Sunday, October 31, 2010

Aspiring to Agony: Finding Bliss in the Burn of Bhut Jolokia

sa·do·mas·och·ism: the derivation of pleasure from the infliction of physical or mental pain either on others or on oneself (Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary, © 2007)

'“It's fun,” as one chili pepper expert wrote, “sorta like a night out to watch someone being burned at the stake.” ' (Gorman, 2010).

Only a psychotic few thrill and pain-seekers dare to even approach the legendary bhut jolokia, otherwise known as the 'ghost chile' or naga jolokia, outside its natural home in the Indian and Bangladeshi countrysides; the first taste of the thin pepper whose size reaches no longer than a pencil slowly crawls over your taste receptacles with no warning of the strike to follow; after a moment the floodgates are opened in an orgasmic rush of endorphins as the heat sizzles over your tongue, and depending on the intensity, down your throat clawing its way into your belly. Your brain quickly mixes itself a unique chemical cocktail of anguish and euphoria, and perhaps for just a moment as you consider running face-first into a snowbank to ease the incomparable cauterization on your tastebuds can you see through the haze of sensations to realize that the experience can only be described as a fiery high.

Sounds like it sure feels good to hurt so bad, doesn't it?

Animals other than humans would tend to disagree. Homo sapiens remain the only known creature to knowingly and willingly partake in the consumption of capsaicin- the chemical that, in a simple definition, makes spicy foods taste hot. The most intense varieties of peppers which contain much higher concentrations of capsaicin (namely, strains of jolokia chiles) have been used by the Indian military as painful grenades to combat terrorist and rioters; Indian farmers have been known to smear the searing oils from jolokia plants on fences to discourage elephants from destroying their crops- which means that this dangerous pepper is not just enjoyed as food, but engineered as a weapon!

This dynamite strain of pepper was declared the World's Hottest in 2007 by the Guinness Book of World Records, and depending on climate in which it is grown, ranges from 850,000 to over a million Scoville units. (A Scoville unit is the standard method of measurement for calculating heat ouput in chiles by assessing the amount of capsaicin contained within the fruit). Jolokia chiles shattered the old record previously dominated by the Red Savina Habanero, which weighs in at an impressive 580,000 Scoville units, and to put things into a layman's perspective, in comparison Tabasco sauce taps in at approximately 5,000 Scoville units. One might ask, how can something known to be so utterly absurd, so ridiculous in its capability and certainty to cause pain, be enjoyed, even sought after?

Thankfully, that's easily explained. Studies have shown that humans have participated in benign masochism for centuries, especially when it comes to two things- food and sex. Deriving pleasure by causing or receiving pain (with the understanding that a threshold of human tolerance exists and) remains a widespread psychological normality that has spanned continents and cultures, unifying humankind in these two basic functions of daily life. In reference to the food aspect, a recent University of Pennsylvania study put chili-heads to the test by feeding the subjects peppers, gradually increasing the level of heat, and therefore pain, to the cusp of unbearable agony and then polling them to find which level they preferred. Overwhelmingly, the results showed that the majority of the subjects experienced the greatest amount of pleasure during the bite just before the unendurable. This being noted, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before bhut jolokias become almost a fashionable drug on our dinner tables.

Pain and pleasure remain synonymous only with the proper mental preparation. A slap of surprise instigates a completely different reaction than a slap expected. When one submits themselves to the fate of the following moments, pain and pleasure become blurred and can meld into a complicated dance of unique sensations previously unbeknownst to the subject. Bhut Jolokias, with their unrivaled intensity, have become the next great challenge to be conquered in the thrill-seeking foodie's world.

As jolokias begin to explode in markets all around the world, we continue to discover the human tolerance for spiciness on a sublimely cultural level. These capsaicin-jammed packets have been utilized for centuries in Indian cuisine and Americans (with our typical macho I-can-outdo-you attitude) have only begun to mass-market the item not simply as food that’s not solely meant to be eaten, but vanquished into submission. Seeing as we have centuries to catch up on, Americans are woefully behind in the race to introduce this as a staple dinner item or flavor enhancer, but already hundreds, thousands, even millions have discovered the indisputable power of the jolokias. If there's anything that eons of research have taught us, it's that we as humans are gluttons for punishment: self-inflicted or not! A little bit of pain simply makes the experience that much sweeter.

* Savuer Magazine, October 2010, page 63 “Fire in the Belly” by Suketu Mehta
* The Washington Post, February 2009, “The Pleasure is in the Pain”, by Andreas Viestad
* Gourmet Magazine, August 2008, pages 42-45, 116, “Burning Love”, by Tim Stark
* The New York Times, September 2010, “A Perk of our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chiles”, by James Gorman
* October 2010, “Spiced Chili and Spicy Chili Peppers” by Sarah Kaiser
* Wikipedia: Naga Jolokia
* The Causing of Pain to Enhance Sexual Pleasure, author uncited
* April 2010, “Chili-heads' seek friendly fire from powerful pepper” by Sara Bonisteel

Image from Hot Sauce Island

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Fresh? Sustainable? Farm-raised? Affordable? The worldwide seafood debate rages on and it's never a concrete battle with black-and-white sides drawn as no sea creature has yet proven its value and ability for a clean death without natural disruption or the lack of hormones pumped into its meaty flesh. The James River in Virginia hardly lends itself as an optimal source for fresh, clean, healthy fish, and yet Richmond continuously seems to offer a better stream of fresh AND affordable catches than the ocean-sided San Diego. While overall San Diego dominates in quality, Richmond remains solidly blue-collar in attitude and prices, especially in the notoriously salty Oregon Hill neighborhood, home to some of the grimiest and grittiest restaurants around- all of which have superior cuisine to even haunts of New York and Los Angeles. Mamma Zu remains one of my favorite restaurants of all time, and 821 is still a biking hipster's paradise with solid grub and cold grog.

On our last visit back to Richmond, I had hoped to satiate my omnipresent longing for brisque lack-of service with a bowl of Mamma's noodles, but Ashton's dad assured us that a new restaurant was a contender for our affections and its Latin-infused seafood couldn't be beat. Pescado now resides in the old Hollywood Grill location on China Street, and while the decor is an odd mix of eclectic hippie paintings with bright splashy walls and an upscale-feeling bar, it was packed from wall-to-wall with an equally eclectic mix normally found in O-Hill, from college crowds to bangled socialites. One glance at the menu and it quickly became obvious we were dealing with major contenders in the seafood arena.

Grilled caesars seem to be one of the trends in the late 2000's in hip eateries, and Pescado proved to be no exception; however, I must admit I'm a sucker for the lightly toasted lettuce plate. Hands down, I can attest that the greatest grilled caesar that Richmond had to offer could be found at Dogwood Grill on Main Street in the Fan (along with some of the best fare in Virginia as far as I'm concerned), but when the restaurant closed a few years back it left a gaping hole in the Virginia culinary forum. Pescado stepped up to the plate with their caesar and since their Latin-fusion brought an entirely different view to the plate I can safely say it's one of the best in town. Lightly drizzled with a spiced dressing, freshness exploded in each bite and while the cornbread served with it was slightly dry, the massive flavors wove themselves into a symphony of balance and offered a pleasant take on the old classic. Even the butter had a twist- a cucumber-infused smear lent itself refreshingly to the spices echoed in each dish and I found it to be a unique detail that spoke highly to the attention spent in all aspects of the meal.

It's a certain caliber of restaurant where one can depend on the night's special actually being 'special', straight from the heart and imagination of the chef and not just scrappled leftovers headed for the waste bin at the end of the evening. Pescado instantly struck me as that caliber. Happily, the special happened to be a favorite fish of mine, the ever-present rare seared tuna, with accent bolsters of pureed carrots served with a raisin compote and flash friend arugula and a citrus glaze. The textures were top-notch; crunchy greens the likes of which I have not experienced outside of notebook paper surprisingly blended with the giving flesh of the fish and soft purees to all build each other up in support of an overall wonderful dish.

Ashton got the triggerfish plate, and I can't pretend to know much about the creature; based on the plate he received, I can guarantee I'll be ordering it again. Curry and okra blanketed a starchy corn mountain in a wonderful blend of seafood, Spain, and the South. Maybe not Spain exactly, but I appreciate a good trifecta of alliteration and it's pretty close! Again, fresh was the emphasis and believe me, it spoke volumes.

I often skip dessert, opting for a savory starter in lieu of a sweet ending, but currently hailing from California, home to the freshest avocados the world has to offer, I found myself tempted by the avocado tart just to see if they would throw a wrench in the works of a to-date excellent meal. Rimmed with an appropriate amount of a red-wine sweet drizzle over an almond cup, they maintained a high ranking in my estimation by echoing shades of key lime pie (which I happen to detest) and removing the over-tartness by using a smooth fruit still proving to be freshly picked and prepared. Kudos, Pescado. We'll be back.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Adams Avenue Farmer's Market

When is too much community participation a bad thing? Recently there was a news story about two Los Angeles art walks that are competing for participants as they have both been scheduled at the same time, meaning in the end both will suffer due to conflicting schedules and ultimately hurting the overall cause since neither will back down or combine the two. Many are focused on just getting these sorts of events off the ground, but with communities becoming saturated with farmer's markets, craft fairs, street festivals, and so on, when can one say enough is enough- there's already a plethora of local pride and anything I do would take away from the already established events?

Thankfully, San Diego has struck a wonderful balance of supply and demand with its farmer's markets, offering at least a handful a day spread across the entire county. Geographically spread out, each market has a similar offering of local produce and prepared foods, and as far as I can tell none conflict with a nearby market with a similar demographic. Some only cater to a few vendors (like Coronado and North Park), while some cause traffic jams and thousands flock by bicycle and Birkenstock with reusable bags (Hillcrest and Little Italy). Some have a large variety of vendors offering not just produce, but local jewelry makers, paper artists, or musicians. Some close down entire streets to handle the crowds, while some are tucked away conveniently into parks and parking lots with perhaps only 20 visitors at a time. One can either get some serious shopping done, or peruse leisurely and perhaps pick up a snack before heading home via their Hybrid vehicle. Whatever your bag is, there's most definitely a market for you... as long as your bag includes no plastic and hopefully some sort of snappy "Save the Whales" slogan.

These week, I decided to try out the Adams Avenue Farmer's Market, held at John Adams Elementary School at 4674 35th Street every Wednesday from 3-7 pm. Reviews of this particular market have been overwhelmingly positive, and as one of the newer additions to the scene it seems to have remarkable potential with its vicinity to MANY celebrated local food haunts with sustainability served up daily such as Viva Pops, Mariposa Ice Cream, Blind Lady Ale House, etc. The entire Adams Avenue corridor is packed with attractive draws for exactly the market-going crowd, so I have a feeling this rookie market will only grow as time goes on.

At first glance, this is one of the smaller markets I've visited and I'm immediately approached by a vendor who I'm unfamiliar with selling a variety of candied nuts. He's extremely interested in my camera and is borderline intrusive with his insistence on pouring handfuls upon handfuls of his wares into my hands. Thankfully, I'm not allergic to nuts, because I'm fairly certain that refusing was not an option. Soon, his next-tent neighbor was offering her figs as a compliment to his nuts, and I had to peel myself away, somewhat unwillingly, to be able to actually observe the scope and variety of the crowd.

There was an obvious emphasis on seasonality, perhaps more so in comparison to others due to the limited number of vendors versus the larger markets with a bigger reach, where seasonality is often a bit more flexible.

The number of produce vendors vastly outweighed the number of prepared food vendors- I could count the number of tents with smoke wafting out from their canopies on one hand. However, despite the lack of readily available hot meals and the relatively small number of actual vendors, the variety of available items were well represented across the entire market and everything that one might need for a basic supply of produce was available and local. Too late in the season for citrus and strawberries (both of which in the summer months remain kings of the fruit stands), but plenty of artichokes, squash, peaches, green beans, and peppers, not to mention colorful gourds and decorative pumpkins lined the tables and bins ripe for rifling through.

One of the more spartan tables was the mushroom man- usually a favorite of mine (as I happen to be a fungus fanatic), but as the single mushroom vendor on Adams, there was a single-digit selection of varieties to choose between. Local yes, seasonal to be sure, but with the bulk made up of generic looking white and brown 'shrooms I was left wanting. However, one of the more exciting finds to tantalize my tastebuds was the discovery of an okra farmer! My Southern roots danced in delight as I discovered the delectable veggie available near the piles of brightly colored peppers. I've only managed to spot pickled okra sporadically at the Hillcrest Farmer's Market, but the fresh thing is generally unavailable and unwanted in this region. Gumbo anyone?

All in all, for what the concentrated Adams Market lacks in size it makes up for in variety and genuine friendliness. For someone interested in keeping their fingers on the pulse of What's Happening In San Diego Food Now, I'd recommend staying tuned for what's next on Adams. Not just in the market- the restaurant scene is taking a page straight from the farmer's book and running with it more than any other neighborhood south of Orange County. Big things are in store for Normal Heights and I for one am glad to be a part of it!