Sometimes, the hustle and bustle of the big city brings out the strongest of cravings for escapism. Some find solace at the bottom of a pint glass. Others, in substances more elicit. A few even find reverie through more mindful pursuits, whether that’s yoga, meditation, or even gardening. If you’re lucky enough to have one in London, that is.
Many Londoners escape in a more conventional sense, hopping on the first train out of the city on a day trip somewhere remote and rural. But if you’re confined to the urban jungle and looking for a quick endorphin rush to take you somewhere else, then you might just find the perfect escape in chilli.
Yep, those sweat inducing, dopamine baiting, brow mopping meals aren’t only confined to the likes of Bangkok, Chengdu, Gaziantep or Jalisco; you can even get your capsaicin hit closer to home. Here’s where to eat the spiciest food in London.
The Bombay Burner at Cinnamon Club, Westminster
The Cinnamon Club is one of the pioneers of modern Indian fine dining in the capital, with a reputation for balanced flavours and sophisticated service only enhanced by its refined, regal surrounds; the restaurant sits on the site of the Old Westminster Library, a historic Grade II listed building.
You may even recognise chef and owner Vivek Singh from Saturday Kitchen and other cooking shows, where his authoritative yet charming manner gives insight on both modern Indian cuisine and more traditional approaches to the cuisine.
All of this gentle build-up eludes to a refined dining experience where flavours are nuanced and spices gently balanced. But lurking in the shadows of this prestigious building is a dish that sets fire to any preconceptions of the Cinnamon Club.
You won’t find ‘The Bombay Burner’ on any Cinnamon Club menus. Rather, the process of ordering this obscenely spicy curry is a little more cloak and dagger; a call needs to be made 48 hours in advance, a safe word established between diner and front of house (possibly) and a legal disclaimer signed.
Once that’s all out of the way, prepare for the burn; the Bombay Burner uses Dorset Naga chillies, which can hit 1.6 million Scoville Heat Units. To put things in perspective, jalapeno peppers start out at 2’500 SHU, whilst police pepper spray clocks in at around 2 million SHU.
Those Dorset Nagas belong to a group of chillies collectively known as the ‘Superhots’; the very hottest in the world. As if that wasn’t enough, scotch bonnet chillies (topping 350’000) are both the body of the dish, stuffed with minced lamb, and used as a garnish, providing a perverse respite of sorts from the lethal heat of the curry proper.
Book the next day off work; you’re going to spend it on the toilet, biting down on the windowsill.
Boiled Sea Bass With Sizzling Chilli Oil at Barshu, Soho
The food of Sichuan is famed for its elaborate range of flavour profiles and cooking techniques, made up of seven ‘basic’ flavours (sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty), 23 more detailed subsets of those flavours, and a whopping 56 cooking methods.
According to the Chinese food expert Fuschia Dunlop, the ‘numbing and hot’ flavour, mala wei, is one of the four key tenets of Sichuan’s glorious, complex cuisine. Other key flavour profiles in the canon include ‘red oil’ flavour, ‘scorched chilli’ flavour, and ‘sour and hot’ flavour.
All of this should point to just how cherished chillies are in Sichuan cuisine, and how expertly and intricately they’re handled. Sichuan chilli peppers are certainly assertive, averaging between 50,000 and 75,000 SHU on the Scoville scale, but they never overwhelm the nuances of a dish, instead lending themselves to pure alchemy on the palate.
London is blessed with some superb Sichuan restaurants, but if you’re seeking faithful, fearsome, f’ing delicious renditions of the region’s staples, then Barshu in Soho will see you right.
Whilst capsaicin-philes will find plenty on the menu at Bar Shu to tantalise and titillate, perhaps the straight up spiciest dish on the menu is the boiled sea bass with sizzling chilli oil (Shuizhu Yu).
Here, slices of brined and marinated sea bass are simmered in a fiery broth with a copper red slick of chilli oil stretching across its surface. Hundreds of dried red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns are then added to top the broth, and the only way to access those tender sea bass is to fish your way through all that chilli.
The result is, inevitably, utterly delicious and outrageously spicy. In the best possible way, of course…
Cull Yaw Laap at Smoking Goat, Shoreditch
Smoking Goat, the Thai barbecue restaurant run by Ben Chapman, has gone through many guises in its seven years in London. From dingy British boozer on Denmark Street that happens to serve Thai-inspired barbecue dishes, to the produce-driven, sprawling late night ‘canteen’ that the Goat has morphed into today, we’ve been right beside them every bite of the way.
Right now, the restaurant is going through something of a laap phase, and we just love it. For the uninitiated, laap is a herbal Thai minced meat or fish salad, seasoned with ground dried chillies. But really, it’s so much more than that…
In the north east of the country, ground roasted rice and lime define laap’s flavour profile, whilst in the north of the country, it’s generally a more savoury, umami heavy affair, with no lime and rarely any rice powder. Offal features heavily, and a wide array of herbs should be eaten on the side to punctuate and augment the forthright flavours of the laap itself.
That said, versions differ not only by region, but from village to village and neighbour to neighbour. At Smoking Goat, there are currently five on the menu, both in the Isaan and Lanna style, but from painful, beautiful experience, the spiciest version we’ve ever sampled at the restaurant is the country style spiced laap of aged cull yaw.
Here, the Scoville-baiting is sky high, with the funk of this particularly intensely flavoured mutton acting as the perfect foil for such unashamed levels of chilli. There will be sweat on your brow, lamb fat pooling at the corners of your mouth, the smell of smoke in your hair and beer down your shirt, but what a great time you’ll have getting yourself in such a state. Gorgeous.
Som Tam Isaan at Som Saa, Shoreditch
Som tam is consistently named as the world’s greatest salad, and who are we to argue? Consumed all over the country in different forms, guises and levels of pungency, at its heart som tam is a pounded (to order) salad of vegetables and fruit, with a salty, spicy, and always assertive dressing.
The most common rendition is usually referred to as ‘Bangkok’ or ‘Thai’ som tam (though the dish arguably originated in Laos), and is on the sweeter, sharper side of the seasoning spectrum.
It’s still super spicy, sure, but we’re looking for where to eat the spiciest dishes in London here, so we’re heading over to Thai restaurant Som Saa, close to Spitalfields market, for a version hailing from the North East.
The ‘Isaan’ version is a very different beast to the one more commonly served in England, dispensing with the sugar, limiting the lime, introducing dried chillies, upping the amount of fresh ones (the infamous ‘mouse shit’ chillies, prik ki nu), and deploying the pungent, fermented fish sauce beloved of the region, known as nam pla raa.
Anyway, back to Shoreditch and onwards into Som Saa. You won’t likely see som tam Isaan on the menu at Som Saa, unless it’s making a rare appearance on their daily changing specials board, which features a different som tam each day. But if you ask a waiter, the chefs here will fix you one up without breaking stride.
Though this is a super pungent, assertively spicy salad at the best of times, those in-the-know dare to ask for a ‘Thai’ spicy version. Do the same, because that’s why you’re here, right?
Phaal at Aladin Restaurant, Brick Lane
Another restaurant claiming to serve ‘London’s hottest curry’ is Aladin on Brick Lane. The curry in question is their phaal and, more specifically, their ‘chicken tikka blast’ version of it.
We should note that, having tried both the phaal at Aladin Restaurant and the Bombay Burner at the Cinnamon Club, the latter’s title isn’t under threat. That threat comes later.
Nevertheless, the phaal chicken tikka blast is certainly a spicy beast, albeit in a more direct, aggressive way than many of the other dishes on our list. The guys over at MyLondon even claim that someone was rushed to hospital after eating it.
Whilst we didn’t need an ambulance after our take-down of the dish, we did require several glasses of milk.
The Naga Viper Chilli Challenge at Red Dog Saloon, Hoxton
The words ‘chilli challenge’ are like catnip to the city’s capsaicin aficionados, and perhaps London’s most notorious conquest of its kind is the Naga Viper Chilli Challenge at the Red Dog Saloon in Hoxton.
Here, the proposition, costing chilli-heads £12.50 to participate, is simple; eat just six chicken wings in ten minutes. The catch? These wings have been coated in a mind-bendingly spicy sauce, which, as the pub boasts, is ‘500 times hotter than Tabasco sauce’. Now, call us brave, but that doesn’t sound that spicy, does it?
As with the Bombay Burner, entrants need to sign a disclaimer before the challenge, and wear rubber gloves for its duration. The Red Dog Saloon, which hosts similar challenges across the country, says they have around 70 entrants a week, with just one or two completing the challenge. Will you be next?
City Spice Challenge at City Spice, Brick Lane
If you negotiated the Naga Viper Chilli Challenge without breaking a sweat, then the city’s other big capsaicin conquest happens at City Spice on Brick Lane. Back in 2019, the restaurant announced it was launching the challenge to raise money for Action Against Hunger, and what better excuse to get hot and sweaty than to give back?
Featuring, in their own words, ‘London’s Spiciest Dish’, and aimed at groups, those who are able to take the dish down in less than ten minutes receive £300 of complementary curries of their choosing. Those who don’t donate the full cost of the dish, £11, to charity.
And the dish in question? A ‘Bhuna from Hell’ which uses several of the hottest chillies in the world, including the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and the Carolina Reaper, the former around 1.2 million on the Scoville scale, whilst the latter, in recent studies, has topped 2 million.
Interestingly, the chillies in the curry are juiced prior to being added, distributing the fierce heat throughout the curry. This leaves the diner with no choice but to dive in, rather than trying to eat round the fresh chillies that also stud the dish, punctuating it with even more fierce heat.
Though it ends up being a pretty tasty, pretty spicy curry, you might be better off just donating the money to charity.
Beef Suya at Tiwa ‘n’ Tiwa, Peckham
A joyful weekend spent eating through Eater London’s recommendations on where to eat in Peckham (for pleasure, not business) ended in the conclusion that the beef suya at Tiwa ’n’ Tiwa is one of the most moreish plates of food in all of the city. It’s also one of the spiciest.
As Jonathan Nunn (editor of the superb food newsletter Vittles) writes, the easiest way to find Tiwa ‘n’ Tiwa is to head to the huge, glass fronted Burger King on Peckham High Street, turn around, and ‘’look for the smoke’’.
Follow your nose, and you’ll find barbecued beef suya that’s been rolled in the effervescent Nigerian suya spice blend yaji, usually made from several different strains of dried chilli alongside onion, garlic and ginger powders, white and black pepper and several other heady ground spices.
The chilli-hit here is of the rasping variety, teasing and taunting the back of the palate rather than the tip of the tongue, as fresh chilli seems to. Its analeptic quality invigorates, and despite the hot fluster it puts us in, it’s impossible not to order another plate.
Honourable Mention: Ikoyi, St. James’s
Should you be seeking something at the high end, fine dining of the spectrum, then chef Jeremy Chan at Ikoyi in St. James, which was recently awarded its second Michelin star, certainly isn’t afraid to use chilli and other intriguing, heady spices in his gorgeous, forward-thinking cooking.
Whilst the beautifully composed plates on their multi-course tasting menu certainly won’t have you gasping for milk, there’s plenty to raise the temperature here, which is rare at such an acclaimed temple of haute cuisine.
On our last visit, a squid crepe with scotch bonnet sauce didn’t hold back. To further please the spice lovers, their dried raspberry-coated plantain with smoked chilli mayonnaise isn’t only one of London’s most Instagrammable dishes, it’s also one of it’s most alluring.
Chef Jeremy Chan has a wicked way with balancing bold flavours, and if you’re seeking imaginative, refined cooking that embraces spice wholeheartedly, then you won’t find many places more exciting in the city than Ikoyi.
And with that, we’re off for a glass of water.