Spice: Why some of us like it hot


Chillis pack fierce heat but also antimicrobial agents that could have been useful in the days before refrigeration PHOTO/Getty Images

Spicy food is about more than pleasurable pain. BBC Future investigates why we can’t say no to spice.

Human beings around the world delight in fiery foods. Thai, Mexican, 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?

There’s 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.

It’s also 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.

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