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The spicy food law [May. 18th, 2008|04:45 pm]
Arvind Narayanan

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.

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.

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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.)

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