How much spice is humanly possible?

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By LINDSAY STERLING  |  March 6, 2013

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FILLED WITH SPICE Chicken biryani, the traditional Indian way

Sudha's display of spices looked like a painter's palette of India: yellow turmeric, brown cloves, white salt, brilliant orange-red chili powder — not the maroon stuff you find at the supermarket. Sudha and her husband, Venu, were teaching me how to make their favorite dish: chicken biryani. It's a mixture of spiced rice, bone-in chicken, sauce, and cashews, baked together and served with raw sliced onion, lime wedges, hard-boiled eggs, and a cooling yogurt sauce called raita.

"Usually, if I prepare biryani, my friends will come over," Said Sudha. Venu added, "When I'm home and Sudha's cooking, by the time it's done, half is gone. She knows this. She adds more chicken now from the start."

When the couple was giving me a lesson on tandoori chicken for a story last fall (see "A Wing-Lover's Fantasy," by Lindsay Sterling, October 19, 2012) I couldn't believe my eyes when they put a whole quarter-cup of spices into a bowl of 12 drumsticks. Here they were again, adding more spice than I thought reasonable for a meal. Half a cup of ground spices went into the biryani marinade, including salt, red chili, dried plums with pits, fenugreek seeds, dill seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, nigella seeds, bay leaf, fennel, brown cardamom, ginger, garlic, clove, black cumin, and dried papaya powder.

Then they proceeded to add 14 fresh super-hot green chilis in the cooking process. I'm still trying to figure out what species these chilis were. I'm guessing they're birds-eye chilis, which are 20 times hotter than a jalapeno. They also might be green Guntur Sannam chilis, which are native to Sudha and Venu's home state of Andhra Pradesh. Sudha insisted that they're just called "green chilis."

Then they added another quarter-cup of whole dried spices: bay leaves, black cardamom pods, black cumin, cinnamon bark pieces, green cardamom pods, star anise, cloves, and mace. Mace is the dried casing of the nutmeg nut. Each piece looks like a thumb-sized dried jellyfish.

Part of me doesn't know why my eyes were popping out of my head. Everyone knows Indian food is spicy. Duh, there are a lot of spices in it. But when cooking this dish at home, I had to physically force my hand to put in as much spice as Sudha had. Put. In. The spice, Lindsay. Put it in. Do it. What was I scared of? Pain? Death? Extreme flavor?

One research study in 1980 found that three pounds of dried really spicy chili powder eaten at once by one 150-pound person can be deadly. Well, there was nowhere near that amount in the biryani, so imminent death wasn't the issue. Sudha and Venu said while we were eating that they like spiciness of the food to bring them to "the verge of pain." "I do, too," I said. But here was my fear: what if the same amount of spice could send an Indian to the blissful verge of pain but an American over the edge to writhe in a pool of sweat, and tears?

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