Foods hot enough to repel elephants and make chefs wear gas masks? That's right. If you think you've got the guts for it, grab a spoon and tuck into these top ten fiery foods, taken from Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011.
1. Bhut jolokia
The Guinness Book of Records has certified the bhut jolokia – aka Naga Chilli or Ghost Chilli – as the hottest pepper on earth. No surprise really, considering locals in northeastern India, where the little devil grows, have long used it as an elephant repellent. For reference, the bhut jolokia is about 200 times hotter than a jalapeno – which surely must render it too scorching for human consumption? Hardly. It's a staple in several Indian curries and often shows up in American sports bars as a manly, mouth-searing chicken wing sauce.
2. Thai Yam
Thai dishes are among the world's spiciest, and yam (hot and tangy salad) is the Thais' most potent plateful. Lime juice provides the tang and chillies the heat as they splash over herbs and a choice of seafood, roasted veggies, noodles or meats. The hot pod often called into action for yam spicing is the prík kêe nŏo, aka mouse-dropping chilli or bird's eye chilli, the premier tongue-torcher in the Thai arsenal. Many restaurant owners think Westerners can't handle the blaze, so they omit the dishes from their English-language menus. The yam section typically is the longest on their Thai menus.
Indonesians, Malaysians and their neighbours are silly for sambal, a garlic-laced, wickedly hot chilli paste mostly used as a condiment. In Indonesia there are almost more sambal variations than there are islands – pastes use tamarind and mango leaves, green tomatoes and fried peanuts. Sambal ulek is the no-nonsense standard. It's chillies, chillies and more bird's eye chillies ground by mortar and pestle, with maybe a dash of salt. Spoon it onto your fried tempeh or roasted fish and let the crying commence. The region's heated love affair began in the 16th century when the Spaniards dropped off the chilli from the New World.
Some say the surface of the sun is made of phaal. That's a little far-fetched, since phaal is a curry dish. But you get the point: it's flaming, as in the most flaming curry in existence. UK restaurants invented the recipe, and to make it the proper way requires at least 10 ground chillies, preferably the bhut jolokia, habanero, Scotch bonnet or other top-of the - heat-scale variety. Tomato, ginger, fennel seeds and meat or tofu comprise the rest of the dish – not that you'll notice after the first bite firebombs your mouth.
5. Sichuan hot pot
Here's how the shirt-soaking sweat begins: you sit down in one of the ubiquitous restaurants in Sichuan, China where you'll find a burner on every table. The waiter places down a large metal pot split down the centre. One side holds red-tinged oil swimming with chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, the other side a milder fish broth. The waiter cranks the propane. The broths bubble and gurgle, and you toss in raw meat and veggies to cook your feast. The chillies? Sure, they're hot. But the secret weapon is the peppercorns, known for their numbing effect. Which means you eat a lot of hot before realising it (though all that sweating is a clue).
6. Peruvian cau cau
Peru wins the prize for serving up South America’s most eye-watering cuisine. Thank the aji amarillo, a homegrown yellow chilli that ranks right up there on the heat index (for comparison purposes: it’s hotter than a serrano pepper but kinder than a Thai pepper). While the aji shows up in numerous dishes, it typically flares brightest in cau cau stew. Sometimes cau cau mixes tripe and potatoes, sometimes seafood, but always in combination with the chilli, turmeric and mint. Potatoes and rice accompany the dish to mitigate its blistering bite.
7. Jamaican jerk
Brash, unforgiving and smoky, jerk done right will blow your head off. The concept is simple – meat marinated with spices – but the atomic blast comes from the Scotch bonnet chillies that steep the chicken or pork for 12 to 24 hours, permeating every cell. The meat gets hot, hotter and nuclear until it hits the barbecue pit. Jamaicans developed the spicy blend, which also includes big doses of vinegar, lime juice and allspice, as a way to help preserve meat in the 18th century.
8. Yucatán habanero salsa
The habanero chilli originated on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, and it's still grown there in a fiery rainbow that includes green, orange, red, pink, brown and white varieties. Its distinct, almost fruity flavour makes it a culinary favourite, and a bowl of habanero salsa (charred chillies swirled with garlic, lime juice, salt, tomato and onion) sits on most Yucatán tables, to be dribbled – sparingly! – on whatever corn, chicken or fish dish comes out of the kitchen.
9. West African pepper soup
Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria all have their own versions of this West African staple. Although other ingredients may change – perhaps a chicken foot, maybe tripe, sometimes fish, often tomatoes – red peppers provide the common thread. The heat level can ratchet up rather quickly, especially when Scotch bonnet chillies are used, so cooks serve white rice or fufu (pounded yam dough) alongside to take the edge off.
The Portuguese introduced vindaloo to India when they sailed to Goa in the 16th century, and the name stems from the Portuguese words vinho (wine) and alhos (garlic), the original main ingredients. The Goans curried it up by adding mint, ginger, cloves and heaps of chillies, and the dish exploded over its meaty base (commonly pork or shrimp). Your tongue may throb in peppered pain, but remember this: chillies unleash endorphins in the brain, much like morphine does. That hot-spice buzz is the real deal.