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The spicy food law - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

The spicy food law [May. 18th, 2008|04:45 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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People often ask me: "so which is the spicier cuisine again, North or South Indian?" It appears that the law (in the sense of natural law) that describes the spiciness of regional cuisines is not as well-known as it should be. Here it is, behold its simplicity:
The spiciness of a regional cuisine is completely and accurately determined by the average temperature of the region.
This explains why Thai and other South Asian cuisines are very spicy, South Indian food is spicier than North Indian, and Russian food is impossibly bland.

The reason for the law is equally simple. Historically, the function of spices was food preservation. Our taste for them is an evolutionary adaptation to a survival need, rather than the other way around. Before the invention of refrigeration, you had to put spices into food to keep it from going bad. And naturally, the hotter the environment, the faster bacteria grew, and the more spices you'd need to dump into food you wanted to preserve.
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[User Picture]From: ephermata
2008-05-18 10:02 pm (UTC)
How about Korean kimchi? It's remarkably spicy, but Korea is colder than most of South Asia, especially in the winters. Here's an average temperature map:
http://www.cotf.edu/ete/modules/korea/temperature.html

The summers can be hot, but they aren't as hot as Thailand or South India.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-05-18 10:08 pm (UTC)
wikipedia:

Chili peppers, now a major ingredient in most forms of kimchi, were unknown in Korea until the early 17th century. Chili peppers originated from the New World and were introduced to East Asia by Western traders.[4], specifically, the Portuguese trading in Nagasaki. This particular style of kimchi made with chili peppers and baechu, a variety of Chinese cabbage, gained popularity in the 19th century and this baechu kimchi continues to be the most common and popular form of kimchi today.[5]
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From: kupamanduka
2008-05-19 03:35 am (UTC)
Interesting observation. But why average temperature? A few hot months should make the situation "bad" enough to need spices, right? Similarly humidity/rainfall and such factors which could dictate the bacteria/germ distribution?

I didn't know north Indian cuisine is less spicy - have you fact-checked? Upper class Hindu food is determined by various constraints which prevented them from making food too spicy. Further, I remember my mother telling me that since poor people couldn't afford a lot of dAl etc. they would add a lot of chili to "compensate" in some sense - i.e., mask the blandness of rice or whatever ( as an aside, I believe this coupled with sticking to old food habits during more affluent times ensure that Indian diet is low on protein ).
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From: kupamanduka
2008-05-19 03:39 am (UTC)
Okay, I get the first point I raised - perhaps winter checks the bacteria to such an extent that they can't multiply much during the hot months?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-05-19 06:58 am (UTC)
oh, i didn't put too much thought into that word. i guess i meant geographic average. it could well be the summer temperature that's relevant, i don't know.

i'm quite certain that south indian is more spicy. and why why why does caste come into everything? please?
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From: kupamanduka
2008-05-19 07:41 am (UTC)
Dude, it isn't quite that I like to bring in caste everywhere - there is actually a great variation in cuisine between various castes - more than just the avoiding of onion/garlic/non-veg. Typically brAhmins don't cook very spicy food, AFAIK because that isn't considered very sAttvik ( bhagavad-gIta characterizes very bitter, acidic, salty etc. foods as rAjasic and brAhmins actually seem to avoid that ). I remember hearing from some ( translated ) ancient Tamil text descriptions of how different the food of brAhmins were. Similarly the ceTTiars extensively traded with south east Asia which is why in spite of ceTTinADu being farther away from coast their cuisine involved much more coconut than rest of Tamil Nadu. Even between Iyers and Iyengars there are not-so-subtle culinary differences. One often sees in mallu magazines during Ramzan "Moplah recipes" or Muslim specials. Plus "habit-formation" and the ( caste-dependent ) poverty factor I mentioned etc. These days of course a lot of homogenization is taking place ( I am not cribbing ).

And if you are brought up on a diet low in spiciness you would have to put considerable effort to start liking spicy food, which was perhaps one reason why the distinctions were preserved.

I thought the summer temperatures in many cities of North India were as high or higher than most south Indian cities - like Delhi etc.?
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[User Picture]From: theswede
2008-05-19 05:10 am (UTC)
Isn't reason more along the lines that spices grow more powerful the hotter the climate? In the northern areas food preservation was much more important since the food would have to be stored for over half a year while no new food grew; in the hotter areas the food for every day could simply be fetched year round, making preservation unnecessary.

This would also be supported by that no food preservation methods used historically come from hotter areas, and by that adding spice to food does jack and shit to preserve it, unlike for example dumping salt in it. And notably, many hot areas know nothing about using salt (like Thai food, which uses fish instead of salt).
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[User Picture]From: sunson
2008-05-20 08:29 am (UTC)
Actually not. Spices are grown along the hilly sides and rainforests. The hottest regions are where there is lesser growth and more perpendicular exposure to sun's rays at noon (plains of the equator - Andhra, etc.,.)

So I'd say, it depends on whether spices are available in the given region. I mean, its not like people 'knew' they should add spices to protect the food. Secondly, like theswede asks, do spices actually protect food? I thought it didn't matter.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-05-19 10:31 pm (UTC)

Memes rather than genes.

Unless there is information I don't know:

Whereas spices may be important for survival of a population in hot places, I think that the taste for spice is more likely to be encoded in the "memes" of the culture rather than the genes of the race. The taste for a particular type of food is cultivated by/ acquired from one's family.

--
Vishvas
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2008-05-20 08:48 am (UTC)

Re: Memes rather than genes.

i'm thinking genes play a small part. i remember watching a mini-documentary about a tribe in meghalaya or someplace who lived in a place where this absurdly hot chili pepper grew that would put the habanero to shame. and they had a mutation that made them immune to the chemical. or something like that. but you're right, it's probably largely cultural instead of genetic evolution. thanks for the correction.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-05-20 11:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Memes rather than genes.

It is possible to argue for a stronger and more specific claim: "Except in geographically isolated populations, the preference for spicy food in hot regions is entirely encoded in the memes, and not at all encoded in the genes". (The degree of geographic isolation is left unspecified.)

The argument is as follows: The genes of most populations of Homo Sapiens have been under very intense selection pressure for resistance to disease and hunger. (Consider the populations decimated by black death in Eurasia, small pox in Americas; malaria in Africa; also the independent development of lactose-tolerance in multiple populations and predisposition for diabetes in South Asia.) When these genes are under such intense selection pressure, it becomes extremely unlikely that anything as trivial as food-preference - or even intelligence- is selected for. (For many complex changes in the phenotype, it is not a single gene, but multiple genes which are responsible. So one mutation which marks progress in one respect can easily reverse "progress" in another respect.)

--
Vishvas
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