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. 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.