The day before our Yum Fest Somtam Chili Challenge, American soon-to-be champion Jason Rupp walked into his local Thai eatery and ordered a dish of somtam for himself that contained 25 red hot chili peppers. He’d been training all week but still said in his own vlog, “It’s kinda like chewing bullets from a gun — boom, boom, boom.”
Two days before the challenge, he uploaded another video that showed him wolfing down a somtam that contained 20 fiery chilis. He told us that, on Wednesday, he ate a dish containing 15 chilis.
Rupp, a YouTuber who focuses on food and travel videos, took the challenge seriously, outlining his training process to Coconuts after winning the grueling, spicy competition to become our chili-eating champion.
“When I was practicing this week, after my 20 and 25 chili practice rounds, I was feeling pretty confident. The woman making my somtam last night looked at me with a very stunned face,” said the spice-loving New York City native. “But she made it and counted every chili, piece by piece. I wanted to prepare for today.”
He went on to tell us about his background with spicy foods, “All my life I loved spicy food. In New York City, we love Mexican food, so I started with that. I would always have to pay more for extra bowls of salsa and hot sauce. Coming to Thailand and eating spicy food here was the next level for me and I love it,” he said. He’s been coming to the country in stints for 15 years.
“Some people said I should be worried ‘cause I might be competing against Thai people, but that didn’t really worry me that much, my usual choices are much spicier than the average Thai person. I was worried that other people would be as determined to win as me — and just as used to eating spicy food.”
Indeed, half the entrants to the competition were Thai, and proved to be serious spice eaters. But only Rupp went the distance.
“When I first came here eating spicy food was like my workout. I didn’t have to do any cardio, I would just order super spicy food.” He mentioned the high-spice curries from the south as among his favorite Thai meals as well as unusual choices, such as his absolute number one dish, gaeng khilek, a super bitter green vegetable prepared with or without coconut milk
For our challenge, Rupp and the other entrants were challenged to eat dishes of somtam with increasing levels of spiciness. In the first round, the dish had 10 chilis, in the second round it was 15, in the third it was 30, and in the fourth it was 45 chilis, creating a dish that made our eyes water as we passed it out to the contestants.
Rupp believed that a serious training schedule in the week leading up to the competition really helped him to tolerate the chili.
Talking to us while his face was still red and inflamed from eating so much spicy somtam, Rupp told us that he was visiting his local somtam lady daily in the days leading up to the competition, watching as she carefully counted out the exact number of chilis he wanted to eat to meet his training regimen.
One of the things he notes in his training video, and also discussed with us at Yum Fest, is that the peppers go down okay, it’s the burn that sets in a few minutes later that kills you. Indeed, that is how we saw many other competitors tap out of the eating spectacle, which had all of Yum Fest laughing, cheering, and peering in for a better look.
Most of the competitors that dropped out did so — not as the round was happening — but in the few minutes while they were waiting for the next dishes of somtam to arrive, when the dreaded afterburn set in.
Rupp’s closest competitor, a superfit Thai man named Nat Usawinchai, seemed poised to take first prize, he ate somtam with a vengeance, bringing the plate to his face and shoveling it in in record time, beating everyone else to be the fastest finisher in the second, third, and fourth rounds. However, just before the fifth plate was delivered, he ceded the contest and said he could not feel his face or hands. It’s important to know your limits in the world of competitive eating.
Rupp wrote to his subscribers the day before the competition, “I plan to win.” He showed up to the competition wearing a shirt with chilis on it.
We salute Rupp’s spicy, competitive, winning spirit.