Fire in the Belly

A batch of chili proves life-affirming in more ways than one

By Suketu Mehta

Published on September 27, 2010

One night last summer, I made a chile-spiked chili for my family: my parents, my sons, my partner, and her parents. We are all Indian, but while some of us have been steeped in chiles since our births in India, others—like my Chicago-born partner and my Manhattan-born, 15-year-old son—approach the genus capsicum with trepidation. Still others just have a God-given affinity for heat. My 12-year-old son, for example, also a native New Yorker, has been enjoying chiles with his breakfast cereal since infancy. It makes me realize that the world is divided not between rich and poor, or male and female, or East and West, but between those who like spicy food and those who do not.

This was an important meal, the first time I was meeting my partner's parents. Her father likes his food spicy, her mother, less so. I decided to make two versions of the chili: hot and hotter. I prepared it carefully, soaking the beans overnight, chopping the onions and garlic, roasting and grinding the spices. I laid the table with soft linen and fresh lilies and bathed it all in candlelight, to lull everyone into a false sense of security, as if they were going to get something European, flavored with nothing stronger than tarragon. It was a warm evening in Manhattan, and I left the windows open to the breeze from the Hudson River.

When the two pots of chili appeared on the table, my younger son smiled, my older son groaned.

"They're very spicy, be careful," my parents warned my partner's parents.

"How spicy can they be?" my partner's father scoffed.

Forewarned, my guests commenced to eat. They began with a taste of the lower-voltage version and then, unable to help themselves, switched to the maximum version. Shouting ensued. Then they took some more and started getting all ruddy and sweaty, laughing excessively and speaking louder than necessary—until they went all quiet and sat back in their chairs, lost in some private reverie, going back to a time of contentment, before the beginning of tragedy, beyond the imagining of loss. A preternatural calm overtook them as the pain-fighting endorphins kicked in, and they lay on the sofa blissed out in an entirely legal high.

Most of the heat in my chili used to come from habanero chiles. Then I discovered the naga jolokia. The measure of a chile's heat is called a Scoville unit; a jalapeño has about 8,000, a habanero, half a million. The naga jolokia, meanwhile, explodes with over a million Scoville units. In the Indian state of Nagaland, they rub it on fences to repel marauding elephants; the pachyderms smell the chile and wisely run the other way. The heat in the naga jolokia was even synthesized in an Indian defense laboratory for use in hand grenades, and in 2007 Guinness World Records declared it the world's hottest chile. In the UK you need proof of age to buy them.

Over the years, I have administered my chili to people experiencing heartbreak, bankruptcy, and depression. Eating it, all other pain in life is put into perspective. It is tasty and happens to be vegetarian, as I have been for some 30 years now. But not for health reasons—not because I want to live forever. I'm vegetarian because I don't like to kill animals. And like many vegetarians, I like my food spicy. This is mysterious to many people, the same ones who also assume that vegetarians must be pacifists and partial to clothes made out of hemp. As a result, I have suffered more tasteless meals than the sins of my previous lives merit.

So this chili is my revenge on all those who would punish me with bland food simply because I want to reduce the amount of suffering on the planet. It is the anti-health food; it should be accompanied with shots of bourbon and profanity.

The evening last summer when I made the chili for my partner and our families was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Everybody got on great, united by their imprecations against the cook. Later that night, though, I woke with a fluttering in my chest. I put my hand over my heart and thought of my uncle who'd died at 34 of heart disease.

When I went to see the doctor, she gave me an EKG. "Your heart is fine," she told me. What I was feeling was probably heartburn caused by the spicy chili I'd made. "But let's get you a chest X-ray, just in case."

And there it was: a two-inch spot over my lung, the earliest stage of a malignant tumor. I've never smoked, so I never would have been checked for this. By the time I developed symptoms it would have been too late: 85 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer die within six months.

Cancer is what happens when some part of ourselves wants to live forever. The body is more a confederation of cells agreeing to act in concert than a single organism. When a cell refuses to die and transmits that obdurate life force to its neighbors, we get cancer—death brought on by the striving for immortality.

As I said, I'm not trying to live forever. But because of the gastric reverberations my chili produced on that night last summer, the cancer was detected early; I had surgery. And now I live to tell the tale.

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