Why Do Some Cultures Eat Spicy Foods And Others Don’t?

Variety is the spice of life, and some of that variety involves bland, bland food.
Spicy Foods

All cuisines are not created the same. And thank goodness for that, because if every country ate the same food life would be so boring. The world is filled with various culinary experiences for you to explore and enjoy! Some are sweeter; some are more savory; some are simple; some are complex. Each country has a whole range of food on offer, but there are certain flavors that characterize different cuisines. There’s no better or more divisive example of that than spicy foods.

If you were raised in an Irish-American family like myself, you may not have even known spicy food existed until your late teens. Or perhaps you’re someone who has been able to withstand hot spices in your food since birth. Clearly, there are some cultural differences. And while it’s an oversimplification, the split between spicy and not spicy seems to go right between East (spicy) and West (not spicy). Why did this divide form? And why eat spicy food in the first place? We investigate.

The Myth Of Eating To Sweat

One persistent explanation for why people eat spicy food is that it is tied to the climate of various countries. It’s true that countries famous for spices, like India and Mexico, have some of the hottest climates. The idea is that spicy foods can help a person sweat, and that in turn cools them off in the extreme heat.

There is some evidence to support this sweaty theory — in one study, runners who drank hot water cooled off faster than those who drank cold water — but it doesn’t really make sense when applied to spicy foods. For one, there are plenty of popular spices that don’t make people sweat. Plus, food is just not a very efficient way to cool down. To see the real appeal of spicy foods, you have to dig deeper.

The Health Benefits Of Spicy Foods

When food starts to go bad, it tastes bad. This is a good thing because otherwise, we might end up eating things that would make us really ill. In modern times, we have a lot of ways to fight spoilage. Before the advent of refrigeration, however, spoiled food was a big problem. Sometimes, cooks would stretch the lifespan of a food by adding flavors. French toast, for example, was invented to make stale bread more edible. Spicy foods may have been created along this same line of thinking.

One study that dove into the mystery of spicy foods looked at cookbooks across cultures. The results backed up the idea that more food spoilage meant more spices: places with higher annual temperatures (and thus higher rates of food spoilage) tended to use more spices. It turns out that this phenomenon was not about flavor, however. The study found that spices have strong antimicrobial properties, and that makes the food healthier to eat. Thus, spoiled meats are less likely to kill you when they’re cooked with spices.

Palatability and health are definitely intertwined here, though. In general, foods taste good or bad depending on whether or not they’re good for you. Sugar tastes great because it’s a source of energy for your body. Spoiled meat tastes bad because it makes us sick. There are exceptions to this because there are plenty of foods that exist today that our genetics weren’t prepared for — deep-fried Oreos taste great, but will kill you — but the trend is your body tries to tell your brain what’s healthy to eat.

Over the course of human history, we have likely developed our taste for spices because they have kept us from dying. People in hot countries, who needed spices more, may be slightly more primed for eating spicy foods.

Why Isn’t All Food Spicy?

Because spices are healthy, we should be slathering all our foods with as many spices as we can. If you’ve ever been to certain countries in Europe, however, you’ll know that’s not the case. Food tastes cannot be explained simply by what has historically been healthier for human beings. Cuisine, as any foodie will tell you, is intensely cultural.

A study of Indian food found that the cuisine differs from European food in how it pairs flavors. Whereas Europeans tend to put together ingredients that are similar, Indian recipes generally use “negative food pairing,” so there is a larger range of flavors in each dish. And India isn’t the only country that uses negative food pairing; in fact, Europe used to have spicier food, too.

Spices were one of the most important goods throughout history. If you remember back to your history classes, you’ll know Columbus first ran into the Americas because he was trying to find a faster route to India to get spices. The massive Dutch East India Company did most of its trade in spices. During this whole period, rich people loved buying their expensive, “exotic” spices to make their meals more exciting.

The shift away from spicy food happened in the 17th century, when spices became a tad too ubiquitous. As trade routes formed and prices dropped, spicy food was no longer solely the domain of the rich and powerful. Because rich people hate doing the same things as non-rich people, they shifted their food philosophy. Soon, popular foods were those that were simplest: meat was meat and it should taste like meat. Spicy broths were replaced by meaty ones. People also decided that the key to healthy food was vegetables, not spices. More and more people started following suit.

These 17th-century food norms are still with us today. A meal consisting of meat, potatoes and a vegetable is the descendant of this food philosophy. Sure, sriracha may have encouraged millennials to start putting hot sauce on everything, but the basics are still in place. The decisions that led to modern cuisine have been cultural, historical, political and physical.

Dealing With Spicy Food Abroad

When you’re visiting other countries, you sometimes will want to check how spicy a food is. Nothing ruins a day like crying over a meal because your mouth is on fire. Or maybe, you want something to be even spicier. Here are a few phrases to help you prepare for your next trip!

Is this dish spicy?

German: Ist dieses Gericht scharf?

French: Est-ce que ce plat est épicé ?

Italian: Questo piatto è piccante?

Spanish: ¿Es picante este plato?

Portuguese: Este prato é picante?

Swedish: Är den här rätten stark?

Turkish: Bu yemek acı mı?

Russian: Это блюдо острое? (Jeto bljudo ostroe?)

Could you make that more/less spicy?

More spicy: Könnte ich es bitte etwas schärfer bekommen?
Less spicy: Könnte ich es bitte etwas weniger scharf bekommen?

More spicy: Vous pourriez mettre plus d’épices ?
Less spicy: Vous pourriez mettre moins d’épices ?

More spicy: Si può aggiungere un po’ di piccante a questo piatto, per favore?
Less spicy: Si può avere questo piatto poco piccante, per favore?

More spicy: ¿Puede preparar el plato un poco más picante?
Less spicy: ¿Puede preparar el plato un poco menos picante?

More spicy: Você poderia fazer o prato mais apimentado?
Less spicy: Você poderia fazer o prato menos apimentado?

More spicy: Skulle du kunna göra den starkare?
Less spicy: Skulle du kunna göra den mindre stark?

More spicy: Bunu daha acı yapabilir misiniz?
Less spicy: Bunu daha az acılı yapabilir misiniz?

More spicy: Вы могли бы сделать его более острым? (Vy mogli by sdelat’ ego bolee ostrym?)
Less spicy: Вы могли бы сделать его менее острым? (Vy mogli by sdelat’ ego menee ostrym?)

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