The Phaal Guys
Meet the New York-based men behind one of the spiciest dishes in the world.
“This document bears testament to the fact that <person’s name> demonstrated extraordinary courage (and rather dubious judgement) risking life, limb, and dignity against the insurmoutable Phaal, earning a free beer and the coveted title of Phaal Curry Monster.”
These words are on the certificate given by New York restaurant Brick Lane Curry House to any diner who manages to finish a portion of their hottest curry—and one of the hottest dishes on the planet—the phaal (pronounced “faal”). The customer also gets their photo on the restaurant’s website, in a section called the P’hall of fame.
It seems like scant reward for such a daunting feat. Each 24-ounce (about 700 grams) portion contains at least two heaped tablespoons of a powder made from a mix of crushed dried habanero, Naga Jolokia, and Trinidad’s Scorpion chilli peppers. To make this a little clearer, according to the Scoville Heat Units scale, which measures the heat of different chillies, regular Tabasco sauce is 2,500 to 5,000 units (variations in the score come from growing conditions and regions). Habaneros start at 100,000 SHU, and can go up to 580,000 SHU. Naga Jolokia, which was until recently the world’s hottest chilli, starts at 855,000 SHU, and can go well past a million SHU. In February 2012, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion usurped its title, starting at 1.2 million SHU, and crossing 2 million. To put it simply, the hottest pepper in this curry is about 500 times hotter than Tabasco sauce, and to get a certificate and a free beer, diners must eat 700 grams of the dish.
That’s not all. The curry also contains generous quantities of the following: a paste of the fiery Guntur chillies (named after the district in Andhra Pradesh) ground with vinegar; a paste made with fresh habaneros and fresh Indian green chillies; ground “white” chilli powder made only with the hottest part of chillies—their seeds—and black pepper. Chopped onions, and fresh garlic and ginger pastes are merely the rails that carry this train wreck on the tongue (and the rest of the alimentary canal).
Brick Lane Curry House is a restaurant that serves the sort of Indian food found in curry houses across England—chicken tikka masala, vindaloo, Madras curry, Bombay aloo, and the like. However, the taste of the phaal here is quite different from the version of the dish that’s served in England. “There, it is just any Indian curry, often vindaloo, with extra red chillies thrown in,” said co-owner and former Taj Air Caterers chef Satyendra “Sati” Sharma who opened Brick Lane Curry House on the corner of East 6th Street in Manhattan’s East Village in 2002, with software programmer Ajit Bains. “No one knows how it got its name, but it seems to have started as a drinking game, a curry with bland flat heat that was eaten on a dare after many drinks.”
While there is no such thing then as “authentic” phaal, it is also true that Brick Lane’s recipe is a unique creation. It has layers of heat, from the first hit on the tip of the tongue and the lips, to a sear along the sides of the tongue and a choking burn at the back of the throat—at the first bite. I had eight spoonfuls of the stuff, mixed with white rice, and then I had to stop. Not only was every part of my mouth on fire, I was tearing up, my face was red, hot, and damp with sweat and I could barely speak straight. I am a committed chilli nerd, with a collection of at least 20 hot sauces, pickles, and dried chillies from around the world, but in the interest of continuing my interview, I had to stop. What I did notice was that once I got beyond the pain, the curry with its depth of flavour, can be quite addictive. And the endorphin rush that followed, was fantastic.
Every weekday, at its main outlet, the restaurant sells approximately 15 to 20 portions of the curry. (This despite the warning on the menu which appears right after the dish’s name: An excruciatingly hot curry, more pain and sweat than flavour…we will require you to state a verbal disclaimer not holding us liable for any emotional or physical damage after eating this curry.) About three of these people finish the dish and earn a certificate. Most winners have a strategy. They finish it as quickly as possible, without adding fillers like rice or bread. Mango lassi works best as an accompaniment because it coats the palate. Beer is a very bad choice; the carbonation adds to the sting. In 2008, the curry was featured on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, greatly fueling its popularity.
Wahithulla Baig, the chef at the 6th Street outpost, has been preparing the curry for three years now. For the first one-and-a-half years, he wore a gas mask to prevent choking. Now, he is much more used to it, merely holding his breath, and tasting about 10 to 15 spoons of it every day before service. A few times while preparing the curry, a tiny drop of the bubbling sauce has splashed into his eye, and he’s had to be sent home. Once in a while, older kitchen staff will play a prank with new waitstaff or line cooks and hand them a spoonful, on the pretext of checking for salt. Bains, the official taste tester at Brick Lane Curry House, said, “If the phaal is too edible, I know they haven’t done it right.”
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi is a Mumbai-based food journalist, a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, and a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City. She is currently in New York City, where she is catching up with former classmates and eating her way across town.Tags: Ajit Bains, Brick Lane Curry House, New York, phaal, Satyendra “Sati” Sharma, The Tastemaker