I love spicy food. A lot of people say that, but I’m an extreme case. What I find to be a pleasant rush of heat is often spicy to the point of being inedible to most people. I use Sriracha like others use ketchup. I buy habaneros at the grocery store as if they were tomatoes or cucumbers. There is an entire shelf of my fridge dedicated to various hot sauces, along with several more in reserve on my pantry shelf. So, when I heard that Hercules Mulligan’s on Thayer Street was offering hot wings made with the legendary ghost chili, I knew I had to try them.
First, a bit of science to put things in perspective. The Scoville heat unit (SHU) is the standard measurement of the spiciness (or, if you want to be technical, piquance) of a chili pepper. It indicates the amount of capsaicin present, which is the chemical that gives chilis their heat. A basic bell or sweet pepper has a Scoville rating of zero. Your standard jalapeño, which is plenty hot enough for most normal people, averages 2,500-5,000 SHUs. Habaneros, probably the hottest pepper with which most (sane) people are familiar, run in the 200,000-300,000 range. The ghost chili (actual name: Naga Bhut Jolokia), which like all peppers varies in heat, can easily climb upwards of 1 million SHUs. Yes, that’s a million – or roughly 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. It’s a hybrid pepper cultivated in northeast India and Bangladesh. In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it as the hottest pepper in the world (though it has since been surpassed by various hybridized Franken-peppers), and in 2009 India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation announced plans to weaponize it by creating non-lethal ghost chili grenades for use in riot control.
Hungry yet? Hercules Mulligan’s chef TJ Gianfrancesco devised the wings out of a bizarre sense of what qualifies as fun. He used a similar recipe – starting with a base of Frank’s Red Hot, and adding jalapeño, habanero, cayenne and, of course, fresh ghost chili – at his former restaurant in Wrentham, which attracted a bit of notoriety and cult following among thrill seeking foodies. He brought it with him to his new endeavor to continue the fun, adding, “Honestly, it’s good for beer sales.” The challenge is to finish an entire order (10 wings), but, as this was not an episode of Man v. Food, I decided that three would be more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. That turned out to be a wise move: after several people succeeded at the ghost pepper challenge a few months back, Gianfrancesco decided to tweak the recipe for even more heat. “This is absolutely the hottest I’ve ever made,” he informed me. “I don’t think I could do three.”
After signing a waiver of responsibility (seriously) and donning a pair of protective gloves (for real), I tore into the first wing. They were deceptive at first. The aroma didn’t quite sting the nostrils the way I’d expected, and the rush of intense heat upon the first few bites didn’t even remotely prepare me for what was to come. The first wing went down quickly and easily, the heat blistering, but not unbearable. Then came the second wing – that’s when everything truly caught fire. The burning sensation from the capsaicin became overwhelming and all-encompassing, spreading beyond my taste buds to my lips and eventually my entire face. My eyes were bloodshot and watering. My forehead began to sweat profusely. By the third wing I was physically shaking. I suspect that had I attempted even six wings, I would have passed out from pure shock to my system.
Upon completing my third wing, I guzzled an entire quart of milk to try to cool the heat. It was the most effective remedy possible, but still pretty much powerless in the face of the ghost chili. All I could do was pace around the restaurant sweating and shaking, downing glasses of water until my stomach couldn’t hold any more liquid. “How did they taste?” my companion asked, and I honestly didn’t know – the heat was so devastating that I was incapable of registering any other sensation. The burning persisted like that for probably 20 minutes before settling into a nice, potent scald that seemed tame by comparison. All that was left to do was shake Gianfrancesco’s hand and begin mentally preparing myself for the, shall was say, aftermath. I’m perversely glad that I now know the power of the ghost chili, but I can sum up the whole experience in two simple words: never again.