It's a week before Christmas, I'm at a party in Sydney's northern beaches and there's two blokes creating a scene by huffing down hot sauce like a Dalmatian to dropped ice-cream. They're old mates who love nothing more than to get together and slurp hot red liquid from a spoon for what I'm told is for pleasure but, from all the coughing, spluttering and table-punching on display, all I can see is pain.
I ask them why they put themselves through this oral hell and the response is, "It's just a bit of fun, I guess. Never really thought about it."
Fair enough, but since that night I've been thinking about it a lot. I like chilli and have what I reckon is a mid-range tolerance. A fresh bird's eye with pho, say, or Tabasco-splashed fried chicken would be lovely, thank you. However, the idea of eating spoonfuls of unadulterated ultra-hot sauce was something I couldn't get my head around.
A quick YouTube scan of "chilli eating" reveals thousands of videos of guys and girls eating colossally hot peppers with side effects ranging from the hilarious to downright disturbing. Tsunamis of sweat, fountains of tears, projectile vomiting, borderline suffocation, loss of vision, ear ringing, jabbering in some sort of weird chilli tongue and just a good ol' Incredible Hulk-out are but a few of the rewards for rolling the spice dice. Some users also report hallucinations (a la that brilliant episode of The Simpsons when Homer eats The Guatemalan Insanity Pepper and Johnny Cash voices a fox), however the science behind such claims seems unfounded.
Is it a bona fide addiction for these chilli obsessives? What pleasure can possibly be achieved from such eye-bulging, sinus-snapping, capillary-popping pain? Is it macho nonsense, or something deeper? I needed to know. (Primarily, this was because I can't handle anyone else getting a kick out of food that I don't. Similar tension surrounds the durian).
Dr Alex Russell, from the University of Sydney's School of Psychology, completed his PhD in taste and smell perception. He says that while there seems to be evidence that chilli releases endorphins – the brain chemicals produced to combat stress which induce feelings like the euphoria you feel after intense exercise – he advises against using the word "addiction" to describe a chilli obsession.
"There's no evidence that capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilli, is addictive," he says. "It's different to, say, alcohol, caffeine or nicotine. When we're talking about addiction, we're talking about something that if you don't have it, you're really not in a good state. Addiction is very different to just really, really liking something."
Russell says hot pepper appeal is likely to result from a combination of reasons. "The endorphin release is one of them, however a functional reason is that when you eat chilli in a really hot environment like Thailand or Bali, it makes everything else seem cool. Chilli is also a pain sensation, different to flavour. The active hot ingredient in chilli has no flavour but everyone can experience the pain aspect no matter how bad your taste and smell receptors are. So if you find food very boring, but chilli really interesting, it's because you're actually getting a sensation out of it you might not be getting with other types of food. And then, of course, there's the blokey thing of eating the hottest chilli you can find to look super manly in front of your mates."
Clive Larkham has been running the Herb and Chilli Festival in Wandin, Victoria, since 2012 and supports Russell's suggestion that bloke culture plays a part in hardcore chilli consumption. "Half of the ultra-hot-chilli eaters are morons doing it to be macho," he says. "However, the other half really finesse their chilli eating. For them, trying different types of chillis and hot sauces is like test driving Lamborghinis and Maseratis. We've got six or seven guys who come along to the festival each year and slowly work their way through our hot sauce alley, tasting all the different bottles until they find the one they really like."
OK, right. I'm starting to get it. It's not all about the heat. Indeed, chilli eating has much in common with the way we consume alcohol. For every person chugging a slab of beer to get blind drunk on the weekend, someone else is sniffing and swirling cab sav on a Chesterfield. I mention this to fellow Good Food writer Jill Dupleix who agrees, recalling a seminar she once attended in Hawaii where American chef and chilli guru Mark Miller claimed to use 45 adjectives to describe different chillies and not one of them was the word "hot" – instead speaking of flavours like fruit, chocolate, coffee and tobacco. "You don't have a glass of wine and talk about the alcohol content," said Miller at the time. "Why eat a chilli and talk about the heat?"
Couple Morgen Britt and Joel Adams founded Adelaide's Mexican and hot sauce specialty store Chile Mojo in 2004. They say the number of Australians including hot spice in their lives has increased dramatically over the past five years. "There's also a lot more Australian manufacturers making their own sauces," Britt says. "And they're good ones."
Adams says it is hard to say how many hot sauces Chile Mojo has in stock at any one time, but it is more than 400, with bottles hailing from Costa Rica, the United States and Jamaica as well as the local stuff. There's also a locked cabinet which stores the ultra-hot, oil-type capsaicin extracts of pure heat designed to be diluted into existing dishes – not directly consumed unless you want acute tongue blisters. "I've hurt myself just placing the sealed containers inside the cabinet," Adams says, laughing. "I put them on the shelf, rub my brow, and then boom – I've got a welt on my head."
Every product deemed cabinet-worthy requires customers to sign a waiver on purchase that insists you "will not use it like a fool", he says.
"All these 20-something-year-old boys sign the waiver to say 'yes I'm going to be responsible and use the extract as per the instructions on the label and I won't be inebriated at the time'," Britt says. "But a lot of them still go off and try it with their mates at a party."
Jackass-style stunts after a session is something I can relate to from my youth and totally understand the appeal. The greater the chance of an emergency department visit, the greater the applause. But, what of the other side of chilli eating? The iron-tongue-types who treat chilli like a fine wine, not a lit firecracker.
Extra bite: Chilli aficionado Adam Whitby runs an online store called The Hot Sauce Emporium. Photo: Cole Bennetts
Adam Whitby is one of those types. The former Channel 9 voiceover man pulled up stumps on telling viewers The Mentalist would be pushed back to 8:40pm because of the cricket and now runs online store The Hot Sauce Emporium with business partner and mate Toby Shield. For the past two years the guys have been scouring Australia and the world for the best all-natural hot sauces and selling them to a customer base growing by 20 per cent a month, as well as bars and pubs.
"I think in Australia, the chilli revolution has arrived," Whitby says. "It's been this way in America for decades. I remember I was in a pancake shop in Los Angeles and on each table they had five hot sauces. I was like, 'Bloody hell. Five hot sauces to choose from at a pancake shop? This place is fantastic'."
Whitby and Shield don't sell chilli extracts like the type found in Chile Mojo's cabinet of fire. "An extract is like drinking cordial," Whitby says. "Just as cordial is too sweet to drink straight, we find extracts too strong and too pungent to consume without dilution. We love our heat, but we're also very much flavour-driven."
I ask Whitby if I can come over to The Hot Sauce Emporium headquarters and try some of these big-flavoured, extreme heat bad boys he's selling as I figure the only way to understand the appeal of chilli-induced pain is to get in there with a tablespoon (or perhaps just a teaspoon) and try it myself.
Viva la chilli! Photo: William Meppem
A few of his chilli fiend mates are in the backyard when I get there, tasting the new hot sauces in stock. They put on a fine display of spluttering, drooling, nose blowing, swearing and foot stamping. "I feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger at end of Total Recall," says a bloke named Sean. "In the part where his enormous head is about to explode on the surface of Mars." Everyone nods in agreement; everyone goes back for more.
I pour hot sauce on a spoon and bring it to my mouth. The heat invades my nostrils and I get the appeal. The obsession. The pseudo-addiction. Extreme chilli eating isn't about being a manly man or tasting notes of tobacco and coffee. The real appeal lies in the adrenalin rush that comes with the anticipation of doing something painful. It's a powerful sensation.
From the moment that ultra-hot sauce is poured on the spoon until the five minutes of resulting eye-watering, snot-making heat is over, that chilli is all you can think about. If practising mindfulness and "living in the moment" is supposed to be beneficial to our mental health, I reckon chilli is one of the healthiest foods out there. After a few sauces in quick succession, I start to deal with the heat better and the different taste profiles begin to shine through, each one individual and delicious.
I ask Alex Russell if the adrenalin rush I experienced could be a big reason why extreme chilli eating is gaining in popularity. "It's a fair call," he says. "You get the guys down at Bondi Icebergs who swim when it's crazy cold. There's no reason for doing so as it's not that pleasurable, but they get a massive rush out of it. Normally anything that's painful indicates danger. I'd say chilli is a safe way of experiencing danger."
Chilli: a five minute trip through the adrenalin-charged dangerzone, where, provided you stay away from straight-up hits of the blistering extracts, you're securely harnessed in. Can I see myself stocking up on hot sauces and turning my spice rack into a wall of flame? Definitely. Although straight tablespoons of the stuff before bed (as I've heard a couple of boffins say they do) seems a bit much. I'm more keen to build up my tolerance and explore the massive variety of flavours that exist in fresh chillis and hot sauce, now the gear is much easier to track down in Australia and we're putting local products on the market too. The chilli revolution is here. Viva la chilli!
It's not about the heat: Red and green fermented chilli sambal. Photo: Ben Searcy
Check out these fiery events
MELBOURNE CHILLI EATING CHAMPIONSHIP
For those with a competitive streak, The B.East, Melbourne Hot Sauce and Changz are hosting the inaugural Melbourne Chilli Eating Championship. The challenge kicks off at 4pm (but there'll be live bluegrass from 1pm) and there'll be 12 rounds, with the winner of each moving on to conquer the next most potent chilli and win a range of prizes. The event will be hosted by Yeti from the B.East's Heavy Metal Trivia, along with Richard from MHS and Josh from Changz. There'll be cold craft beers, a chilli-spiked menu, an exclusive sauce collaboration, and an Afro-Colombian dance party in the evening.
Melbourne Chilli Eating Championship, Saturday, February 20, 2016, from 1pm. 80 Lygon Street, Brunswick East. facebook.com/thebeastburgers
HERB AND CHILLI FESTIVAL
The Herb and Chilli Festival is a weekend of family-friendly, fiery fun. Everyone gets a free plant on entry, there are cooking demonstrations, competitions like the Hell Fire Wing Eating Competition, the Australian Chilli Cook Off, an international food court and expert speakers sharing their tips. Hot Sauce Alley features a suite of sauce makers and sellers and there are stacks of fun activities for the kids, including a giant jumping castle, pony rides and face painting, plus lots of plants and seeds to buy to add to your edible garden.
Herb and Chilli Festival, Sat-Sun, March 19-20, 10am-5pm, 125 Quayle Road, Wandin (off Warburton Highway). herbchillifestival.com.au
ARALUEN'S FREMANTLE CHILLI FESTIVAL
Araluen's Fremantle Chilli Festival is one of Perth's biggest foodie events, attracting almost 20,000 punters in 2015 Hosted by the team at Araluen Botanic Park, it's "a feelgood, cruisey festival" says its general manager, Grant Nixon. There will be over 100 stalls in 2016 selling everything from chilli ice-cream to chilli beer courtesy of Bush Shack Brewery and three stages hosting cooking demonstrations, plant information sessions and live music. This year's festival also has a Bollywood twist so expect no shortage of curries and kormas.
Araluen's Fremantle Chilli Festival, Sat 13-Sun 14 March, 10am-5pm, Esplanade Reserve, Fremantle, araluenbotanicpark.com.au/festivals/chillifestival
SAWTELL CHILLI FESTIVAL
The sleepy village of Sawtell on the NSW mid north coast heats up each winter when the Chilli Festival hits town. The festival has been firing up locals and tourists for more than 15 years with its fresh chilli and hot sauce providores, live music, magic shows, street performances and alleyways of chilli-infused foods. In addition to a chilli eating competition (mandatory at all chilli festivals) there's also a Spanish and Mexican fancy dress comp and a chilli-themed hat parade. Fire up!
Sawtell Chilli Festival, Saturday July 2, 10am-4pm, First Avenue, Sawtell, sawtellchillifestival.com.au
with Jane Ormond