January 8, 2014

Why is tropical cuisine spicy?

I've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating:

Spices from the tropics were always a luxury item to medieval Europeans, and now their descendants can afford more of them. Spicy plants are more common at lower latitudes because spices are commonly anti-parasite poisons evolved to protect the plant from the teeming variety of parasites found more in year-round warm climates than in wintry climates. (Also, biodiversity is greater in the tropics due to more specialization because of fewer seasonal swings). 

Thus, 15th Century Europe’s equivalent of the space race of the 20th Century was to find shipping routes to the Spice Islands of the East Indies to bring back peppers so that meat could be preserved longer against parasites.  

Thus, cuisines get blander the farther north you go (as shown by Garrison Keillor's jokes about Norwegian cooking), in part because there are so few spicy plants growing at latitudes where winter kills off most parasites. And it was easier to get snow and ice to keep your food refrigerated so you didn't need as many spices. (For example, a major product of 19th Century New England was ice. Riverboats plying the Mississippi might carry hundreds of pounds of ice from Walden Pond.)
 

40 comments:

ogunsiron said...

I knew a moroccan who wasn't impressed at all by spicy cuisine. He had been taught to mistrust very spicy food because it meant that the cook had something to hide about the freshness of the ingredients.

Most human beings seem quite fond of spicy cooking, though the desire for spices can be overruled.

I read a supremely interesting book on western gatronomical history some time ago. According to the book, Europeans (if they had access to spices enjoyed strong tasting, spicy food during the classical age and up to, say, the renaissance.

I don't remember exactly when it started, but in french haute cuisine in particular arose a strong movement against the use spices. Spicy food came to be seen as vulgar and unrefined.

The anti-spices bias in haute cuisine has started to relax, and as of the 1950s, spices are making a comeback as legitimate ingedients even in haute cuisine.
That was the author's claim at least.


Anonymous said...

For example, a major product of 19th Century New England was ice. Riverboats plying the Mississippi might carry hundreds of pounds of ice from Walden Pond.

New England ice was exported to as far as India.

Anonymous said...

Salt, smoke and fermentation are typical food preservation methods in Northern climates. Most common foods of today that are associated with vinegar pickling were originally lacto-fermented. A lacto-fermented coleslaw is tasty with a crisp, tangy flavor. My grandfather drank buttermilk, lacto-fermented milk. Spices were just a rich man's alternative preservation method in Northern climates and a great way to add variety to the diet.

Nanonymous said...

Talking mainly about "hot" (e.g. capsaicin-containing, not something like turmeric/curcumin) but also about highly aromatic spices: they cover up slightly spoiled foods, making them eatable. The common idea that spices act as anti-spoilage additives is generally wrong: capcaicin is not particularly bacteriostatic. Hot climates naturally have more issues with food spoilage. There are some antibiotic effect (e.g., garlic) but I imagine that it is pretty weak.


AWC said...

Steve,

I can't remember the source but Medieval European food is actually spicier than later European food. This is fairly well documented, I believe.

Part of the change is due to evolved tastes and the rise of gourmet. More sophisticated palates prefer less spicy food (a wider bouquet of tastes), contrasted with spicy food which is extreme and narrow.

Also note this recent study:

Do High-Risk Taker / Low-Impulse-Control People Prefer Spicy Food?

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130717141722.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Ftop_news%2Ftop_health+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Top+News+--+Top+Health%29


...

Anonymous said...

Thus, 15th Century Europe’s equivalent of the space race of the 20th Century was to find shipping routes to the Spice Islands of the East Indies to bring back peppers so that meat could be preserved longer against parasites.

The purpose of Magellan's voyage was to find a new sea route to the Spice Islands, or the Moluccas. The voyage lasted for three years, and most of the crew and four out of five ships were lost, but the cargo of cloves on the one ship that made it back to Spain nevertheless fully paid for the expenses of the expedition.

Lawrence Bergreen's Magellan biography is magnificent. The first crossing of the Pacific was truly the Apollo program of its era.

Anonymous said...

(Also, biodiversity is greater in the tropics due to more specialization because of fewer seasonal swings).

I am really exhausted right now, and I was never much good with analogies in the first place, but maybe one of the budding young geniuses here in the HBD-o-sphere can finish the analogy:

Also, DIVERSITY/MULTICULTURALISM is greater in the UNITED STATES due to more specialization because of fewer _______________.

Anonymous said...

Covered by Anthony Bourdain among many others: Spicier foods serve better is tropic environments. Harder to travel, more density of variety, spicier, etc.

Anonymous said...

European food WAS very spicy in the middle ages the enlightenment ended that for perceived health reasons in any event sswedish cooking uses cardamom. And English mustard is as hot as any spice

Anonymous said...

Thus, 15th Century Europe’s equivalent of the space race of the 20th Century was to find shipping routes to the Spice Islands of the East Indies to bring back peppers so that meat could be preserved longer against parasites.

That's a myth. There's no evidence spices were used in this way, and besides, they were so expensive it would hardly be worth it. Europeans has several methods of preserving - smoking, salting, pickling - but spices were a luxury product used for flavouring.

Cennbeorc

slumber_j said...

The best source I've seen (and in fact reviewed) on the subject of New England's old ice-exporting business: "The Frozen Water Trade," by someone whose name I'm too lazy to Google. In that way and in so many others I'm unlike my industrious Yankee forebears of old, who in the 19th c. were sending shiploads of sawdust-insulated ice blocks as far as India.

Bonus weird Spain fact: the Basques of the North use way more hot peppers in their cuisine than the Andalusians, who mostly can't stand the stuff, despite their withering climate. Is it because the southern Spaniards are even lazier than their southern-Italian counterparts on the next peninsula over and therefore can't be bothered to bring on the capsaicin? I lived there for years and never did figure it out.

Anonymous said...

the Basques of the North... the Andalusians

Basque DNA and Basque "epi-genealogy" is a huge and massively controversial topic.

Point being that the Basques and the Andalusians are probably two entirely different peoples.

And then there's the Hapsburg influence...




Anonymous said...

Frank Costanza never wanted to cook after Korea, because when he was an Army cook there in 1950, he came across some rancid beef and thought he could put enough spices on it to make it palatable. Instead he sent sixteen of his own men to the latrines that night. Bobby Colby ended up being sent back to the states with a crater in his colon the size of a cutlet.

JI said...

Interesting. Thanks for explaining this, Steve.

The Philippines is kind of an outlier. Food from many areas of the Philippines is not heavily spiced, at least not in the "hot" sense (Kapampangan food might be an exception). My wife comes from the Philippines, and she, her family and friends, do not like hot-spicy food whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

Also, DIVERSITY/MULTICULTURALISM is greater in the UNITED STATES due to more specialization because of fewer _______________.

...because of fewer patriotic elites

Anonymous said...

Curcumin, a major component of the spice tumeric, blocks inflammation signaling via the inflammatory transcription factor, NFkB. Perhaps these tropical cultures observed the beneficial effects of such spices over time.

Handle said...

When I was in Japan, I found traditional Japanese fare to be quite bland, mostly relying on salty broths for flavor.

But they would instead call it 'subtle'.

Mr Lomez said...

While traveling in SE Asia I heard the oft-repeated theory that spicy food is used to combat the heat. The idea is that the spices makes you sweat--without actually elevating body-temp--and the sweat in turn cools you off.

stari_momak said...

There are some traditional, very hot, things in northern cuisines. Mustard can be extremely hot, as can horseradish.

Anonymous said...

When I was in Japan, I found traditional Japanese fare to be quite bland, mostly relying on salty broths for flavor.

But they would instead call it 'subtle'.


Japanese food is very bland. They don't really use any spices. They do use wasabi which is a horseradish. Like most blander cuisines, the main flavor is saltiness.

This is probably partly why sushi became trendy and popular in the US. It's exotic and raw fish and all, but it doesn't really taste like anything. It basically tastes like rice, slightly fishy flavor, and how much soy sauce you dip it in. It's exotic but tastes so bland that people used to bland cuisine can eat it easily.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

I might like hot, spicy foods more if the heat didn't linger for so long.

The Japanese definitely got it right with wasabi - a dose of heat, but no long term relationship as with various peppers, etc.

The Wobbly Guy said...

Bland traditional Japanese food is also probably why curry became very popular in Japan after it was introduced from India.

Their own spin on curry is distinctive.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how spicy food would taste better when it's hot out. When I think of dishes that are much more enjoyable in sweltering heat, they are all very cold--ice cream and the like. Maybe it's humidity that spicy food pairs well with, rather than heat.

I could see an argument being made for bitter tastes being preferable in hotter climes, or at least bitter tastes in drinks. Lemonade, hoppy beer, beer with a lemon in it, the list can go on.

Harold said...

I would never use the word ‘bland’ to describe sushi. Nor would I say the saltiness dominates over the sweetness or vinegariness. Maybe my taste receptors differ from yours.

Every time someone orders sushi with mayonnaise in it a Japanese person dies.

Anonymous said...

As several people here have said already, spice is not a preservative. It is however, a way to make spoiled food taste edible. People from hot countries such as India seem to have evolved cast-iron stomachs to handle spoiled meat, along with a highly spice reliant cuisine to mask the taste.

If you must eat spoiled/questionable food, it is imperative to cook it very, very well so that the only harmful thing remaining will be heat stable toxins (which may or may not form). If you are healthy, these won't kill you, but your digestive system will need to purge itself temporarily. I also like to wash the outside of the food before cooking, because this is where most bacteria form and by washing away the bacteria and their spoilage products, you also lower the risk.

If refrigerated, this cooked food will usually be good (save the heat-stable toxin risk) for another 3 days or however long it takes for the bacteria to build up again.

Another thing you can do is freeze food before it gets to a spoiled state, and after thawing, cook it immediately.

Anonymous said...

Regarding bland traditional American food, Mitt Romney's special birthday meal is meatloaf:

www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/dining/meatloaf-cake-is-mitt-romneys-birthday-favorite.html

"“Meatloaf cakes,” Mr. Romney affirmed from the back of his charter plane as it idled on the tarmac in Ohio last week, explaining to the traveling press corps the special birthday meal his wife prepares for him every year.

“She makes these little meatloaf cakes about that big,” he said, widening his hands to the size of a saucer, “and covers them with this sweet sauce.”

“It’s ketchup, cinnamon,” he continued, before his wife, Ann, cut him off.

“The reason he likes it,” she said with a laugh, “it’s brown sugar and ketchup.”

The traditional birthday meal, Mr. and Mrs. Romney added, includes mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and carrots.

“And that’s what I like,” Mr. Romney said happily.

But when Mr. Romney turned 65 on Monday, he did so without his usual dinner — a hazard of life on the campaign trail. Mrs. Romney assured him that his beloved cakes would be waiting the next time he was home long enough to enjoy a proper meal.

Mr. Romney is not a fussy eater, often fixing his own peanut butter and honey sandwiches on his campaign bus. Mrs. Romney has been known to supplement her husband’s diet on the road, which includes cold cereal and fast food, with homemade goodies."

*Note the title of the article:"Mitt Romney’s Blue-Collar Birthday Meal" It's described as "blue-collar" because these days upper-middle and upper class eat fairly fancy food and don't eat things like meatloaf. Romney obviously isn't blue-collar, but as a Mormon he's more tied to the older, blander, traditional American culture where middle-class and upper-class people ate bland stuff like meatloaf and corn and potatoes.

Anonymous said...

>Why is tropical Cuisine spicy?<

Because the East India compay introduced chillis from South America, they are not native to asia.

Yup, it was Europeans that inroduced chillis to India and East Asia and enabled curry to be hot.

Nick - Pretoria

Anonymous said...

I would never use the word ‘bland’ to describe sushi. Nor would I say the saltiness dominates over the sweetness or vinegariness. Maybe my taste receptors differ from yours.

Sushi is bland. It doesn't mean it's bad. It's just pretty bland. Plain meat and potatoes is bland, but it's still good.

Anonymous said...

Chillies, potatoes, cashew were introduced in India by the Portuguese, first in Goa.

Volksverhetzer said...

It was because the Europeans already had a trade system and used a lot of money in spices, that one could get rich importing spices to Europe.

There are many edible herbs with pepper in the name in Europe, like pepper root, but the black pepper from India tasted better.

Sid said...

Middle Eastern cuisine is now very bland. I am currently living in Azerbaijan and the food is terribly dull. If you put red pepper powder on your food to spice it up, the Azeris will grab your hand to keep you from what they think is certain death.

The other Middle Eastern cuisines I've had are also bland. I would like to know why their food is such, since historically they had trading ties with India. I suppose trading broke down once the Muslim world declined in the 18th century and Britain came to dominate India. Maybe Muslims think spicy food is unclean.

Lucille said...

Anon @ 11:33

Potatoes - that is, an unadorned white potato - are bland, but I wouldn't describe most meats as bland, with some exceptions such as lean chicken breast or cod.

dearieme said...

Magellan's journey was a much bigger deal than the Apollo program: do keep a sense of proportion.

I don't know how long have the British have eaten beef with very spicy mustard and spicy horseradish sauce. The latter is used with smoked mackerel too. I'd imagine that both long pre-date Magellan.

I suppose the spiciness of haggis must post-date the trips to the Spice Isles that made cheap pepper available.

dearieme said...

P.S. Horseradish sauce is white.

Anonymous said...

SWPL is white bread as fruitcake.

Paradoxically, the blandest and most castrated white bread guys go for 'diversity', and the most pungently authentic white guys go for tribalism and community.

Anonymous said...

My wife is also from the Philippines, a country whose closest neighbors are pretty uniformly fond of spicy foods. After many years of sampling various dishes from different Filipino regions, I would characterize almost all of them as bland, sometimes virtually tasteless...wife's cooking excepted, of course...

Anonymous said...

About 10 years ago, I read some study (or maybe just proclamation) from some Stanford prof. that most people's taste buds settle by the late 20's. That is, they are not going to like, or even try, completely different foods.

I first had raw oysters at age 26, raw fish (sushi and sashimi) at age 25, and I still like them both a lot. But I don't think I have truly tried a new food group since then.

I've had kale and quinoa for the first time in the past 2 years, but I didn't like either and anyways they are just bitter greens (kale) and another grain (quinoa).

I didn't tried Indian food until my 30's and I don't understand the attraction: bad cuts of meat, overwhelming curry, no subtlety.




Anonymous said...

I used to live San Francisco for some years, and here is my completely correct opinion:

The tastiest food - ignoring atmospherics, presentation, company - is Chinese food (generic, no Szechuan, Hunan, whatever pretenses) in a medium-level restaurant.

Don't argue; you know I am right.

biff said...

Only very strong flavors can affect the taste of alcohol. Kingsley Amis, On Drink. Tropical spices, or spices in taverns frequented by northern travelers in the tropics?Bars up north have hot stuff to make you drink more.

pat said...

I've found the best way to mask the slightly rotten flavor of meat you've had around too long is to simply feed it to the dog. My cat won't touch it but, the dog just wolfs it right down.

Dogs have a lower pH level in their stomachs so I don't think it does them any harm.

Of course in South East Asia they are more likely to just eat the dog.

Albertosaurus