I have a love of hot, spicy food – be it a hot king prawn balti, a chilli con carne or some spicy Thai noodles, I just never tire of eating gloriously hot food. I know as a cook that chillies can bring a depth of flavour to dishes, but why do we strive towards ever-hotter chillies – and eat them?
It’s not just me either, across most cultures the heat generated by the capsaicin compound is used extensively in cooking. This subject was researched by Paul Sherman, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Sherman’s research showed a relationship between the climate of a country and the average heat of its cuisine.
Mexico, Thailand, and India are all famous for having some very hot dishes, and it’s no coincidence these countries all enjoy hot climates. Sherman’s research showed that hotter countries have more spicy dishes than those with cooler climates. Obviously people in warm climates don’t need the heat from the food to warm a cold body, but it turns out their appetite for spicy food is partly down to human evolution.
The reasoning can be applied to the popularity of curries and hot soups in many cultures, and even the spice trade in the middle ages. Spices help protect meat from bacteria, and make unpleasant tastes more palatable. As meat has traditionally been a luxury, spices were a way to make use of expensive meat for longer. Meat curries and soups also tend to be hotter as plants have better antimicrobial properties than meat – so the heat isn’t as desirable and the expensive hot spices were used more sparingly.
This still doesn’t answer my original question – the climate in Britain isn’t really comparable to that of Mexico – but my friends and I do enjoy spicy fajitas or curries much more than we probably should.
The truth is, science has yet to provide a definite explanation, and the most logical opinion is called "hedonic reversal", or "benign masochism", where we take a negative and turn it into a positive experience.
Capsaicin spice generates heat, and that burning feeling on your tongue is the result of the activation of pain receptors in the tongue. Humans are the only species - which we know of – that actively seeks out this “negative” experience.