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Great Bowls of Fire : A Chile Pepper's Just a Hunk-a Hunk-a Burning Love to Fans


The mixture Paul Evans has scooped into a clay bowl seems cool and inviting, a pointillist chef's creation in slivers of green, red, white and poppy-orange.

The first taste delivers the freshness of cilantro and the sweetness of ripe tomato. Deep in the flavor something glows, like a setting sun.

And then, suddenly, realization dawns. That was no sunset. That was a firefight, just south of the tonsils.

Now, all the way along the defenseless tongue, the tender upper palate, the unguarded throat, scorching charges explode. The scalp tingles. Perspiration beads along the forehead, puddles under the eyes.

As the barrage abates, Evans offers a cool drink, a smile and a confession.

"I usually make it hotter than this," he says. "I was being nice."

Evans, 39, savors this salsa, which he ignites with a liberal dose of four-alarm chiles he grows in his Fullerton yard. And he happily squirts searing Serrano chile sauce into his mouth and swallows it as if it were honey. His "dynamite" sauce of pureed chiles, vinegar and oil burns like a blowtorch. He grinds his own head-exploding horseradish.

Paul Evans is a fire-eater.

Fire-eaters approach their food much as a lion hunter confronts a powerful, snarling cat. It's kill or be killed. Swallow or be swallowed. The eyes of fire-eaters light up as they describe what happens when they chomp into a hunk of burning love.

"It's kind of exhilarating," Evans said. "You're putting your tongue to its threshold. You're taking things to the limit. It's an adrenalin rush."

For people engaged in the quest for gustatory fire, black pepper, mustard, ginger, garlic and even horseradish are only the warm-ups. Fire-eaters typically find their ultimate pain--and pleasure--in the chile pepper.

Chiles originated in South America and quickly spread through the Incan, Mayan and Aztec cultures, according to David DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach, authors of "The Whole Chile Pepper Book." When Columbus arrived, he mistook chiles for black pepper and saddled them with the name.

Explorers and traders carried chiles and seeds home to Europe and then on to Asia and Africa. Soon, dishes from Hungary to Thailand and Ghana incorporated them. Today, India and China are the biggest producers of chiles. One study says Koreans have the hottest cuisine of all, with average chile consumption of nine grams per person, per day.

Now, chiles are conquering timid palates here.

In the United States, retail sales of salsa, taco sauce and other spicy condiments reached $640 million in 1991, surpassing ketchup, according to Packaged Facts, a New York research firm.

More acres in the United States are devoted to chile-pepper production than to honeydew melons and celery, said Paul Bosland, a horticulturist at New Mexico State University and director of the Chile Institute there. Americans eat more chiles than they do either green peas or asparagus, he said.

But the question remains. What turns people into fire-eaters?

The fire-eaters can't really explain it, since food that would scorch the average mouth tastes just right to them.

Evans said he began when he doctored his father's poker-party chili with spices he had tasted at his Latino friends' homes. As a teen-ager, he began to use chiles to wean himself from fattening butter-and-cream cooking. He discovered he was hooked.

"How do you explain the craving you have for something? he said. "You get used to a flavor and heat, and you wonder, 'What will a little more do? And a little more?' "

Connecticut chemistry professor Susan Henderson encountered her first spicy food at a Thai restaurant in New Haven. Most of the dishes seemed so excruciatingly hot she couldn't eat them.

"But then, almost immediately, I wanted to go back," she said. "It's a real kind of craving cfor foods I had found painful," she said. "The more you eat, the more you want."

Researchers have several theories to explain the fiery-food romance, "and probably more than one of them is true," said Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Perhaps a food's flavor offsets the burn, Rozin said. Or people first encounter spicy food in a positive social setting, so they learn to love it because family and friends do.

"I've studied this in Mexico. Everyone is eating, enjoying chiles and the little kid of the family is getting into it," he said.

Rozin has also theorized that fire-eaters like risks--but not as much as sky divers and mountain climbers do. Blazing food gives fire-eaters a rush, but they don't have to worry about failed chutes and fraying ropes.

Finally, there appears to be a biochemical reason for the chile passion. The fire that burns inside the chile not only gives diners pain, but also pleasure.

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