I had my first experience with a habanero pepper when I and a friend were trying out a new Mexican restaurant here in Columbus last week. My fajitas came with a little bit of very-mild diced tomato-and-onion salsa that was seasoned only with cilantro ... or so I thought.
Midway through the meal, I speared a small, corn kernel-sized green cube -- which I took to be an unassuming stray bit of bell pepper -- and popped it into my mouth. And bit down.
The first fraction of a second, I got a faint sour-apple taste and a crunchy texture. Just enough for my brain to register that, no, this wasn't bell pepper. This was an entirely alien vegetable I'd just put in my mouth.
And then I got the heat.
Bear in mind that I like spicy food. I put sriracha sauce in practically everything, and I'm a regular wasabi junkie. When I go out for sushi, I'll take a dab of that wonderful green paste, let it melt on my tongue, and ride the wave of euphoric heat that makes me feel like my entire head's going to explode right before those lovely endorphins kick in. Yeah, that's the stuff.
But this -- oh my. That little cube of pepper made me feel like I'd taken a shot of napalm followed by a Bic chaser. Tears started streaming down my face.
"Are you okay?" my friend asked.
"Oh my God, this is hot," I replied. And then I said it again. Several times. The repetition helped minutely, if for no other reason than it gave my tortured tongue some air.
I took a spoonful of sour cream, hoping the fat would cut the burn. It didn't. I sipped my iced tea, which if anything seemed to make it worse.
"Can I get you a beer?" my friend asked. "Or a glass of milk? I hear milk helps."
"No, I'll be fine." I thought of the scene in Fight Club where Jack's just shot a hole in the side of his own face.
And I was fine, though it was probably fifteen minutes before I could eat anything again. I imagine that only a shot of Strawberry Surprise could be more intense than habanero.
But that's an experiment I'll leave to someone else.