Phaal is a curry that’s spicier than vindaloo. Big deal. I order my vindaloo two ways: extra spicy, or “as hot as you can make it”. Granted, I thought there was a decent chance that Brick Lane would use some sort of habanero extract in the dish, but still I thought: there’s no white guy out there with a greater tolerance for heat than me. No mofo is going to film himself squirmming on his little TV show and act like he just climbed Mt. Everest. Not without a challenge from me.
For those of you who have no interest in eating a spicy dish simply because it’s spicy, you now know the basic mentality of someone who walks into Brick Lane Curry House and orders the phaal. And also, why Brick Lane describes the phaal on the menu as the following:
“An excruciating hot curry, more pain and sweat than flavor. For our customers who do this on a dare, we 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.”
I always felt like, as a non-Asian, I would basically have to insult the chef to get something as spicy as I want it. Something along the lines of: “Your chef doesn’t have the balls to make it as spicy as I want it!” Clearly, no insults were necessary here.
After sitting down, I noticed an Asian guy at the table next to us who was apparently in the midst of finishing his phaal curry. I knew because this was a man in pain. But I didn’t see a lot of eating going on. Just pain, and what looked more like an act of recuperation. His male friend next to him, and the woman across from him, had strange expressions on their faces. They had slight smiles, but there was also something resembling pity. Like he had just placed second in his first violin recital. When the group left, we saw that he never received his certificate of phaal survival. The man was beaten. What I had witnessed must be the closest I’ve ever come to seeing what it looks like when an Asian son dishonors his family. India: 1. Korea: 0.
I had my menu, and the choice was clear. One order of phaal. But which meat? Normally when I order vindaloo, I get chicken, but I didn’t want to go through hell and then hear someone tell me: “You didn’t eat the lamb? That’s the real phaal!” Of course, the question of whether any phaal is “real” is a distinct and valid question, but I didn’t want to leave a loophole. I asked the waiter if the meat mattered, and he said, “No. It’s all about the sauce.”
“It’s all about the sauce.”
This is a sentence that would soon reveal itself as far more profound as it first sounded. Little did I know.
So, I picked chicken, my wife got some random, unnamed, wimpy curry, and we picked an eggplant dish to share. Another diner sitting behind me, who was in the midst of his completion of the phaal (a successful attempt, I might add), recommended that I order a side of yogurt sauce. Confident I wouldn’t need such a crutch, I immediately ordered it. There was no harm having a little yogurt on the side. Just in case.
A few endless minutes passed, reminding me of the start of a high school cross country race. Adrenaline was beginning to flow, and I was ready for the pain. Then the phaal arrived.
It was much more innocuous looking than I expected.
(You know I had you with that first photo. You didn’t think real phaal actually glowed, did you?)
When the waiter had said, “It’s all about the sauce,” I didn’t know I was supposed to take him literally. What he really meant was: “Your pain doesn’t count unless you ingest every last spoonful of phaal sauce.” I guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention in Man v. Food. You mean I have to drink the sauce, too? Jesus. Ok, get me a spoon.
My wife had two small tastes and gave in to the heat. I tried one piece of chicken and said “no problem, I can do this”. She was the smart one.
The hottest dish I had eaten previously was an order of buffalo wings in a place called Cluck U. in Newark, Delaware. They had what was known as the “911 Challenge”, which relied on a recipe using habanero pepper extract. What I noticed during that masochistic experience was that the heat eventually plateaued after three or four wings. There was no such plateau this time. The last seven or eight bites were the hottest and most painful. Until then, it kept getting hotter. The only qualification here is that I couldn’t resist the temptation to pause during my meal (sort of like a normal human diner might do). Each pause, while allowing some relief for my tongue, also likely increased the heat in each subsequent mouthful of pepper sauce (the stuff with the chicken in it). So, the experience, clearly, is meant to be had only once. It’s all pain, and no gain.
Oh, did I mention the flavor? I’ll say this: it wasn’t bad. It definitely didn’t seem to be simply pepper extract, but as my wife pointed out, had a slightly burnt quality to it. The flavor actually resembled black pepper more than anything else. After I finished more than half, though, the flavor began to get tedious. And the consistency, which started out only slightly gritty, became more pronounced. An amusing stunt quickly became a job to finish.
Contrary to the above mentioned 911 Challenge, I was allowed to eat other food with the phaal, which helped. Rice, naan, napkins, candle wax, all of the above. And did I use the yogurt sauce? Hell, yeah. It helped, but unfortunately for my tongue’s nerve endings, couldn’t come close to neutralizing it.
Did I finish the phaal? Yes. After all, it’s only pain. The hardest part might actually have been fitting the volume of sauce into my stomach. (Granted, the mistake might have been the dozen raw oysters I had consumed earlier in the evening.) Nevertheless, I stand by the statement that the pain was fun. “Fun”, to use another cross country reference, in the sense that a distance race is “fun”. For some reason, you just don’t seem to recognize all that fun until the pain stops.
(Postscript: The waiter told me, “You don’t have to eat the pepper.” Hey, when you go this far, you might as well go all the way.)