Fire in the Belly

7-SAV1010_great_chili_P.jpgSuketu Mehta in Saveur:

One night last summer, I made a chile-spiked chili for my family: my parents, my sons, my partner, and her parents. We are all Indian, but while some of us have been steeped in chiles since our births in India, others—like my Chicago-born partner and my Manhattan-born, 15-year-old son—approach the genus capsicum with trepidation. Still others just have a God-given affinity for heat. My 12-year-old son, for example, also a native New Yorker, has been enjoying chiles with his breakfast cereal since infancy. It makes me realize that the world is divided not between rich and poor, or male and female, or East and West, but between those who like spicy food and those who do not.

This was an important meal, the first time I was meeting my partner's parents. Her father likes his food spicy, her mother, less so. I decided to make two versions of the chili: hot and hotter. I prepared it carefully, soaking the beans overnight, chopping the onions and garlic, roasting and grinding the spices. I laid the table with soft linen and fresh lilies and bathed it all in candlelight, to lull everyone into a false sense of security, as if they were going to get something European, flavored with nothing stronger than tarragon. It was a warm evening in Manhattan, and I left the windows open to the breeze from the Hudson River.

When the two pots of chili appeared on the table, my younger son smiled, my older son groaned.

“They're very spicy, be careful,” my parents warned my partner's parents.

“How spicy can they be?” my partner's father scoffed.

Forewarned, my guests commenced to eat. They began with a taste of the lower-voltage version and then, unable to help themselves, switched to the maximum version. Shouting ensued.