Food Humor

DUMB STUFF I DID IN MY 20’s: Taking the PHAAL

Editor’s Note: This is a totally true (and exceedingly dumb) story from 15 years ago. usindiamonitor was so dumb back in 2005 in fact, that I had planned a date for later this same night in New York’s East Village, which had to be cancelled due to the most excruciating gastric distress imaginable. usindiamonitor is pulling some stories out from “The Vault” – stories from 2000-2012 prior to this blog being launched which helped me get up my writing chops. More of these are coming during COVID quarantine- also, remember what it was like to just chill at restaurants with friends?

Gas masks, capsaicin, biohazard- what could go wrong?! gettyimages.com

My colleague Nate and I had been talking for some time about facing off in a duel related to eating extra spicy-hot food.   It is fitting that last weekend we decided to take the “phaal,” the hottest entree dish I have ever eaten in New York City or anywhere else, excluding hot sauce.  The phaal is served at a British-Indian curry shop on E. 6th St. called Brick Lane Curry House, which used to be known as Goa (some of you may recognize the names from the 2-for-1 drinks parties I’ve hosted there, the last of which unfortunately featured a fight between two grown men (literally over who was better at video game basketball) culminating in a broken window pane and an unconscious desi loudmouth. Famously featured on Man vs Food and numerous other food shows, the phaal must be made by a chef who (epically!) dons a gas mask due to the incredibly dangerous amount of fumes in the kitchen. It is conjectured that the phaal uses not only the hottest chili peppers known to man, but also pure capsaicin extract– the little bastard hiding in the ribs of chilies to which the seeds are attached- the stuff that makes you burn, the spice of life of spice.

This was to be my second stab at the phaal.  The first time, I chickened out after finishing merely half of it.  I love hot food, far hotter than most restaurants would ever make it, so I always ask for hot sauces or crushed red pepper whenever I go out.  I make my own devil’s brews in the kitchen.  My mom trained me since childhood by putting spicy Indian pickles into my baby food.  But this phaal was something else.  A bunch of us ordered assorted curries from Brick Lane over a year ago, including a curry called vindaloo which is supposed to be the next hottest one after the phaal.  My roommates at the time got their asses kicked by the vindaloo, to the point where so much sweat was dripping off their heads and faces, it was as if they had been in a long shower.  I took a bite of the vindaloo that day, and it tasted like a sweet DESSERT in comparison to the phaal.  The phaal hurt me- and since I wasn’t being pushed by anyone else, and there weren’t any ladies nearby to impress, I stopped eating it halfway.  Already my mouth, ears, throat, sinuses, and stomach were burning, so I called it a night.

This time would be different.  It was a dare.  A third party, a Tamil buddy named Niranjan visiting from Philly, was invited to join the fray but politely declined.  Instead he would act as a witness.  Madras Tamilians are well-known for their fiery tastes to match their oven-hot climate, but he was having none of it.  “This whole thing is beyond my comprehension,” he kept repeating, as my colleague and I looked at each other and laughed before we ordered the phaal.  My colleague being a pasty-white American added to the irony.  However, the Tamilian offered to bankroll the meal if we both finished the entrees.  As it was, the restaurant was offering us free beer if we succeeded.  Just so you know the official line, I have included the description from the menu here:

Phaal
An excruciatingly hot curry, more pain and sweat than flavor. For our customers who do this on a dare, we will require you to state a verbal disclaimer not holding us liable for any physical or emotional damage after eating this curry. If you do manage to finish your serving of curry, a bottle of beer is on us.

Apparently someone once got a nosebleed from the curry. So of course we had to try! We were driven to try this challenge from a New York Post article exploring the spiciest foods in New York.  It featured two thrill-seeking experts on spicy foods who couldn’t even finish the dish.  We said, bring it on!

To keep all things equal, when I learned my challenger had finished a scotch drink and a beer beforehand, I did the same.  We would need whatever numbing effect we could get.  The hostess kind of laughed at us when we ordered our entrees: two chicken phaals, and a mild salmon dish for my Madras-via- Philly friend.

The initial physiological reactions were expected.  The first few bites were fine- it was hot but it soon became clear that we would both be able to finish.  It actually tasted really good too- better than I remembered it from the first time. Halfway into it, I was in sincere pain- lips, mouth, sinuses, ears, throat- the expected.  But this time I was not going to back down.  I interspersed the bites with sips from the pint of Newcastle, which never strayed far from my free left hand.  We all conceded that eating the curry with rice and naan bread made it an easier proposition- almost like cheating.  Sweat, tears, and snot all began to flow freely.  I went through many tissues.  My caucasion colleague was far more red than white.  My mild salmon-eating friend laughed and took photos of us, while repeating that this was all beyond his comprehension.  Without a dare, I would have quit right then.

After a while a few unexpected things happened.  I began to get a serious high from the food- my brain slowed down, and I had to strain to concentrate on the dinner table conversation.  I even had to strain to turn my head from one person to the next, and they were both sitting right next to me.  The slowdown wasn’t just physical, it was also mental.  Most alarmingly of all, my back began to hurt profusely, something that my challenger did not experience.  It was hard to explain, but the only theory I could come up with was that all of the oxygen was rushing to the digestive tract from other parts of my body, so my back and brain were being forced to compensate without their normal oxygen feed.  Or something. 

We both finished the dish just as we knew we would- but I also knew that the biggest price to pay was yet to come.  I would have been incapable of operating heavy machinery due to a weird type of intoxication.  The back pain was so bad that I needed to take a cab for the walking distance home, and plop down on the couch for a while.  Then came the most intense stomach pain, which ended up lasting until the next morning.  Numerous restroom breaks ensued, none of which eased the pain.  As I lay awake most of the night, struggling to sleep, trying all types of different sleeping positions, I questioned if it had been a good idea.  I had never before had back pain in my life.

Now that I have recovered, I think the glory was worth it.  When we finished, the hostess told us our picture would be placed on the restaurant’s website, in the “Phaal of Fame,” and that only about 16 others had completed the feat to date. Many had failed. We had gone deep into where most men and women never care to go.   Next time, we will have to do it the pure way- without bread or rice.   

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor

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