Ever eaten a dish so hot your mouth feels like a lava flow and yet you keep on eating? Chasing that chilli burn isn’t necessarily a sign of masochist tendencies, but rather your brain on capsaicin, the active element of chilli that radiates heat onto whatever surface it comes into contact with. The burning sensation capsaicin produces can trigger the release of dopamine and endorphins, lighting up the pleasure centres of your brain in a similar way to runners' high. Also, spicy food is delicious and extremely fun to eat.
Sydney is not a city that fears the heat, so there’s plenty of places to get your chilli kicks, whether you’re chasing the tongue-numbing burn of a Sichuan hot pot, or the more blatant, vinegared hit in American hot sauce. We nearly burned a hole through our tongue to find you the five must-eat dishes for chilli fiends.
Sydney's top five spicy dishes
Chilli level: 10/10
You know you’re in trouble when you feel the chilli hit your stomach before the burn hits your mouth. The hottest part of the chilli is the white membrane that anchors the seeds to the flesh, and depending on your propensity to chew, it might skip the tongue and go straight to your stomach. If this happens during a bowl of DoDee Paidang’s infamous Super Nova tom yum ($7.50), be assured – your mouth will catch up five minutes later, halting you mid-sentence and bringing on the sweats. The Thai soup itself is beautiful, deserving of its cult status, whether you order nursery (level 1) or volcano (level 5). It contains thin vermicelli noodles, meat balls, pork bones and crisp fried wonton wrappers. The Super Nova (level 7) is screamingly hot but still delicious, which may trick you into eating the entire bowl. Don’t do this. The sweats continue long after the last wonton crisp is gone, friends, and it's not pretty.
Chilli level: 9/10
Price: From $17, including a side
Pet nat, fried chicken and good times is the basic recipe behind Belle's. Are you sure you want to go and ruin that? Staff won’t let you order the really f**king hot chicken without some stern warnings, and for good reason. The hot and really hot options will leave your lips red and humming. Order the really f**king hot and you're in for a full Kylie Jenner situation, thanks to the presence of habanero seeds in the liberal dusting of house dried and smoked chilli powder. It’s a dry heat that takes a minute to kick in, turbo charging the heat factor until your mouth feels like the maw of a volcano. The good folk running Belle's will tell you to eat it last, and to start out with one piece on the side. Opt for a tender over wings to maximise the meat-to-seasoning ratio, and administer coleslaw and cold, bubbly wine until pain subsides.
Chilli level: 8/10
Price: From $8
There’s nothing in this unassuming Indonesian eatery to suggest that your head is about to be blown clean off, until you notice a stuffed cartoon chilli mounted on the wall, wearing a chef hat and breathing fire. Here, they bring the heat via a fiery sambal known as Level 5 chilli sauce. The salty, fresh chilli sauce is served with plenty of dishes on the menu, including shatteringly-crisp fried duck and beef ribs. Dried shrimp paste is a key ingredient, delivering a funk to the vivid orange-red paste. When the burning finally calms down, there’s a hint of lemongrass there, too. Our favourite dish is the half-fried duck ($15), drizzled with caramel-like kecip manis to offset the heat. There’s no sweet relief if you order the plecing kangkong shamon (water spinach, $8), which comes absolutely doused in the stuff. It’s intensely hot, but each bite compels you to take another. Even with our lips red and swollen, we hand over $8 on our way out for a jar of Level 5 chilli sauce to take home.
Chilli level: 7/10
If Sichuan hot pot isn’t heating things up like it used to, consider heading east to the bordering region of Hunan. Both Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are known for their liberal use of chilli, but Hunan dials things up a notch. Pappa’s Stew sits at the top of King Street, delivering flavoursome offal, braises and stir-fries. If you’re not rolling with a big enough group to get the hot pot, scan the menu for a small handful of three-chilli rated dishes, all guaranteed to pack a punch. The pickled peppers with beef ($20.80) is a piquant stir-fry with a multi-dimensional chilli hit. A combination of dried and red chilli brings the heat, backed by tiny pickled Hainan yellow lanterns, which introduce a flaming-hot vinegar element. Don’t be afraid to ask for your dish extra spicy – you can always tamp things back down with a side of steamed rice.
Chilli level: 7/10
The vinegar and spiced-braised vindaloo is the best-known curry from Goa, and is not a dish that should automatically be hot, except in the United Kingdom, where a scorcher is par for course. At the Colonial, the classic vindaloo definitely leans into its British-Indian heritage, albeit with an adjustable heat level. Order it extra hot for a good burn that hangs around the back of the tongue, and doesn’t completely mask the delicate balance of flavours. The terracotta-red gravy is super rich, laced with tangy tamarind and vinegar, and the traditional delicate profiles of cardamom, clove and cassia bark are still discernible. If you’d prefer your curry with less bark and a lot more bite, sign up to the Hottest Curry Challenge, which sees the vindaloo taken to extreme chilli levels. You’ll have to sign a waiver to eat it, but a free drink is on offer if you manage to get through a whole bowl.