When food bites back

From curry burns to sugar scars, Hagen Engler has learnt the hard way to check his plate.

I should have put two and two together when both chefs came running out of the kitchen weeping like teargas victims.

But no, I was chatting to a vivacious portrait painter about how she might ‘capture my likeness’, so I didn’t notice. Ten minutes later, I would consume the spiciest food item I have ever experienced – a venomous red chilli soup – and sustain another in my long line of eating injuries.

My dentist diagnosed it days later when I reported what I thought was degenerative gum disease. ‘You appear to have injured yourself,’ he pronounced.

The soup, which contained a dozen fiery chillies, had given me a mouth full of exploding heat blisters. The full scope of the injuries the soup inflicted I will spare you, but it was visceral.

Over the years, circumstance and my idiotic bravado have visited numerous prandial wounds on me. As a culinary philistine and deluded daredevil, my mealtime scars are both unsurprising and bloody well justified.

This applies especially to spicy foods, which are a challenge in themselves. A vindaloo curry, extra-hot Nando’s… they all glower at you from the menu, whispering, ‘I dare you.’

The wise eater will ignore this challenge.

I am not one, so I bear the scars on my gums, my sinuses and my alimentary canal.

Other eating injuries stem not so much from pride as inexperience. I once ran the Comrades Marathon and sustained a highly unexpected eating injury. There are water tables every 1.5km – about 60 opportunities to have a drink. My plan was to run on sugar.

Two cups of Coke or energy drink every K and a half. I got through that sucker in a borderline diabetic coma. What I didn’t realise, though, is that dissolved sugar crystals have a friction effect.

After you’ve had 60 cups of sugar water, it feels like a glacier has scoured a fjord on the roof of your mouth. By the time I got back to Durban, my palate was scrubbed raw.

I launched into a post-race burger and suffered the unique injury of having the sesame seeds on the hamburger bun draw blood on the roof of my mouth. I sat there, sobbing in pain and bleeding onto my tongue, going, ‘Damn you, food! You defeat me again!’

Another food fail I blame on the people and traditions of Dopiewo, Poland. I once found myself there and was entertained into oblivion by a family whose skill with vodka is rivalled only by that of the Du Plessis rugby clan at cleaning out rucks.

These extremists held a dinner where they plied an admittedly willing me with Zubrówka until we could communicate only by singing. The party dragged on so late we ate dinner at 6am. I valiantly forced down the meal of roast rabbit and potatoes.

The very second I pushed my plate away and began to dream of some restorative bowel reiki, they served the biggest breakfast of my life.

Five pork schnitzels, piled upon a bed of more potatoes. By the time I’d fought my way through this, I had consumed two main meals within an hour and sustained a torn stomach muscle that took a month to heal. I felt like a competitive eater after a tie-breaking hot dog eat-off. I needed intensive gut physio, and got more vodka instead.

Thus has my body borne the brunt of my gourmandising. I can now tell you that food is indeed worthy of love and admiration.

But also respect. Respect the chow. Respect your prey.

Hagen Engler blogs at www.hagenshouse.com

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