Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian – the cuisines that can take the roof off
your mouth are numerous and flavourful.
Ranking the world’s most
spicy peppers and comparing the most awe-inducing dishes is a common
pastime, even if, past a certain point, the distinctions are somewhat
moot. Who can say, subjectively speaking, that one Indian restaurant’s
Widower Phaal, made while wearing goggles with chilis that rank about
1,000,000 on the Scoville Scale – an international measurement of
pungency – is necessarily a fierier experience than the notorious Korean Suicide Burrito?
plenty of burn to go around: more common dishes include vindaloo with
ghost peppers and hot pot from Sichuan, where you must part a swarm of
chillis bobbing in a sea of broth to fish out tender, fiery morsels of
meats and vegetables.
As you savour these intense tastes, however,
you may wonder, why do some cuisines compete for the title of spicy
champion, while others feature barely the hint of a burn?
This is a
question that has intrigued anthropologists and food historians for
some time. Indeed, it’s a curious truth that places with warm climates
do seem to have a heavier preponderance of hot and spicy dishes. That
may have something to do with the fact that some spices have
antimicrobial properties, studies have found.
In one survey of cookbooks from around the world,
researchers note: “As mean annual temperatures (an indicator of
relative spoilage rates of unrefrigerated foods) increased, the
proportion of recipes containing spices, number of spices per recipe,
total number of spices used, and use of the most potent antibacterial
spices all increased.” In hot places, where before refrigeration food
would have gone off very quickly, spices might have helped things keep a
bit longer – or at least rendered them more palatable.
been suggested that because spicy food makes most people sweat, it
might help us to cool off in hot parts of the world. The evaporative
cooling effect that happens when we perspire is indeed useful in
maintaining a body’s heat balance. In a very humid climate, though, it
doesn’t matter how much you sweat: that evaporation won’t come to your
rescue because there’s already too much moisture in the air. One study
of people who drank hot water after exercise showed that they did cool
down slightly more than those who drank cold water, but only in
situations with low humidity. Thailand in August, that ain’t.
spice is hardly limited to the tropics. While chilli peppers are
originally from the Americas, this particular kind of heat grew
widespread in the 15th and 16th Centuries, travelling with European
traders. Other spices – not spicy in the same way as peppers, perhaps,
but still strongly flavoured and bringing an extra oomph to a dish – had
been circulating in Europe for centuries, with ginger, black pepper,
and cinnamon brought in from the east.
prices plummeted in Europe in the 1600s, and it became easier for just
anyone to lace their food with them, tastemakers fell out of love with
Heavily spiced dishes were the darlings of many
cuisines we currently don’t think of for their zing. Numerous recipes
in one 18th-Century British cookery book include potent doses of mace,
cloves, and nutmeg, for instance. What happened?
Well, one possibility is that it became a bit uncouth to like quite so many flavours in one’s food, as Maanvi Singh has written over at The Salt.
What we now consider classic European cuisine has a tendency to focus
on pairing like flavours with like, rather than bringing in a riot of
strong, contrasting ones. That may be because, as spice prices plummeted
in Europe in the 1600s and it became easier for just anyone to lace
their food with them, tastemakers fell out of love with them.
the goalposts for high-end food, they began to emphasise dishes where
the focus was the purest essence of the basic ingredients, combined with
flavours that served to bring that out. In a word – it may have been
snobbery, Singh writes, that erased the thrill of spice from many
Indeed, the role of human culture in determining
whether spice is hot or not cannot be underestimated. Like all animals,
we use taste as a way to determine what’s safe to eat, and once we get
used to certain flavors signalling the familiar, we like them all the
more. It would not be surprising if some people, having acclimated to
chillis, began to prefer them over the absence of chillis.
we have our own reasons for eating spicy foods, and they may have more
to do with adrenaline than social status or sheer flavour, per se. The
physiological reaction to peppers, as we’ve discussed here before,
is the result of temperature sensors in the mouth being activated. Your
body responds as if you had burned it, causing you to sweat and flush,
and in extreme cases vomit.
The thrill of triggering this intense
experience without (usually) any long-term effects is thought to be part
of the attraction – as well as, for some chilli fiends, the bragging
Antimicrobial qualities and body temperature regulation
are probably not on the list of possible draws today – something to
ponder, and thank your lucky stars for, as you wait for your next curry.