watch your mouth!

Posted on August 07, 2008 by Priya Tuli

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Pungent. Fiery. Fearsome. Seething. Incendiary. Why would anyone want to eat something that first stops them breathing for up to three eternities, then makes their eardrums explode and eyes bug out as it blows their brains clear across the room?

Because it’s addictive. You eat it and die. Slowly. And then you come back for more. You forget what happened the last time. Or maybe you remember, but you want more all the same.

Diverse culinary traditions across the world seem to nurture various versions of this peculiarly masochistic phenomenon, but today I shall limit myself to just three: Japanese Wasabi, Bengali Kasundi and Sri Lankan Kochi.

First, Japanese wasabi, the traditional accompaniment to sushi, and don’t be fooled by appearances. Innocuous, green and docile-geisha looking, it is guaranteed to clear your sinuses even if they’re already clear, thank you. Wasabia japonica (Miquel) matsumura is a rhizome, which is ritually prepared by grating it against a sharkskin grater, which is actually not made of sharkskin. So what does it taste like? For not even a close approximation, I’d suggest a really sharp and unforgiving European horseradish. And you know what that can do to the unwary. For those who don’t touch sushi, and have therefore never encountered wasabi, all I can say is, get a life. But remember, with wasabi, less is more. And even then, be ready to have your grey matter exit from the top of your head and ricochet across the ceiling.

In Bengal, East India, a similar blow-your-brains-out effect is achieved with mustard kasundi. A devastatingly potent accompaniment made from innocent-looking mustard seeds, ground to a paste with salt, chilli, garlic and raw mango, it packs the kick of an enraged mule. Moments after your first taste, you will exhibit symptoms reminiscent of severe anaphylactic shock. Your entire body will be seized by a rigor and appear flushed; profuse sweating will ensue as your blood rushes to the surface of your skin in an attempt to regulate the internal thermostat and cool it down before it goes permanently on the fritz. Breathing becomes difficult; speech, of course, is not even a remote possibility.

Then there’s the ubiquitous chilli, a staple in most Asian countries, which comes in a glorious array of colours, shapes, and sizes. From tiny ones the size of your pinky fingernail, to plump medium-sized ones that look like juvenile peppers, to wicked, thin spindly ones six inches long. They come in a range of colours: vicious green, violent red, incendiary orange and every shade in between. Some are even black! The ones I refer to are the tiny little Sri Lankan ones, which come in various shades of green, red and sometimes black, and are even more vicious than the famous Thai bird chilli. One tiny bite of Kochi, and your lips swell up, your mouth is on fire and nothing is going to put it out for a long time, until finally your tongue goes numb. And we’re not even talking about what happens when you go to the loo next morning.

So back to the question: why would people want to eat stuff that causes them such extremis? Masochism aside, it’s a part of the Eastern tradition, I suppose; we relish a bit of bite to our food, and if sometimes it bites us back, well, so be it. Meanwhile, I’m planning a fiery chilli-infused curry dinner for tomorrow. Anybody want some?


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