Saturday, 18 January 2014

Restaurant Review: Rupali, and the Curry Hell Challenge, Newcastle upon Tyne

Hell Hath Fury
We're a peculiar species, don't you think? Having bossed the planet into submission with our opposable thumbs and our shit-hot comms skills, we seem to have gotten a bit bored and now many of our number seek out all manner of idiosyncratic challenges and tribulations. Some people lob themselves off buildings, others climb mountains. Others seek their glories in the consumption of stupefyingly spicy food, which brings us to a moist and unrelenting January Friday in Newcastle's Bigg Market.

This meal had quite the gestation period. Our friends James and Rosie moved to Newcastle last year. James reckoned himself a capable consumer of hot curry, regularly putting away Phaals without breaking stride, and somewhere along the line decided his destiny lay in the slaying of Rupali's famous Curry Hell challenge. I was dubious, presuming that the thing would be unfinishably hot. Started by then-owner Abdul Latif in 1987, if you finish the Naga-powered hellpot, you get it for free. Many try, but according to our waiter only 10-15 per year finish the blighter. James kept banging on about it until eventually the date was set, with Rosie and I to spectate/ encourage.

Fail to prepare... James, pre-emptively shopping for indigestion aids.
I should probably say a few words about the food that I ate as well as the food that I didn't. I've heard some folks rate Rupalis quite highly but I'm afraid I can't agree. A starter of fried potato and green pea cakes was inoffensive if bland, while the advertised tamarind chutney had little of that fruit's characteristic tartness.

Allo [sic] Green Peas Tikki
My main was a Keralan style sea-bass curry. Despite the visible presence of fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds this managed to taste of very little at all and had an odd texture that managed to be both watery and gloopy at the same time. The fish itself tasted ok.

Kerla Machli Curry
The restaurant has also seen better days - much better, you'd hope - but all of this is, frankly, besides the point. The main event - see pic at the top of this post - showed up in due course and James set about it. I had the tiniest dab, just so I knew. The taste was bitter and overpoweringly of raw cayenne. The heat that then came was astonishing. It felt like someone had set a tab lighter to my gums. All of a sudden what had seemed like a jolly jape changed into something altogether more serious and I felt guilty, as if I was complicit in the kind of cruel and unusual punishment that you hear about in news stories that contain the words "Geneva Convention". Anyway, this isn't my story to tell. Here's an account of facing down ones curry demons, from a man who has made it to the other side and back again and, yes, lived to tell the tale:

This will be more a jangled recollection than any reasoned reflection due to the patchy and slightly traumatised state of my memory. My first reaction was one of relief. If you're a manly and muscular curry eater with long experience of supping down hell-sauce then Rupali's Curry Hell will be manageable with some mental focus and moral support. Once the first few forks were in I knew that I'd be able to finish it. Eating it was easy. The only thing that slows one down is the irresistible feeling that your mouth is suffering chemical burns which can only be quenched by massive quantities of dairy.

Nearly done, but at what cost?
The reviews of this stunt that I've read only consider the actual eating of the stuff. But hell is only to be experienced in the long gloomy period of digestion that follows the initial public glory. Towards the end of the plate my legs started to feel heavy, as if my bones had grown denser. My stomach was a super-heavy singularity of galactic hot curry, slowly swirling in a far distance. This was the Ghost Chilli slowly corroding my stomach wall; I could feel beads of perspiration trickling down my brain stem.

It became very difficult to move following the meal. After Rosie and I left, my movements through town became more shuffled with each step towards the taxi rank. Walking home was impossible; I moved up the line of waiting cabs with considered steps. I needed to focus solely on the immediate future to suppress the feeling that I was going to turn inside out.

Once home I settled into the lounge. Rosie tended to me, providing me with little bowls of yoghurt followed by full-fat chasers from the carton of milk I'd bought in Tesco. An hour or so after the meal ended I started to feel in control. We sat and watched a decent documentary on the enigmatic mummy of Rameses I in the Niagara Museum and mustered some conversation. And then came a great thunder clap in my stomach. My interior walls had collapsed; Ghost Chilli shrapnel was tearing through my spleen and diaphragm in regular waves. I was rent, prone and twisted by a series of contractions that lasted a minute or so, then left flummoxed with relief and gratitude each time the pain subsided.

This continued for an hour. Around midnight a queer sort of calm came over me. It was almost serene, and then: instantaneous and total panic as I realised that my body was fighting the curry out and that I needed a bucket fast. Rosie dashed for one; my legs were so weighted and soul so paralysed that I couldn't move until the Ghost was rapidly exorcised all over the lounge floor. A mango coloured blob of ectoplasm appeared - shot through with blood-red curry remnant and chilli seeds that looked like bone splinters - and sloshed onto the floor in one piece.

I felt like a cleansed and exhausted Linda Blair at the end of The Exorcist. This sordid and evil scene was followed by a clear, redemptive calm. I had the chance to reassert some fundamental dignity by clearing up my own mess, but recognising my weakened state had become utterly critical I quickly went to bed. I had to wake a few times to face down the odd apparition; my sleep that whole night was haunted by various unfamiliar and indescribable phantoms that rattled their chains and kicked my balls.

Despite this I came up smiling on Saturday morning; a strong and proud man and a better husband. I stand by my actions and remain proud of my achievement.



The Meal I Ate: 3/10
The Tension and Trepidation as the Curry Hell entered stage left: 10/10

Rupali, 6 Bigg Market, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1UW
0191 232 8629

Rupali Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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