Going to hell in your mouth

A friend from the UK was planning a trip to the Northeast and had many questions. He was super curious about Naga food, mostly because he had read so much about the (in) famous king chilly. Is it really as hot as they say it is? Have you ever tried it? Can you describe it? I cast around for the right answer that would give him an approximation of the experience of eating king chilly. I finally ended up telling him, ‘It is like going to hell in your mouth.’ I think it was sufficient to dissuade him from trying.

I am not a fan of chilly, certainly no admirer of raja chilly. But at a certain stage of life, I was persuaded to try it by friends and relatives who had embraced it, and used it daily in their broths, quite nonchalantly. I admired them from afar but decided I would reserve my heroics for other than eating hot food. But when you live among Nagas, you can’t run very far from the raja. Within a few years, it started to pop up literally everywhere. Most meat pickles in the market were being made with raja chilly. The statutory warning was often inserted, but many times not. Join them if you can’t beat them. I dipped my toes in the water a couple of times, and felt more confident. But an accident put me completely off the raja. I was dining with my sister’s family, and everything was going well, as always. Suddenly, without any warning, I bit into a raja that was disguised as a, a tourniquet, ha nothing so innovative. The rogue raja just happened to be part of the territory. How shall I describe the feeling? People talk about near death experiences after going through horrifically painful accidents. But I neither saw a white light nor floated through a tunnel that connected with the other world. I guess I went in the other direction, sort of to hell in my poor, agony filled mouth. It was unbearable. My nephew saw my predicament and called out three words: Give her honey! 
Nothing worked, of course. Not rice, not water, not the fabled honey.

The pain was unbearable. It was like nothing I had ever known – sheer, rarified agony. I just wanted to crawl into a corner and stop feeling, bringing all physical sensation to a standstill. It took some minutes but the pain did come to an end, after I had exhausted my list of choice swear words, and invented a few new ones. In that quality time, the pain diminished to a throbbing sensation that lingered throughout my disrupted lunch. So much for hot food.

Norwegian chefs like to boast about their new creations offering an experience called ‘smakeksplosjon’ a taste explosion that exceeds any other you have known before. I could agree with that description, while taking it in the other direction on the highway to culinary torture. 

Yet those who fall in love with raja chilly become addicted. They rave about the flavor, the aroma and its health properties none of which I would vouch for. Remember I told you about the long journey of the raja chilly from East Pakistan in the fifties to a London restaurant serving Indian food? If you recall that story, it was our men from the Naga Hills, en route to what was then Pakistan (to seek arms), who introduced the raja to the East Pakistanis, and they all came under its spell. Some of our East Pakistani friends who were migrating to the UK, carried the not so humble raja with them, and promptly cashed in on it, holding chilli-eating competitions. When a London restaurant boasts of having the hottest chilly in the world, don’t be intrigued. Remember it is none other than our raja chilly, who went on a backward migratory journey, taking a few detours as it went. At least, the Nagas can now rightfully boast of having given something extraordinary to the rest of the world.