In the mockumentary, "Spinal Tap," Christopher Guest plays Nigel Tufnel, a British rock musician who proudly shows filmmaker Marty DiBergi (played by the incomparable Rob Reiner) an amp whose volume controls "go up to 11" as opposed to the usual ten.
Tufnel describes the need for 11 as "if we need that extra push over the cliff." The same thing happens with the connoisseurs of spicy food, myself included. We're like little kids who want to see how far they can go with a prank before getting caught. My rule of thumb is that I still need to be able to taste the food amid the heat, kind of like giving my tastebuds a thrill not unlike that first blast of sunshine after a storm. But with a bit of pain involved.
When Pam told me some time ago about a Himalayan restaurant on Venice Boulevard, I was intrigued. We met at Tara's Himalayan Cuisine for one of our all too rare dinners and were warmly welcomed by Tara herself. Pam, who is my former supervisor at work and who has a keen magazine editor's sense of getting the whole story, helped order a meal that was indicative of the restaurant's best qualities. But I had to dally with the devil and order the "yak chili," a dish that sounded from the online menu like a bowl of red made with the meat of a shaggy, good-natured bovine.
Fellow intrepid diner Pam... Most likely to scale Everest - but drew the line at the painfully hot yak! Here she is, enjoying the best of two worlds - Chinese-influenced momo dumpling and Indian pappadum cracker...
We had delectable vegetable momo, a lightly steamed dumpling similar to potstickers. Pam ordered her favorite dish, a tandoori chicken that arrived sizzling like fajitas. I was surprised that the much-anticipated yak looked like a sliced beef concoction from a Chinese restaurant. But the tame garnish of onion, tomatoes, and bell peppers belied the fire within. Although I had ordered the dish to be made medium spicy, it was beyond hot. After a couple of bites, Pam decided that she could not eat it, and I choked down as much as I could, in between pleas for cold water and more rice. I'm looking forward to the next visit - maybe I'll order it "hot" next time and bring along some liquid nitrogen for my tongue.
Yakety-yak: this seemingly tame dish didn't just talk back - it bellowed.
Still, others not only seek out the fire, they like to create it themselves. Adriana shares this Christmas tradition of her family's for "El Pavo Caliente."
"We prepare a turkey with my mom’s secret recipe - and I say secret because it is not written in any cookbook or even a loose piece of paper, but it is the same traditional recipe every year," she says. "I guess it was her invention. On the night before Christmas Eve (December 23rd), we all gather at my parents' [house] and inject the turkey with a delicious concoction of chiles, spices etc.
"Everyone is selfish and only injects the part they would eat," Adriana says. "After a while, we have pinched that turkey until it looks more like a colander than a bird," Adriana says. "But we sing and [inject the turkey] until there is no salsa [left].
Adriana says that the tradition in Mexico City, where her parents live, is to take the main dish for Christmas dinner to the panaderia to be cooked.
"Many panaderias will start accepting turkeys, pork roasts, crowns of beef early on December 24th," she says. "People started doing this because panaderias have huge brick ovens which makes the flavoring of the dish a little better, and thus the tradition continues. We then pick it up to enjoy the delicious bird all together, and say as we do every year,"Oh, Mom, this turkey is better than last year's!"
Pump it up: Adriana's family injects the Christmas turkey with her mother's secret salsa. L-R: Victoria and Jorge Javier, Jeremie Bitoun, Karla Villalobos, Adriana Bitoun, and Camille Bitoun.
I even like spice in my sugar. After watching Ina Gartner, "The Barefoot Contessa" make these fabulous lollipops with fruits and nuts while visiting British chocolatier William Curley, I made my own version.
Fun - or fire - on a stick.
I tempered dark and white chocolate chips in the microwave by gradually melting them in a Pyrex cup, spooned out little puddles of melted chocolate on a foil-covered cookie sheet, and pressed a variety of "healthy" sweets and savories into them, such as dried cranberries and figs, smoked almonds, crystallized ginger, and miniature pretzels. I got a bit adventurous and inspired by the Aztec Brownie at Tender Greens, I added a mixture of chipotle and ancho chili powders and a bit of sugar into some of the chocolate, and made "warning" labels for the finished product. When I finally ate one, I was a bit disappointed in the heat level, but others said they were pretty tasty. I guess I should create the next batch with designations for both the timid and thrill-seeking: a "level one" could be slightly redolent of chili, the "911" would be for those who boast tastebuds of asbestos.
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