It’s always a wonderful little gift to hear that a food you like anyway carries a health benefit. Imagine a wonderful alternative universe where beer, or wine, or chocolate is found to have healthful properties.
I love spicy food. Whether I’m uselessly chasing khao soi with water, dabbing my nose and eyes over sushi soaked in wasabi, or furiously inhaling cool air over the burn left on my tongue by beef smothered in horseradish, I think some of the most pleasant unpleasantness in this world comes from disregarding a menu’s little warning “red pepper” icon.
Which is why I felt so warm and fuzzy upon reading that curry might help prevent cancer. Specifically, it’s turmeric, one of a thousand spices that find their way into curry paste, that shows promise. It contains curcumin, which suppresses tumor growth.
This is great news for a cancer-phobic spice enthusiast.
This past weekend, I opened a little tub of yellow curry I had in my kitchen cabinet. (“Yellow” is apparently a Thai word meaning “greenish brown.”) I looked at the ingredients list, and sure enough, it included turmeric. Also, coriander seed. And cinnamon. And garlic, galangal, dried red chilies, kaffir lime peel, cardamom, shallot, cumin, lemon grass, and mace.
(The instructions included the phrase, “Taste before seasoning.” Where would I fit more seasoning?)
There isn’t be much of a science to its preparation – just stir fry some paste with a can of coconut milk, then add whatever meat and whatever vegetables you want until it’s done. I used chicken, plus some potatoes, bell pepper, green beans, pea pods, and just for a little extra kick, a Hungarian hot pepper.
The whole batch was meant to carry over into two or three meals. But I couldn’t stop. I shoveled forkful after forkful into my mouth. The curry scraped its claws against my tongue and melted my sinuses, and during the battle I inhaled two bottles of pale ale. When the meat and vegetables were gone, and all I had left was liquid curry, I got out a spoon and scraped it into my mouth. At last, I leaned back in my chair, delirious with heat and beer.
I didn’t feel too guilty about eating the whole batch. Sure, it was gluttonous, but what was the harm? It was only white meat chicken, a boatload of vegetables, and some cancer-preventing spices.
Oh, and coconut milk.
A full can of coconut milk.
I looked at the nutrition information. A can of coconut milk contains seven servings. I had just eaten 105 percent of my fat for the day in coconut milk alone, 329 percent of my saturated fat. And hey, guess what a diet high in saturated fats puts you at risk of!
• • •
The next day, on a whim, I picked up a habanero pepper. There was a stack of them at the grocery store, tiny chilies flashing their seductive bright orange warning signals.
Habaneros and other hot chili peppers also fight cancer, by virtue of a compound called capsaicin, which provides them with their pungency. If you think capsaicin hurts you, look at what it does to prostate cancer cells: it drives them to suicide.
I found a habanero salsa recipe and assembled my ingredients. A pile of lush greens – a lime, a jalapeño, a bundle of cilantro, and 16 tomatillos – with a single bright orange habanero at the top. A jungle volcano waiting to be harnessed.
I put the tomatillos and the chilies into the broiler until I heard the pop of them bursting out of their charred skins. Then I transferred them, still hot, to my blender. I squeezed in some limejuice, and upon contact, sinews of steam wove up toward the ceiling. In went some roasted onion, some fresh garlic, and some cilantro, and I pureed them together.
The tomatillos outnumbered all other ingredients, so the salsa took on their friendly, light green color. But then I removed the blender’s lid and inhaled.
The chili fumes entered my lungs and began raking coals across my cilia.
I dipped in a tortilla chip. The salsa was delicious. It had a great smolder, but the heat didn’t overpower the wonderful green smoky taste.
I ate it that night on a burrito, where it added a wonderful, edgy tang.
The salsa seemed even hotter the next day, having spent a night in the fridge turning its thoughts to revenge. I found myself shoveling it into my mouth on a series of ill-fated chips, long after the enjoyment stopped. “What am I doing?” I kept asking myself. “It’s like a mouthful of wasps!”
I finally forced myself to put it back in the fridge.
As hot as a habanero is, it only rates about 100,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville heat scale, putting it about one twentieth of the way between a harmless bell pepper and a mouthful of over-the-counter pepper spray. Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to eat the three per week that would equal the doses given to mice in cancer studies.
Well, maybe problems arise when you try to pretend that food is medicine. Chasing habanero salsa with beer shouldn’t be an attempt to fortify your cancer prevention with some Alzheimer’s prevention. It should be to follow a taste of pain with a taste of pleasure.
The Banquet of Life is a bi-weekly look at one man's life through the food he eats.