The raw jalapeño was first. I cautiously nibbled off the tip, no seeds or membranes. There was no heat. It tasted green, like grass or maybe spinach. Eagerly I went for another bite. The full fury of the capsaicin was unleashed and my tongue was on fire.
A small glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice acted as extinguisher. But it was as if it contained a cup of sugar, making it far sweeter than the most saccharine corner-store version.
The latest craze for gustatory adventurers is an exotic trip for your tongue that involves a small red berry called miracle fruit harvested from a plant indigenous to West Africa.
A few days before, I had received a package from Perry Nguyen in Montreal, owner of an online company called Flora Exotica that specializes in growing and selling tropical plant.
The box contained a stevia plant, with leaves so sweet you can use them as a calorie-free sugar substitute. I chewed a leaf as I searched the box frantically for my stash. I spied a small envelope carefully taped to the side of the box. Inside was a small baggie containing six plump, oval red berries about the size of a Glosette peanut.
Nguyen, 48, says miracle fruit is popular in some parts of Asia. On a trip to Thailand, he saw it for sale at a market in Bangkok. In Tokyo, the Miracle Fruit Café makes sour desserts - none with more than 100 calories - that come with a side of miracle berry.
Due to a spate of media attention, a buzz among bloggers and tasting parties in New York and San Francisco, miracle fruit is having a moment.
But it wasn't until this year when Montreal journalist Adam Gollner published The Fruit Hunters, which includes a chapter on miracle fruit, that Nguyen got a call from anyone in his hometown.
"It's a curiosity," says Nguyen. "I don't think it's a commercially profitable crop. They don't taste much like other fruit. It's something to try, not like apples."
Because the berries are so perishable and lose their potency within five days of being picked, he only sells the plant. But he shared several berries with the Toronto Star.
I held our miracle fruit party in the test kitchen with Star restaurant critic Corey Mintz, wine critic Gord Stimmell, and editor Kathy Vey. It was one weird trip. We gently crushed the berry between our molars, releasing a slightly sweet nectar, and swished it around to coat our tongues, then spit the seed out.
The plant (Synsepalum dulcificum), native to West Africa but grown in greenhouses worldwide, contains a glycoprotein called miraculin that inhibits the sour receptors on your taste buds. In other words, everything sour is sweet.
We downed the lemon juice, licking up the drops that dribbled down our chins. We wanted more, but who knew we would need more than 12 lemons?
Goat cheese tasted like cream cheese. The flavour of a nice cabernet sauvignon was ruined, but a bottle of black currant wine that was barely drinkable a few minutes before was somehow enhanced. Guinness just tastes flat - "Ruined," says Vey. "Is this a stout?" Stimmell asks.
Mintz provides a kosher dill. "It's a full sour. You'll just have to take my word for it," he cracks.
The Granny Smith apple tastes "like a Fuji married a Pink Lady," says Mintz, while Stimmell's delicate palate is so stymied by the sweetness he can't even tell what kind of apple it is.
There is a ritual surrounding miracle fruit that parallels a drug experience. It's hard to get and it's not cheap. Toronto graphic designer Patricia Longhurst, 21, read about it in a New York Times article this summer, Googled it, and in June ordered 10 tablets of the dehydrated berry for $19.95 online.
"I don't really do drugs, so I thought it might make an interesting experiment, almost like your taste buds on acid," says Longhurst, who received her shipment in July.
She, her two roommates and her boyfriend had an array of food to try under the influence. At one point, she was eating spoonfuls of horseradish mustard. Tomato soup, she reported, is absolutely delicious. Just don't forget the Maalox.
There is also an initial moment of paranoia that makes you wonder what the hell you've just ingested and whether it might kill you. Many a parent has warned their children not to eat wild berries because they might be poisonous, which only intensifies the frisson of illicitness.
"The first time I did it, I made my friends do it, too," says Will Goldfarb, 24, of Scottsdale, Ariz. "I told them, `If I'm going to die, you're going to die, too.'"
But no one ever has, not that Goldfarb knows of anyway. A friend's dog gobbled up 10 tabs with no noticeable side effects.
Last year a friend in New York sent him berries by mail. He partners with a nursery in Texas, where the shrubs are grown. He sells five berries for $45, a small plant for $40 and 20 tabs, made in Taiwan from dehydrated berries mixed with a little cornstarch, for $34.95.
The effect lasts about an hour, and it's all legal, sort of. The berries definitely are, says Gollner, who has spent hours trying to figure out the status of miracle fruit.
After 20 calls to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he confirmed that miraculin is considered a food additive not yet approved for sale, which means the tabs are not legal. Health Canada, which often mimics FDA regulations until it collects it own data, couldn't say yesterday whether miracle fruit or the tabs were legal to sell or consume in Canada, though officials promised to get back to me today. In his book, Gollner explains West Africans use the berry to temper sour foods, and details how an American named Bob Harvey spent millions of dollars trying to commercialize miraculin, the fruit's active ingredient, only to be stymied by the FDA.
There are reports the fruit could be a boon to diabetics, and that it may help coax chemotherapy patients, whose taste buds are altered, to eat again.
For Gollner, the health benefits may be debatable, but there's no question that miracle fruit is a good "parlour trick."
And he points to a more noble reason why all this publicity is a good thing. "I think people should know there exists a diversity of fruits out there."
As we lament the steep decline of the world's biodiversity and mourn species that have come and gone before they were even documented, it is a bit of a miracle that Synsepalum dulcificum is alive and well and tickling taste buds thousands of miles from its roots in Africa.