The Phaal Challenge at Brick Lane Curry House: Spiciest Curry Ever?
Spicy food lovers have strangely unique egos. You certainly don't find self-professed sweet tooth fanatics boasting about how much sugar they can cram down their throat, nor do those who prefer the salty end of the spectrum parrot about how they're connoisseurs of umami.
No, the fans of spiciness are not just content with self-infliction of pain—they have to make sure everyone knows about how much heat they can handle. Make the mistake of mentioning how you had a spicy Thai dish the other night, and they will either scoff at you, or smile at you, patronizingly: "You think that's spicy?"
I mention all this, not because I'm hating on these people, but because I'm a shameless member of this club. The ominously dark wine-red promising a fiery punch to my tastebuds makes me excited. I've come to equate the biting, searing pain on my tongue with pleasure. And, yes, I'm admittedly pretty cocky about it. After all, you don't train a sweet tooth—that's something you're born with. High tolerance of spiciness? That takes skill! Years of training and experience of stripping away sensitivity on your tastebuds!
So when I heard that the phaal, "spiciest curry dish ever," was available as a challenge at Brick Lane Curry House I had to go. How could I pass up this chance to further destroy my stomach lining?
Phaal: The Taste of Pain
The phaal is considered one of the hottest curries, if not the hottest, available at Indian restaurants, although it seems it's about as authentic an Indian dish as chicken tikka masala is. Made with at least 10 to 12 ground chillies, it's described on Brick Lane Curry House's menu as "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." Anyone who manages to finish the phaal gets a place on Brick Lane Curry House's P'hall of Fame, a certificate of honor, and a free beer.
Well, they are spot-on about the pain and sweat. There really is no other way to describe this dish other than scorchingly hot—the kind of spiciness that seems deceivingly tolerable at first, only to build up to a raging furnace in your throat and in every crevice of your mouth. I offered a taste to one of dining companions, who immediately got tears in her eyes after a spoonful, and even took a time-out for a few minutes from her own curry just to get over the heat.
My Eating Strategy
The fact that it's more curry sauce than the meat you order with it makes it even harder to stomach. I tried to dampen the heat by padding it with my sesame naan, only to have the spiciness soak through and make it completely useless. Ditto for the biryani. Luckily, my waiter gave me a small dish of raita, a yogurt condiment with cucumber, carrots and spices, heavily hinting that I would probably need it. I grinned foolishly, saying I'd be fine and probably wouldn't need it. He insisted, and left it at my table. Smart man: water is completely useless in this challenge—the only thing that helped alleviate the burning in my mouth for a few moments was the coolness of the raita.
Oh Yes, I Finished It
In spite of the pitying glances from my dining companions (the staff was a bit more helpful with their amused but encouraging smiles every time they passed our table), I managed to finish my phaal, a little sweatier than I started out, along with a dull buzz reverberating in my ears. I got my free Kingfisher, although at this point I could barely drink a fourth of it.
In addition, I was presented with a Certificate of Honor showing that I "demonstrated extraordinary courage (and rather dubious judgment) risking life, limb, and dignity against the insurmountable Phaal, earning a free beer and the coveted title of Phaal Curry Monster." Yes, monster, not master, as I mistakenly read at first. No matter. You probably have to be some kind of monster to be able scarf this baby down.
You Too Can Defeat the Phaal, But Proceed With Caution
My suggested strategy if you're gonna tackle the phaal: do not dawdle. Shovel it in. Speed and efficiency is necessary if you want to finish this in a timely manner with the least amount of difficulty. Is it impossible? No—it's completely do-able if you can handle most spicy dishes. The thing about the phaal that's tricky is that it's a slow, searing sensation that just gets stronger over time. Other than that, it's really no spicier than those dark capsicum peppers lurking in various Asian dishes—it's just that it's like you're eating a giant, creamy spoonful at once.
That said, this should only be done if you're feeling confident of your spiciness tolerance. I wouldn't go so far as to say the phaal is delicious—it tastes more of heat than anything else, with one person aptly describing it as having a smokey, "cigarette ash" taste. Memorable, sure. But for a more pleasurable dining experience, I would opt for one of the many other curries or vegetable specials on their menu. Or make the phaal pain a communal experience, and tackle it with a few of your friends, so you don't suffer all by your lonesome. Then all of you can scoff at others when they mention they ate something "super spicy" the other night. Psh.