Want Seoul’s spiciest curry? You’ll have to sign a waiver
South Korea is proud of its spicy food. It is one of very few cold weather countries to embrace the chili pepper. Foreigners are often incredulously asked, “You can eat that?" when tucking into a bowl of kimchi jjigae or a plate of fire chicken.
But the hottest food in South Korea isn't kimchi stew, fire chicken or any of the country's other gastronomical blast furnaces. In a small alleyway in Seoul's theater district, an Iranian restaurant, Persian Palace, serves food so hot it has sent patrons to the hospital.
A hobby takes flight
Shapour Nasrollahi puts the gravy — Level 3.5 — on a chicken curry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson
Shapour Nasrollahi, the owner of Persian Palace, is that rare but increasingly common creature, an immigrant to South Korea, a naturalized Korean citizen with no Korean ancestry, only a passion for Korean culture, language and society. Born and raised in Iran, he served as a medic in the Iran-Iraq War, and was wounded in the leg during battle. In 1990 he moved to Japan, in an attempt to emigrate to Canada to attend medical school.
But after visiting a friend in Seoul, he decided to stay and learn the Korean language — he was fascinated with “Hangul," Korea's ultra-scientific writing system, studied in linguistics departments around the world. He learned the language and enrolled in college, obtaining degrees in medicine and psychology. He figured he would eventually go to work at a large South Korean company, but in the meantime, he'd like a break — he figured he'd cook.
“Cooking was my hobby all my life," he says. “I thought just to have a six-month to one-year break, and I'll make one small shop to do what I want, cooking."
Spicy to ultra-spicy curries
Curries ready to burn – from left, a Level 2.5 Veg, 3.0 Dal, and 3.5 Chicken. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson
Shapour's spicy to ultra-spicy curries became legend, and soon his hard-to-find shop became extremely popular. He expanded and bought out the whole building, built a pub downstairs, and hasn't closed for a single day in 10 years. “I wanted to do this business for six months," Shapour says. “Six months became almost 15 years."
So how spicy is it? Shapour has engineered a number system so people can decide how hot they want their food. The lowest level is 2.0, which he says is comparable to kimchi. Two-point-five is like a “Mexican chili" pepper, and from there it gets stronger and stronger. If you want 5.0, he takes your blood pressure first, to decide if it's a good idea or not. After 6.0, a customer has to sign a waiver, promising that “if anything happens to him, he's responsible."
A patron wipes her brow. Shapour Nasrollahi says his curries are far stronger than any native Korean food. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson
“Look," Shapour says, “Level 5, sometimes they order, but I never, ever saw a person eat all of Level 5 and go out nicely. Do you know what I mean? They fall down."
No one has ever eaten a Level 10, though one patron once ordered one.
“Three years ago, one Korean guy he came here, it was Christmas Eve," Shapour says. “He was almost 100% drunk, he asked me for Level 10. I made Level 7 for him, because he made trouble here. I gave him Level 7. I told him, 'This is Level 10.'" Shapour laughs. “As I remember, two spoons he ate, and he never came back here again. I don't know what's happened to him."
Shapour uses a mix of 24 spices to make his curries, eight of which are spicy. Chief among those is the Sahara pepper, a small, round and wrinkly red pepper, which Shapour says is off the Scoville scale in hotness. He makes a masala out of it, as well as inserting it directly into the curries. “With bare hands, if you touch it, and then you touch your eyes, God [help] you."
A complex mix of flavors
Shapour and his chefs prepare the curries. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson
Shapour doesn't practice medicine anymore, but he still sees himself as something of a doctor, using traditional ingredients to heal. For example, he says Iranians view cumin as good for digestion and post-pregnancy, cinnamon as a tonic for headaches and to warm you up, and cardamom as good for brain disease and to control anger.
But is the food really that spicy? Our party ordered four curries at four different heats: a vegetable curry (2.5), dal (3.0), chicken (3.5), and turkey (4.0), all eaten with plain nan.
Shapour's reputation as a cook stands up. A complex mix of flavors — cumin, coriander, curry and more — rise through the heat. But they are extremely hot, the last two painfully so, by far the hottest food we had ever eaten in South Korea. The final two curries were left unfinished.
And when one of us complained of indigestion caused by the fire, Shapour immediately provided a glass of Alka-Seltzer — he keeps a stock of it behind the cash register for situations just like these.
Main photo: Owner Shapour Nasrollahi relaxes at Persian Palace, the spiciest restaurant in Seoul. Credit: Copyright 2016 Martyn Thompson
This article was from Zester Daily and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.