BY: PRAVEENA THIRUNATHAN
It has been said that countries with hot, tropical climates have the spiciest food. Dishes like Sri Lankan mutton curry, Thai green papaya salad, and Singaporean chili crab are all super fiery, and originate in tropical countries. If we stop to ask people why this is, we get a variety of answers.
“Eating spicy food makes you sweat, so it helps you cool down!”
“Meat tends to go bad in hot climates, so the spices help cover up the putrid flavor.”
“According to traditional wisdom, the spices prevent curry from going bad.”
But are all the answers correct? What’s the real reason behind hot countries having hot food? In today’s article, we’ll travel through time to see if we can find the answer.
What is Pungency (or hot or spicy, they’re all interchangeable in this article)?
Pungency, AKA that delightful (or horrible) feeling of your mouth being set on fire, is triggered by the presence of capsaicin in your mouth. When you take a bite of that irresistible 3 bean chili, the capsaicin binds to the TRVP1 receptors in your mouth, which sends signals up to your brain . The TRVP1 receptor also sends signals when it is triggered by heat and pain, which means that when you eat spicy food, your brain registers those signals as a burning sensation . Super fun, huh?
Putting aside the fact that we willingly eat food that triggers our pain receptor, we know that capsaicin is present in the fruits of plants from the (appropriately named!) genus Capsicum, also known as chili peppers. The fruits range from the mild bell pepper, to the popular jalapeno pepper, to even the infamous ghost chili (Bhut Jolokia). Each chili has its place in a different cuisine – from poblano peppers in Mexican cuisine to aji amarillo in Peruvian cuisine. Given how integral chilies are to many Asian cuisines, we’d assume that chilis have always been grown around the world… right? Well… here’s where our time travel will come into play.
The History of the Chili Pepper
Here’s a map of chili distribution in 2010
Yup, pretty much everywhere that can be warm and sunny, or that can achieve that effect through greenhouses.
Now let’s go back in time.
Here’s a map of chili distribution in 1400.
….where’s all my Asian and African chilies at?!
Surprisingly, chilies aren’t even native to the Old World! Instead, they’re native to Mexico, and spread down to Middle and South America influencing the native diets in those regions . Indeed, the word chili is derived from the Nahuatl word chīlli. While people in the New World were able to enjoy spicy food since the dawn of civilization, it wasn’t until Columbus arrived in 1492 that the chili pepper spread to Europe, Africa and Asia. This event is known as the Columbian Exchange, where the migration of people from the Old World to the New resulted in the transportation of foods such as corn (!), tomato (!!), potato (!!!), and chili pepper back to Europe (and diseases to the Americas, but that’s for another day…) . While corn and potatoes grew to become staple foods in Africa and Europe respectively, chili peppers were taken to Asia by Portuguese explorers. There, they flourished in the tropical climate, and the native people started to incorporate them into their cuisine. Thus, the world was irreversibly changed.
“Hey hey wait. One time I accidentally put too much black pepper on my pork chop, and it was super spicy! Another time I went for Szechuan hot pot, and my mouth was numb the whole time due to all the Sichuan peppercorns in the broth. So, it’s not just chili peppers that make foods spicy. Ha.”
Well yes congratulations, you found other pungent foods. Although black pepper can be spicy in large amounts, the compound that produces that sensation is piperine, which also activates the TRPV1 receptor (like capsaicin). Sichuan peppercorns are members of the Zanthoxylum genus, and they’re not so spicy as they are numbing. In fact, this numbing sensation is known as ma la in Mandarin, and is an integral component of Sichuan cuisine. The numbness is caused by a molecule called hydroxy alpha sanshool, which not only activates the TRVP1 receptor, but also interacts with two-pore potassium channels .
When food historians looked into typical cuisines before the Columbian Exchange, they found that foods like black pepper were used to add pungency to foods. KT Achaya, a food scientist and food historian, notes that in a list of dishes cooked in Akbar’s court (Akbar was an emperor of the Mughal Empire who ruled in the 1500s), all were heavily spiced with black pepper . Black pepper was even used quite heavily in Europe by medieval royalty, until Europeans colonized Africa and Asia, and spices became more and more common. In Thailand, green peppercorns were popular in their cuisine, and you can still taste its bright flavor in jungle curry.
Why Do We Eat Spicy Food?
So this is great and all, but we still haven’t figured out the reason why people eat spicy food. This question was also asked by Dr. Arpad Szallasi, and his question generated a variety of explanations from esteemed researchers . All of them concluded that spicy food was not eaten to induce sweating to cool the body down, since sweating is a metabolically expensive way to cool down. Billing and Sherman wrote a seminal paper on the antimicrobial properties of spices and noted that by covering up putrid or spoiled flavors in meat using spices, the consumption of the finished product would have severely negative consequences, such as proliferation of the microorganism that caused the spoilage, eventually causing mass foodborne disease outbreaks . Billing and Sherman conclude that spices were used in food for their anti-microbial effects, but even this theory is questioned by Szallasi, who notes that capsaicin has to be used in high amounts (300µg/mL) in order to inhibit the growth of E. coli, and that food generally doesn’t contain such a high amount of capsaicin .
In the end, the reason for why people in hot countries eat spicy food….is most likely culture. Which isn’t a great reason at all, but it goes to show how complex our relationship is with food, and how it is greatly shaped by our environment, the people around us, and the culture we grow up in. It’s not like a tolerance for spiciness is genetic, and passed down from parents to their children. Many people who come from spicy food cultures tend to start eating spicy food young, so that they become desensitized to that burning feeling. Even if someone doesn’t come from a spicy food culture, they can still desensitize themselves by eating spicy food over and over and over and over again.
I’ll note down one thing, and it’s that even if we did eat spicy food for its anti-microbial properties, and even if that wasn’t necessary anymore due to improved food safety and food distribution channels, I’ll never stop eating my spicy food. It’s too good to give up!
- Caterina, Michael J., Mark A. Schumacher, Makoto Tominaga, Tobias A. Rosen, Jon D. Levine, and David Julius. “The Capsaicin Receptor: A Heat-Activated Ion Channel in the Pain Pathway.” Nature 389, no. 6653 (October 23, 1997): 816–24. https://doi.org/10.1038/39807.
- Story, Gina M., and Lillian Cruz-Orengo. “Feel the Burn.” American Scientist 95, no. 4 (2007): 326. https://doi.org/10.1511/2007.66.326.
- Govindarajan, V. S., and Uwe J. Salzer. “Capsicum‐production, technology, chemistry, and quality part 1: History, botany, cultivation, and primary processing.” Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition 22.2 (1985): 109-176.
- Nunn, Nathan, and Nancy Qian. “The Columbian exchange: A history of disease, food, and ideas.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 24.2 (2010): 163-88.
- Bautista, Diana M., et al. “Pungent agents from Szechuan peppers excite sensory neurons by inhibiting two-pore potassium channels.” Nature neuroscience 11.7 (2008): 772.
- Achaya, Konganda Thammu. The Story of Our Food. Univ. Press India, 2000.
- Gutierrez, Ranier, and Sidney A. Simon. “Why Do People Living in Hot Climates like Their Food Spicy?” Temperature: Multidisciplinary Biomedical Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, Nov. 2015, pp. 48–49. PubMed Central, doi:10.1080/23328940.2015.1119616.
- Billing, Jennifer, and Paul W. Sherman. “Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like It Hot.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 73, no. 1, Mar. 1998, pp. 3–49. journals.uchicago.edu (Atypon), doi:10.1086/420058.
- Szallasi, Arpad. “Some like It Hot (Ever More so in the Tropics): A Puzzle with No Solution.” Temperature: Multidisciplinary Biomedical Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 54–55. PubMed Central, doi:10.1080/23328940.2016.1139964.