Some like it hot: The story, stomachs of Saturday's International Curry Fest

Vinoy Park's annual Curry Festival drew food vendors, pepper-eating fiends and more on Saturday.

click to enlarge Ali Sohail Ishaq and Amy Sapien won the International Curry Festival's Hot Pepper Contest on Saturday. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Ali Sohail Ishaq and Amy Sapien won the International Curry Festival's Hot Pepper Contest on Saturday.

Dr. Ram Ramcharran views life through a kaleidoscopic lens.

Born in Guyana, the 46-year-old psychologist’s family tree has roots in India, Pakistan and Trinidad. His wife, Dr. Sadhana Ramcharran, an internist, was born in Mumbai, India. The couple’s collective vision to build a multicultural event to bridge nationalities resulted in the Tampa Bay International Curry Festival, held at downtown St. Pete’s Vinoy Park this past Saturday.

Held for the fourth year, the festival aims to unite all races through two common denominators — food and music.

“Taste buds don’t discriminate,” Ram said. “What better way to demonstrate the similarities of people, instead of the differences?”

More than 20 countries were represented at the Curry Fest through cooking demonstrations, cookoffs, arts and crafts, live music, and food trucks, with proceeds benefiting several local charities.

“My wife and I strive to first educate people, and then, to give back,” according to Ram. “It’s something my father instilled in me.”

Humbled upon losing the family taxi business in 1976 when the Guyana government nationalized many industries, Ram’s father, Doodnauth, and mother, Jasodra, relocated to the Bronx before settling in St. Petersburg. Active in community service and a founder of the Vishnu Mandir, Tampa’s first Hindu temple, Doodnauth worked to preserve the family’s heritage while embracing all cultures.

“When I look out into the festival crowd, I see our vision come true,” Ram said. “And to see so many cultures mingling and having a wonderful experience all focused upon healthy eating and especially curry, brings a smile to my face.”

The spry, energetic Ram appears to always sport a smile. Proprietor of Tampa’s Touch Vodka distillery and co-founder of the nonprofit Georgetown Wesleyan University of America alongside his wife, he credits the family's health to the incorporation of several spices in their daily menu.

click to enlarge Event organizer Dr. Ram Ramcharran (R) with Ian Beckles and Mia Lanz of the Ian Beckles Foundation. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Event organizer Dr. Ram Ramcharran (R) with Ian Beckles and Mia Lanz of the Ian Beckles Foundation.

Sadhana runs, where she advocates clean, spice-based eating as well as her proprietary spice blends. She appears often on local television to advocate the health benefits of spices.

“Spices were originally one of the first universal currencies,” Ram said. “It is wonderful to see people acknowledge their benefits and incorporate them more.”

The Ramcharrans also praise the healthful aspects of hot peppers, and more specifically, capsaicin, the chemical compound which gives hot peppers their kick. The festival’s pepper-eating competition drew 10 participants, including co-winner and the contest’s sole female, Amy Sapien of Clearwater.

Sapien joined Tampa’s Ali Ishaq, beating eight other contestants in consuming eight peppers in five minutes. Water was prohibited.

“The first four were kinda lame, almost benign,” Sapien said. “Then there were two jalapenos and two habaneros, so the five minutes almost seemed too long.”

She developed her love for hot peppers as a child when a deviated septum impaired her sense of smell and taste. Considering herself a non-gardner, Sapien, a geriatric social worker at Bay Pines VA, grows several pepper varieties — ghost peppers, habaneros, Devil’s Tongue and the new Carolina Reaper among them.

The Carolina Reaper has been the world's hottest chili pepper since Aug. 7, 2013, when it was rated by Guinness World Records. Sapien's husband, Callen, who does all the cooking, loathes spicy food.

“I’m like a fire-breather,” said Sapien, who attended the event despite having a sore throat that morning. “Sometimes Callen can’t stay in the kitchen.”

Earlier this month, she placed fourth in Largo’s 15th Annual I Like it HOT! Festival, consuming 10 jalapenos in three minutes. In April, she also won the Pinellas Pepper Fest's Spicy Lolly Lick-a-Thon battle, which featured several hot sauces and dry flakes encased in a sweet lollipop.

Sapien challenged Ishaq to a private pepper-eating rematch. They have yet to set a date.

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