Last week, while eating particularly good Tex-Mex in Dallas, I ordered a pile of grilled jalapeños on the side. The peppers came whole, their skins charred and blistered from the heat. The insides were still bright green and raw.
At home, my informal method for testing a pepper’s heat involves slicing off the end, then swiping the cut end against my lower lip. It’s not the fiery tingle I fear, but the thought of a dinner guest’s hypothetical – and hypertensive – emergency. This concern makes me look more pragmatic than paranoid, hopefully.
Certain things in life seem inevitable, even when they catch you by surprise: rush-hour traffic, the day’s first call to prayer, chickenpox. As a delivery system for heat, jalapeños are mercurial and, short of biting into one, it’s impossible to predict whether you’ll endure a mellow tickle, a prickle in the sinuses, or a cranial backdraught. I love the element of surprise in all things, especially in food, where it has kept me from growing irrevocably cynical. After the peppers landed, we reached for them and bit in fearlessly, inspecting each other’s faces for the dawning of alarm or delight.
Of course, there are good surprises and there are heinous ones. It usually helps to know what you’re getting into. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my devastation at tasting Turkish delight for the first time after reading about it in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Edmund sacrificed his siblings for perfumed glue that tasted like it was scavenged from a Victorian nursery? I was weak with grief.
While boarding a plane in Bilbao last spring, I watched a scene unfold that inspired the consideration of a new kind of bucket list, as in “Things I’d Rather Kick the Bucket for Than Experience”. A crowd of young men wielding boarding passes and wearing identical pinstripe fedoras led one of their pals, who was blindfolded and wearing earplugs and the same fedora, on to the plane for what appeared to be a London-bound stag party. I like a surprise as much as the next sane person, but you’d have to induce a coma to get me to participate in an act so blithely and publicly submissive – or bribe me with an incredible, cured meat product.
Some surprises are educational. For instance, after deciding I could one-up a legendary cookie recipe by shaving the required six ounces of chocolate from a bulk-sized chunk rather than using pre-formed chips, I realised why the recipe had specified chips. What ended up happening – as I should have forecasted – was that the flakes melted into the batter, crucially altering the texture of the dough. Chips would have stayed suspended in the batter, forming little chambers of liquid chocolate around which the batter would bake.
What keeps the attention engaged is sometimes lost on the palate. Magic tricks involving dry ice or sodium alginate can be entertaining, but I quickly forget them, tending instead to catalogue things by flavour.
Even after a decade of baking my own Arabic bread, I’m consistently amazed when it puffs into pale orbs while it bakes, forming its trademark pocket. And witnessing a baby taste chilled watermelon or cooling labneh for the first time will draw a smile out of even the saltiest and most vinegary temperament.