Hot plate: Longrain's jungle beef curry with grilled beef, wild ginger, pea eggplants and holy basil. Photo: Marco Del Grande
A small nuclear explosion went off in my mouth as I bit into a Trinidad Scorpion Butch T chilli at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 2012.
It sounds like the son of a Texas oil baron, but at 1.46 million Scoville units (a heat measure), the Butch T is about 300 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. The chilli's initially sweet taste evaporated quickly before its heat expanded faster than the universe.
My face looked like Wile E. Coyote's after swallowing dynamite. Tears and mucus streamed uncontrollably down my face. My pulse soared and my body broke out in sweat. Speech was paralysed as I gasped for air.
Thrilling: Spice Temple's twice-cooked pork with fresh and dried chillies. Photo: Marco Del Grande
The Butch T was the world's hottest chilli, until one of its cousins, the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga, seized the top spot later in 2012. It cracks 2 million Scovilles, compared with the average jalapeno, which ranks at a pedestrian 5000 units (this is according to the New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute, whose experts scour the globe measuring such things).
The Moruga is grown on the NSW central coast, where The Chilli Factory, maker of searingly hot chilli sauces, is based. In nearby Umima, Bremen Patisserie uses it in a meat pie it claims is the world's hottest.
There's something addictive about eating chillis. It's probably the endorphins, brain chemicals released to combat stress and pain, which create a sense of euphoria. It feels good only just surviving the onslaught, and you challenge yourself by seeking out hotter and hotter dishes.
So with this in mind, we set out to identify this town's 10 most scorching meals.
The chilli challenge
Sydney's hottest dishes (in order of fieriness).
1. Stir-fried hot green chilli with black bean sauce at Chairman Mao
There's a Chinese joke that while the Sichuanese are not afraid of chilli heat, the Hunanese are terrified of food that isn't hot. And the Chairman himself once declared that you can't be a revolutionary unless you eat chilli.
You'll find plenty to ferment overthrow here, and none more so than a bowl of smoky, wok-scorched jalapenos with whole garlic, ginger, black bean, soy and vinegar.
Proprietor Andrew Bao says it's a popular dish, adding that the kitchen keeps habanero chillies handy to fire up a Hunanese classic, cumin-spiced lamb.
189 Anzac Parade, Kensington, 9697 9189.
2. Basil crispy chicken at Spice I Am
Nine years after chef Sujet Saenkham opened the first of three restaurants named Spice I Am, he reckons people know how hot this Thai can get when staff ask how hot they would like it.
''Sometimes I'm surprised how hot customers order it. I can't handle it myself,'' he confesses.
There's real kapow! in the gai gob pad bai kapow, a minced chicken stir-fry, with garlic, chilli and holy basil that's one of the restaurant's signature dishes. The hot version has about seven scud chillies a serve, but Saenkham warns that they use up to 20 chillies at home in northern Thailand.
90 Wentworth Avenue, Surry Hills, 9280 0928. Also Balmain and Darlinghurst.
3. Tai pla kanom jeen at Caysorn
This salty, pungent incandescent yet broodingly dark fish curry, made from fermented fish guts, is rocket fuel for less than $10. It's packed with grilled fish, cashews and vegetables and the hottest of five options to accompany the signature kanoon jeen (fresh rice vermicelli noodles), which are meant to soften the blow. Nothing does, but at least the sweet iced milk tea seems sympathetic.
1/8 Quay Street, Haymarket, 9211 5749.
4. Twice-cooked pork and leeks at Spice Temple
It sounds benign on a menu liberally sprinkled with Sichuan peppercorns and dishes marked in red, such as ''tingling prawns'' and ''beef in fire water'', but chef Neil Perry warns this poached and stir-fried pork dish ''looks fairly harmless, but it's not''. It's made with both fresh and dried, crushed chillies that are inescapable, although the silky pork fat softens the severity, alongside the black beans and crunchy leeks.
Perry's advice for eating spicy food? ''It's such a thrilling experience, but you've got to go with it and not panic.''
10 Bligh Street, Sydney, 8078 1888.
5. Chef's special fish at Red Chilli
This Sichuanese chain's name says it all. You'll find plenty of burn on a menu bearing its own one- to three-chilli ratings, from a molten-lava coloured lamb hot pot to spicy mapo tofu and an unctuous drunken chicken awash with chilli oil. The ominous warning signs on the chef's special fish are a mountain of dried chillies and Sichuan pepper. White fish fillets are reduced to mere flotsam amid the chilli oil. Good luck.
35C Burwood Road, Burwood, 9745 2258. Also Chatswood, Haymarket, Glebe, Canberra.
6. Jungle curry at Longrain
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the restaurant, right?
Martin Boetz is not quite so hard on diners slurping his soup-like jungle curry of grilled beef, wild ginger, pea eggplants and holy basil. At first, he made it with scuds, but toned it down by using long green chillies because ''it was just too hot, people didn't enjoy it and it was getting sent back''.
For braver souls, Longrain will still cook the feisty original, which begins with the pounded scud chillies and garlic fried off in pork fat. ''The fat helps coat the mouth and block the pores to reduce the intensity of the burning, but you can still taste it's hot,'' Boetz says.
85 Commonwealth Street, Sydney, 9280 2888.
7. Mirrapukai Lodi at Aki's
Modern Indian cooking tries hard to convince diners it's all about subtle spicing, rather than a vindaloo's volcanic heat, but chillies are an important part of the cuisine, and no more so than in the north-eastern region, where the bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost chilli - ranked the world's hottest chilli five years ago - is smeared on fences to keep wild elephants away from crops.
Thankfully, chef Kumar Mahadevan doesn't use them in this simple chicken curry, a mix of little more than red and green chillies, ginger and curry leaves. It was a popular part of the Aki's menu for the past decade, but now appears as a special there and brother restaurant Abhi's.
Mahadevan offers wise advice to ameliorate heat: ''The worst thing you can do is have ice or water. Eat a piece of bread, rice or yoghurt and drink milk or lassi. The more you salivate, the more it neutralises chilli.''
Aki's 1/6 Cowper Wharf Roadway, Woolloomooloo, 9332 4600.
Abhi's 163 Concord Road, North Strathfield, 9743 3061.
8. Sancho taco wat La Lupita
La Lupita is the fixed-base taqueria sibling of the wandering Al Carbon food truck. Owner Attila Yilmaz is both a social media and chilli aficionado, using the former to hand out details about what to ask for.
The sancho taco - a grilled jalapeno chilli stuffed with queso de Oaxaca (a white cheese dubbed the ''Mexican mozarella) with jalapeno-spiced guacamole and bacon - isn't on the menu (tell him Good Food sent you), but it has a kick like a burro and, with roasted habenero salsa added, there's real fire. ''I love the beautiful flavour habanero has before the heat kicks in afterwards,'' Yilmaz says.
He has most hot stuff in the bottom drawer (including the Indian ghost chilli), but he's put together a trio of ''secret'' extra hot salsas for Good Food. To try them, look for the password on La Lupita's Facebook page.
325 Canterbury Road, Canterbury, 0416 061 974.
9. Gekikara ramen at Ton Ton
Wasabi first comes to mind when thinking of hot Japanese, but Kimitaka Azuma sure knows how to supercharge a soup at his daytime takeaway noodle bar. The gekikara ramen combines chilli sauces - Korean gochujang and Chinese abalone XO - with fresh chilli and chilli oil in an egg noodle soup, with barbecue pork and shallots, that deserves some blame for global warming.
Chifley Plaza, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney, 9222 9960.
10. Sambal at Ayam Goreng 99
You can take more mild-mannered friends to this simple Indonesian ayam (chicken) BYO diner and they'll escape unscathed with bellies full of grilled (bakar) and fried Jakarta-style (goreng) and Javanese-style (kalasan) chicken and rice, but ask for the sambal terasi, a tangy Javanese sauce, made from shrimp paste and bird's eye chillies, to add the blowtorch.
464 Anzac Parade, Kingsford, 9697 0030.