NEW DELHI — I know people who regularly eat bhut jolokias -- the "ghost chile" rated as the world's hottest pepper. They're nice people. I like them. They don't seem crazy.
Appearances are deceiving.
I ate an entire bhut jolokia the other night, sitting at my dining room table with an open beer and -- on the advice of the experienced -- a bowl of yogurt and a few slices of bread at the ready.
I had the strange fear that nothing would happen, that I had traveled halfway across India in search of a chile that would be no hotter than an apple. I thought I was prepared.
What followed was a gastronomic mugging.
I know, I know. You think I'm exaggerating, or maybe inexperienced in the ways of chiles.
"I like hot peppers," you're saying to yourself, thinking of those times -- you were probably in college, maybe your early 20s -- when you'd had too much to drink and challenged a friend to a chile-eating contest. You slopped down one jalapeno after another, enjoying the way it battered your system.
I used to think like that too. But that was before my encounter with the bhut jolokia the other night, when I took the first nibble from the end of a red pepper barely two inches long.
"Not too bad," I said aloud to the empty room. My ignorance lasted about three seconds.
It was hot. Hotter than anything I'd ever eaten. My tongue burned, I began to cough.
I knew I'd have to eat quickly, or I wouldn't be able to finish it. So I took another bite, and chewed. Then another, until I reached the stem. I swallowed.
That's not how bhut jolokias are normally eaten -- most locals use them in sauces, or chew off tiny pieces between bites of their main course -- but I figured I should get the full experience.
The full experience?
It was awful. My eyes watered uncontrollably and my nose ran. I felt like I was gargling with acid. My hands quivered. As the minutes passed, the pain worsened.
I shoveled down yogurt: No relief. I chewed bread: Nothing. My head felt like it was expanding. My ears felt as if hot liquid was draining from them. Picture one of those old Tom and Jerry cartoons, with steam blasting from Tom's ears as a train whistle blows. That was me.
The experts say beer and water do no good at such times. Maybe that's true, but cold beer was the only thing that helped me -- washing away the pain for a few blessed seconds.
Twenty minutes later, I had recovered enough to speak clearly. I called my wife in New York, where she is on vacation with our children. She laughed at me.
A day later, my tongue felt as if it had been scrubbed with a wire brush. And a day after that, a friend made me a lunch flavored with bhut jolokias.
It was a traditional meal from Nagaland, the northeastern Indian state bordering Myanmar, or Burma, where my friend was born. There was diced chicken and hunks of pork and a cold stew of fermented beans, all spiced with the chiles.
The food was simple, delicious. It was mild by Nagaland standards, just one bhut jolokia or so for each dish. I loved it.
I just hope she couldn't see that my eyes were watering.