You may not know it, but when you choose between roasted red potatoes and curried rice for dinner, you are participating in a fascinating culinary phenomenon happening on a global scale.
Here what’s going on: Imagine a map. If you were to randomly teleport to one of those warm-climate countries clustered around the equator and ask for a typical ethnic dish, chances are it would be quite spicy – sambar lentil soup from southern India or a tangy and fiery pork fritada from Ecuador.
But, if you move further north or south on the latitudinal scale, away from the earth’s central belt, typical cuisines become generally more mild – lutefisk in Norway, or the surprisingly mild asado barbecue in southern Argentina.
People in hot climates seem to prefer their foods spicy. Why do people in hot countries eat hot food? There are several theories.
Some people propose that eating spicy foods makes you sweat, and sweating makes you cool down. Gustatory facial sweating is a thing … spicy foods trigger sweat from your face (as opposed to your scalp or your armpits). This ultimately cools your body.
Mmmm – I have my doubts on this one. I think it’s probably just as easy to splash a little water on you face than to torture your digestive system with capsaicin (caps-ay-sin) for a little cooldown. Plus, In humid countries – like those around the equator – sweating doesn’t actually do much to cool your internal temperature anyway … it just makes you sticky.
Here’s theory number two: chilis grow best in hot climates, so people who live in places where they grow eat them a lot.
And finally, it could also be that in places with hot climates, food spoils faster, and spices like onion, black and white pepper, chili pepper, garlic and ginger to help prevent the food from going bad. Since spices have antimicrobial properties, they make meat less likely to spoil. This is especially helpful where warm temperatures make food go bad quickly. And it could be that people who eat those spicy food are healthier too.
It turns out someone has studied this. Researchers from Cornell University looked at the spices used in recipes from traditional cookbooks of meat-based cuisines in 36 countries. They also compiled information on the temperature and precipitation in each country, the ranges of spice plants, and the antibacterial properties of each spice. They eliminated the following hypotheses: that spices provide macronutrients, disguise the taste and smell of spoiled foods, increase perspiration and thus evaporative cooling, or are eaten just by coincidence. They concluded that the reason more spices are used in hot climates is because of their antibacterial properties that rid foods of pathogens and thereby contribute to people's health, longevity and reproductive success.
And there you have it … five-star pepper salsa equals reproductive success … just maybe brush your teeth before you try it.