I feel sorry for people who don't eat spicy food. It's turning your back on a whole culinary genre, like sweet or salty. Though mainlining habanero hot sauce at breakfast, or chomping heartburn tablets at 3am, I've wondered if I'm doing myself a mischief eating too much chilli.
But, as I learn while Googling Is it bad to eat too much chilli? on my phone, chilli is far from bad for you. It's actually a type of fruit, and contains loads of vitamin C, potassium and iron. Psychologists say eating hot food is a ''constrained risk'', like riding a roller-coaster, where one can enjoy a feeling of terror because they're never in any real danger. Yet dishes around town are often hosed down for a Western audience. How hot is hot, anyway? With some diligent research, a bit of help from Twitter and some friendly food bloggers, a mission began: to find Melbourne's hottest dishes.
Scoring the Ouch factor
1. Just a little heat
2. Temperature's rising
3. I'm on fire
4. Hotter than hell
5. Too hot to handle
Where: 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 9078 1686
What: Spicy fish hot pot, $28
Ouch factor: 4
Where else to start but Dainty Sichuan? Of course, the name is a bit of a joke - there's nothing dainty about this place. Bring a group to sample a good spread of the fiery Chinese cuisine. Each dish is rated using spiky red icons: one chilli is hot, two is burning, three is nuclear. The show-stopper is the frankly scary-looking spicy fish hot pot, a murky cauldron of crimson oil served with a mini pool-scooper for trawling fillets of white fish, soy beans, smoky mushrooms, cauterising peppercorns and Thai chillies by the dozen.
As our group eats more of the concoction, the conversation becomes increasingly feverish, mouths tingle and hearts pound before … oof! We fall off the culinary cliff into a chilli slump. On the train home, I feel disoriented, with a cold sweat on my back. Is it the chilli, or the Tsing Tao longnecks chugged to beat the heat? This assignment might be tougher than I thought.
Where: 177 Russell Street, city, 9663 6555
What: The crazy wing, $2 a serve
Ouch factor: 5
''You've got to go to Crazy Wing,'' several people said when I began to canvass dishes for this story. A friend confided that his firm has a hazing initiation in which new team members must attempt to eat an eponymous wing. The boney chicken morsels are skewered in pairs on long sticks and cooked, hawker-style, over a blazing coal pit, then brushed with sauces, such as curry, garlic, pepper or ''crazy''. The wings arrive, smoking ominously, crusted with dark sauce and dusted with bright-red powder. I pick up a wing and suck it back in one go, like a tequila shot.
It's overwhelming - my eyes start to leak and the back of my throat burns fire as I shake water from a spotty jug into a glass. Wiping the tears from my eyes with a paper napkin (there are stacks available) proves foolish - it's covered in crazy wing. The sauce burns into my eyes. After more than five minutes the cloud lifts and I consider eating another wing but flee the scene, instead. To do anything else would be crazy.
Where: 70/74 Rosslyn Street, West Melbourne, 9329 8402
What: Bhoot jalokia lamb curry, $21.50
Ouch factor: 4
Next, I head to quiet Le Taj to try its bhoot jalokia chilli curry, made with the famous species of chilli that Guinness World Records claims is the hottest in the world. The bhoot is marked on the menu with five chilli icons, blitzing regulars such as rogan josh (one chilli) and butter chicken (no chillies). Do you eat this often, I ask the hostess when she brings over the small silver dish. A few spoons every now and then, she says. I dive in to the rich tomato gravy. It's like dense river mud, with a few pieces of lamb lurking in the deep. Initially, it's not that hot. But then the thermostat begins to rise. It's a whole-body spice rather than a superficial burn. My other dishes - cool in comparison - also begin to taste fire-alarm hot on my sensitive tongue. Soon I'm snorting, having finished less than a third of the dish. A few spoons is more than enough.
Where: 366 Lonsdale Street, city, 9670 3137
What: Sambal udang, $19
Ouch factor: 2
Encouraged by the service at Le Taj, I get chatting with the waitress at Mamak. What's the hottest thing on the menu, I ask. The prawns, she says, without hesitation. You'll need some rice? Yes. And a drink? Tea with a splash of lime, please. An oval dish of delicately peeled tiger prawns arrives gleaming in sweet sambal sauce.
A few juicy crustaceans later and I'm feeling an entirely manageable, rather delicious tingle on my lips. There's a kick, sure, but as the tails pile up, I'm pleased I'm not crying, sweating, or reaching for the water. The plate is easy to leave clean. I'm toughening up, I think. Is that as hot as you would serve it in Malaysia, I ask on my way out. Oh, it could be hotter, the waitress says with a wink.
Where: 320 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 9419 5526
What: Chilli dog, $9.50
Ouch factor: 1
I was forgetting the Americans. They're one of the largest producers of chillies and have plenty of saucy options to blow your doors off. When I arrive at this boutique fast-food stop at midnight on a Friday, it is packed with revellers.
The chilli dog promises to redefine the hot dawg and, true, there is plenty of fire in the house-made chilli sauce that spills over the wagyu sausage. The spicy mince, liquid cheese sauce and spring onions add further flavour, and plenty of kilojoules. But it beats a lot of things consumed at the witching hour, and the chilli leaves a lingering burn on the lips. This is my kind of fast food.
Man Tong Kitchen
Where: Level 1, The West End at Crown, 9686 9888
What: Boneless chicken with dry chilli, $29.80
Ouch factor: 2
On to the opulent surrounds of Man Tong, sister restaurant of cult dumpling house Hu Tong. The addition to Crown is a traditional oriental tea house infused with Las Vegas nightclub.
The rather formidable boneless chicken with dry chilli, a famous dish from Chongqing, in south-west China, is a riot of crisp chillies and tender chicken pieces shot with peanuts. Sifting through the explosive dark-red chips for the chunks of crumbed chicken is like panning for gold. Think popcorn chicken from the gods. Stick with the bird and it's not outrageously hot - start crunching the chillies and you might be looking for the emergency room.
Where: 254 La Trobe Street, city, 9654 9930
What: Cheese buldak, $29.50
Ouch factor: 3
''What about Korean food?'' a colleague asks. ''I hear that's pretty hot.'' Oriental Spoon is a barn of a place that has several dishes affixed with chilli-related health warnings. My K-Pop waiter tells me the cheese buldak really packs a punch. It's popular in Korea, he says, particularly with drunk women. The meal arrives sizzling on a hotplate, a volcanic-red chicken stir-fry covered in quickly congealing melted mozzarella with side dishes of bean shoots, pickled seaweed, and fishy kimchi. ''If you need anything else, let me know,'' K-Pop says. The buldak is like the topping of an exotic pizza, the cheese lending it a vaguely fast-food appeal. It has spice and I can see why it might be a hit with the intoxicated.
Where: 125 Flinders Lane, city, 8663 2000
What: Scud City jungle curry, $30
Ouch factor: 4
I know from experience that Chin Chin does some fairly full-throttle spicy dishes, so when I take my friend, who is six months' pregnant, for a mid-afternoon feast, I ask, ''Are you allowed hot food in your condition?'' She assures me it's fine.
We order the hottest thing on the menu: the Scud City jungle curry with wild boar. It comes with a cheeky warning: ''That's real hot!'' Our similarly hot waiter double checks: ''You know that's really hot, right?'' We do. The dish has been a Chin Chin staple for months but often features a different hero ingredient, such as wild hare, tripe or Moreton Bay bugs. The one constant? Chilli, and lots of it.
The first taste offers an immediate sting, a rich, oily curry sweet with turmeric, lemongrass and Thai basil and crunchy with peanuts and baby corn. We have to go digging for boar chunks, but, hell, this curry is the business. I start spooning the complex broth straight out of the bowl like a soup. They're right, it's real hot, but not out of the question, though I'm not sure my friend would agree. The next day, she sends a text message: ''I'm having chilli repercussions.''
Salaam Namaste Dosa Hut
Where: 604B Barkly Street, West Footscray, 9687 0171
What: Hyderabadi goat dum biryani, $9.50
Ouch factor: 3
I head to West Footscray on the recommendation of fearless food blogger Kenny Weir, of considerthesauce.net. Try the goat biryani at Dosa Hut, he urges. The dish is dropped in front of me on a shiny tray with two cooling sauces on the side - a tangy raita and a thin, nutty sesame dressing. I remove the huge chunk of raw onion and boiled egg from the top of the steaming bowl of textured rice and dig in. It's light, fresh and fragrant, with hidden chunks of spice-encrusted goat studded through with pickled chilli and whole cardamom seeds - a swinging masala of Indian flavours, hot, lively and nourishing. At first, there isn't a lot of pop but as I continue to shovel in the mouthfuls, a full-bodied burn takes hold. I finish up feeling like I've just made out with a tandoor. But, I wonder, could I take more?
Gibe African Food
Where: 108 Foster Street, Dandenong, 9792 9929
What: Afagne/Very Hot Dish, $16.50
Ouch factor: 4
It's Saturday night in downtown Dandenong and I'm at this unpretentious African local for the Very Hot Dish (note capitals). The traditional recipe from Gimbi, in western Ethiopia, is so piping hot it's usually served with a bucket of cold water to dunk the hands between bites. Gibe's version is slightly less hazardous and arrives in a heavy earthenware pot looking more like a condiment than a curry.
The highly amused waiters peek out of the kitchen to watch my reaction as I tuck in gingerly. It's a volcanically spicy beef mince riddled with chunks of red and green chilli and heaps of sweet garlic. Think taco mince. It's spread between sheets of enjera, a spongy, cold flatbread bubbled with holes like a large crumpet. A few bites in and I'm fanning my face frantically with both hands - it has a kick like an ornery mule. Subtle, it ain't. But it is delicious and oddly addictive.
I can safely say I've never eaten anything like it before, and that's a good thing. But on the drive home I can feel the Very Hot Dish bubbling like acid within me. Oh, dear.
And so it is that I am lying groaning on the bathroom floor again, Googling chilli-related mishaps. I know the internet says my favourite fruit isn't bad for you, but perhaps they haven't eaten Melbourne's hottest dishes in just a few days. I text my pregnant friend asking if she wants to have dinner. ''How about a steak?'' she replies. ''No chilli.''
I text back and say that would be just fine.
- Did we miss any of your favourite hot dishes? Log in and comment below.
- Roslyn Grundy's guide to chillies.
- Chilli recipes here.
How to beat the burn
The ingredient that makes chillies fiery, capsaicin, is the same one used in police pepper spray. When it comes into contact with the skin or mucous membranes, it tricks the brain into thinking it senses heat. Your nose may start to drip, tears fill your eyes, and your mouth may feel as if it's on fire. The burning sensation can last for minutes or even hours.
To ease the burn, forget chugging cold water or beer. Capsaicin is an oil, so water won't help. Instead, try drinking at least half a cup of milk, eat yoghurt or sour cream, or starchy foods such as bread, rice or potato.