Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Brand New P'haal Curry Monster

Through the tears, I looked up to see my mother’s face, wrenched with concern for the welfare of her only son. “My child is suffering,” she cried.

I didn’t have a life-threatening disease. I wasn’t stretched out on a sidewalk bleeding from a gunshot wound. But the pain was about the same. I was eating a plate of p’haal at the Brick Lane Curry House in the East Village.

Originally a Bangladeshi curry, p’haal has always been spicy. But in early twentieth century England, Indian restaurant owners upped the ante. British revelers would stumble into Indian restaurants after the pubs closed to harass the staff while eating a nice curry. The owners got revenge by dumping ten to twelve ground chilis into each bowl of p'haal.

The kinds of peppers that they chose to feed these rude Brits tell you just how much Indians resented colonization. One pepper was naga jolokia, which translates to “cobra snake” and is used by Indian farmers as the main ingredient in smoke bombs to keep wild elephants away from their crops.

But the Brits were so drunk they didn’t seem to mind the spiciness - not to mention the stomach aches, passing out, and nosebleeds. Eating this unbelievably hot curry soon became a ritual for late-night male bonding.

I hoped to participate in this bonding ritual at Brick Lane. While waiting to be seated, I got off to a good start when I met a guy from Texas at the bar. Was the rumor true that he’d tried the p’haal? “Naw, I didn’t try it,” he said. Then he smiled. “I didn’t try it. I tamed it.” With that, he whipped out the Brick Lane certificate that proclaimed him a P’haal Curry Monster. His attitude was exactly the kind of bravado that I needed to inspire me. How else could I conquer a dish that defeats 90 percent of want-to-be Monsters?

But the Texan took off, and my bonding for the night was over. No one at my table was masochistic enough to join me in ordering the fiery curry. They thought the other menu options looked especially good after the owner, Sati Sharma, said we could only get the p’haal if we gave verbal disclaimers not to hold the restaurant liable for physical or emotional damage.

I gave the disclaimer, and when I took my first bite, it stung my palate like chards of glass. My table mates looked at me like I was a circus freak getting paid peanuts to lie down on a bed of nails. The spectators seemed to be divided into two camps: those like my parents who worried that my brain would melt; and another group, mostly the Indian wait staff, that clearly enjoy the site of yet another customer panting and wildly fanning himself with his napkin. Our friend, Don, had a foot in both camps: he showed some sympathy, but he also cackled with amusement when I told him that the spiciness was making me so congested that I thought I was losing my hearing.

About this time, I got a text from my Indian friend Dave, a well-known asbestos mouth who pumps bottles of hot sauce like most people squeeze the lap bar during a roller coaster ride. “You’re crazy,” it read. “I would never try that stuff.”

I felt alone and misunderstood, and my tongue was killing me. I kept waiting for the high that’s talked about by lovers of painfully hot curries. Supposedly, the body defends itself against the heat by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Indonesians on the Spice Islands who eat bird’s eye chilies as snacks throughout the day are said to be addicted to these endorphins. But my only addiction was to a cool glass of lassi, the Punjabi yogurt blend, that the waiter gave me to help quiet the screaming pain fibers in my mouth. But even this was an exercise in futility. There’s nothing you can do for the chili burn. Once the capsaicin penetrates the tissues in your mouth, only time allows the compound to break down. Cold beverages temporarily help because they numb the nerves, but as soon as you swallow, the bonfire lights up again.

My dad studied the p'haal and said that the smell suggested law enforcement grade pepper spray. “You don’t have to finish it,” he reminded me. Defiantly, I took my biggest bite yet and immediately regretted it.

Mercifully, I heard my spoon scrape the bottom of the plate. Sati, the owner, had been watching me closely, perhaps to make sure I didn’t try to hide any of the p’haal in my pockets like the mutton trick on Seinfeld. Sensing my progress, he came running over. I had done it. I had finished the p’haal.

“You are not done yet!” Sati said, shaking his fist. “This,” he said, pointing to the huge chili pepper that came as a garnish, “you must eat this, too.” I stared at him in dejection until Sati laughed and I realized he was kidding. Then his smile went away and he cleared his throat. “You do have to continue, though,” he said, pointing at the curry-covered clumps of rice that were left on my plate. My parents eyed him venomously, but I just wanted to live up to Sati’s expectations. He was like my sergeant in the eating marines.

I regrouped and polished off the last traces of p’haal. I was happy to accept my Curry Monster certificate from Sati, but my stomach was like a furnace. With every breath, the flames would shoot back up into my throat. I said I needed some fresh air. Outside, I crossed the street to a shadowy area of the sidewalk, waited for a couple to pass by, and threw up.

I was a little embarrassed that the p’haal had reduced me to sidewalk decorating. But I think later that night I earned back some tough points. After we left the restaurant, I ignored my stomach's protests and went out with Dave for quail eggs. The Texan would have been proud of me.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. a brand new comment for the brand new monster: Good ending.

    p.s. we want woodberry kitchen.

  3. i won't believe it til you post the certificate!