There are two types of people in this world: people who like spicy food, and everyone else. People who enjoy the crunch of a raw jalapeño quickly followed by a sharp sting rushing at every point of contact on their tongue, and everyone else. People who keep a bottle of hot sauce in their glove compartment for emergency situations, and everyone else. People who eat wasabi just to feel that electric sinus-clearing pulse that shoots from the core out to the surface of their head, and people who stopped reading this story two sentences ago.
Adding heat or spice to a dish adds dimension, makes for a more intense, physically engaging eating experience, changes the body and alters the mind. For example, capsaicin-the chemical compound that makes chili peppers hot-has an impressive list of purported health benefits. It triggers the release of endorphins, which are your body's natural Vicodin. It increases metabolism, aids in digestion, promotes a healthy liver and relieves the common cold. Recent studies show how a healthy dose of spicy foods incorporated into our everyday diet is an effective way to offset the cancer-causing effects of pretty much everything else we do.
I've been on my cell phone all day and I accidentally used Splenda in my coffee. Let's see if some good-ol', ass-burning Indian food can make me feel any less cancerous. Fact 1: Star of India restaurant in Carmel Valley is two miles from my home. Fact 2: I am lazy and also stoned.
So there I am. In a strip mall. The dining room is red. I'm too hungry to notice.
A small but well-represented buffet is very tempting, but let's be honest-buffets are designed for the masses, in this case Del Mar masses. There's no way those blond guys in their white blazers or their blonde wives in their white blazers can handle any significant level of spice. The real heat will be found in a dark corner of the menu. I motion for the server.
"I want your spiciest dish."
She tells me what I already know. Most of the dishes are prepared mild so as not to offend the ill-equipped digestive tract of the blonde, white-emblazered clientele.
"I'm not like them," I assure her.
She seems excited, or put-off. Maybe both? She suggests chicken vindaloo, a notoriously firey dish prepared with dark-meat chicken and potatoes simmered in a bright red sauce.
"Make it hurt,"I tell her.
Did I really just say that? She wears a half smile that is unreadable. Is she impressed with my boldness? Or, does she think I am a fool? Is she going to make me pay for my arrogance with burning indigestion? I panic briefly, then cave. "Please don't hurt me!" I plead as she disappears into the kitchen.
Waiting, I dip warm naan bread into a cool and easy-going cilantro mint chutney. Suddenly, its heat sneaks up from behind, slaps me in the back of the head and sticks around for a while just to gloat about it. An Indian 'hot sauce' made with carrot, garlic and hot pepper is more upfront about things, and very tasty. When the vindaloo is set down in front of me, my entire mouth is already tingling well ahead of schedule.
The intensity of the vindaloo breaks clean through the numbness. A tart, acidic, loud flavor is not overwhelmingly hot, but very spicy. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. Body heating up. I need yogurt sauce to cool it off. I need rice to soak it up. I need water.
Overall a pretty exciting dish. Acidic and abrasive in and of itself, it needs the complement of yogurt sauce, which had been smuggled over from the buffet table, along with samples of other items. I can tell that Star of India is not used to catering to someone with such self-destructive gastronomic habits-aka, cancer-fighting prowess-as mine. The flavor of all the buffet dishes is typified by the chicken tikka masala, which is chicken in a tomato cream sauce, my one favorite Indian dish. Star of India's is too sweet for my taste and disappointingly mild. It was intended as comfort food to soothe, rather than excite the palate, smack it around a little and call it Charlie.
Unlike the mellow buffet items, the vindaloo is a fireball sinking in the pit of my stomach. It's going to be a rough night, but I asked for it, didn't I? At least I can rest easy knowing I've done something to fight off cancer, at least for today.
Star of India, 3860 Valley Centre Drive, Ste. 401, Carmel Valley. 858-792-1111.
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