy dragon until beads of sweat drop from my forehead, food that comes with a warning, a waiver and a nervous look from the server. I’ve got to have at least half a million Scoville units to stop the monkey on my back from going into a shit -throwing rage.
What’s a Scoville unit, you ask? Wilbur Scoville came up with the Scoville Scale in the early 20th century as a way to measure the amount of capsaicin in hot peppers. Capsaicin is the chemical that makes peppers spicy and Scoville Heat Units (SHU) represent the number of times the capsaicin in a pepper would need to be diluted before it would be imperceptible.
For example, Tabasco is rated at 3,500-5,000 SHU’s, Habanero chilis at 100,000-500,000, and the hottest peppers, like the Ghost chili, rate an ass-burning 800,000-1.2 million SHU’s. That kind of heat will burn through latex and your lower intestine before making a fiery exit a few hours later.
As my search continued, my excited expectation at the thought of scoring some primo spice here in my hometown sank into a Kafkaesque despair. When it comes to seriously spicy food, Chattanooga is a desert. It’s easier to find a one-legged hooker than a Ghost chili in the Scenic City, but there are a few good time houses where chili-heads can go to pick up some fire.
Get the “Native Thai” spice level at Thai Smile, 219 Market St., and ask for extra napkins because you will sweat like Paula Deen churning butter. Sitar Indian Cuisine, right across the street at 200 Market St., has a Vindaloo curry that is pretty hot straight off the menu, but if you ask them to make it very spicy you’ll get a delicious curry with a nice side of chili buzz.
But if you want serious, butt-wrenching heat you have to get the Ghost Wings at Market Street Tavern next to Miller Plaza. That monkey on my back shut his little chili hole when I bit into these babies and my brain started pumping the happy juice. These pungent delights strike a nice balance between the Ghost chili’s flame-throwing heat and their subtle, sweet citrusy flavor.
But why would I want to engage in chemical warfare with one of my most precious organs (my tongue, of course)? Why do any of us choose to subject our bodies to this pain? The brain is a hell of a drug. Scientist Paul Rozin called it “benign masochism.” Like any adrenalin junkie, when we eat chilis we participate in a ruse for our own pleasure. Not only are we getting the high from the endorphins, but we are experiencing the pleasures of thrill seeking without the pesky side effects of crippling injury or death.
Humans are unique in that we are the only animal that likes hot peppers. Psychologist Paul Bloom put it this way: “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans ... I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”
Our drive for pleasure is so strong we’ll endure pain to get it. That’s not all that makes us human but it is certainly an ingredient in the recipe.
Taslimi crowned‘Iron Chef’ of TASTE
Warehouse Row on March 8 was a playground for gastronomes as Taste gave Chattanoogans a chance to sample dishes from 20 of the area’s finest restaurants. Offerings ranged from bites of Sequatchie Cove Farm artisan cheese to a flavor packed curry from Sitar and an assortment of Belle’s mini cupcakes. While the portions were appetizer sized, the flavors were big and bold, showcasing some of the high quality and diverse foods in Chattanooga’s growing food scene.
I had the honor of being a judge for Taste’s “Iron Chef”-style competition between Matthew Davis of Public House, Sarah Love of On The List Catering, Eric Taslimi of the recently shuttered Table 2, and Rodger Burrows of Marco’s Italian Bistro. All of the chefs made fantastic use of the secret ingredient (kale), but Taslimi (pictured above) rose above his peers to deliver an Asian-inspired halibut dish that allowed the taste of the kale to really shine. Amazingly, he did it solo, in contrast to the other chefs who brought sous chefs along to assist them.
Congratulations to Taslimi and thanks to everyone who helped bring this fun and very filling event together.
Mike McJunkin is a local chef and foodie. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.