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  Human beings around the world delight in fiery foods. Thai, Mexican,
Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian – the cuisines that can take the roof off your mouth
are numerous and flavourful.
          Ranking the world’s most spicy peppers and comparing the most awe-inducing
dishes is a common pastime, even if, past a certain point, the distinctions are
somewhat moot. Who can say, subjectively speaking, that one Indian restaurant’s
Widower Phaal, made while wearing goggles with chilis that rank about 1,000,000
on the Scoville Scale – an international measurement of pungency – is
necessarily a fierier experience than the notorious Korean Suicide Burrito?
Phaal),用国际通用史高维尔辣度单位(Scoville Scale)达100万的辣椒做成,工人在制作时甚至要戴护目镜,要比韩国自杀玉米卷饼(Suicide
          There’s plenty of burn to go around: more common dishes include vindaloo
with ghost peppers and hot pot from Sichuan, where you must part a swarm of
chillis bobbing in a sea of broth to fish out tender, fiery morsels of meats and
          As you savour these intense tastes, however, you may wonder, why do some
cuisines compete for the title of spicy champion, while others feature barely
the hint of a burn?
          This is a question that has intrigued anthropologists and food historians
for some time. Indeed, it’s a curious truth that places with warm climates do
seem to have a heavier preponderance of hot and spicy dishes. That may have
something to do with the fact that some spices have antimicrobial properties,
studies have found.
          In one survey of cookbooks from around the world, researchers note: “As
mean annual temperatures (an indicator of relative spoilage rates of
unrefrigerated foods) increased, the proportion of recipes containing spices,
number of spices per recipe, total number of spices used, and use of the most
potent antibacterial spices all increased.” In hot places, where before
refrigeration food would have gone off very quickly, spices might have helped
things keep a bit longer – or at least rendered them more palatable.
          It’s also been suggested that because spicy food makes most people sweat,
it might help us to cool off in hot parts of the world. The evaporative cooling
effect that happens when we perspire is indeed useful in maintaining a body’s
heat balance. In a very humid climate, though, it doesn’t matter how much you
sweat: that evaporation won’t come to your rescue because there’s already too
much moisture in the air. One study of people who drank hot water after exercise
showed that they did cool down slightly more than those who drank cold water,
but only in situations with low humidity. Thailand in August, that ain’t.
          But spice is hardly limited to the tropics. While chilli peppers are
originally from the Americas, this particular kind of heat grew widespread in
the 15th and 16th Centuries, travelling with European traders. Other spices –
not spicy in the same way as peppers, perhaps, but still strongly flavoured and
bringing an extra oomph to a dish – had been circulating in Europe for
centuries, with ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon brought in from the east.
          Heavily spiced dishes were the darlings of many cuisines we currently don’t
think of for their zing. Numerous recipes in one 18th-Century British cookery
book include potent doses of mace, cloves, and nutmeg, for instance. What
          Well, one possibility is that it became a bit uncouth to like quite so many
flavours in one’s food, as Maanvi Singh has written over at The Salt. What we
now consider classic European cuisine has a tendency to focus on pairing like
flavours with like, rather than bringing in a riot of strong, contrasting ones.
That may be because, as spice prices plummeted in Europe in the 1600s and it
became easier for just anyone to lace their food with them, tastemakers fell out
of love with them.
          Shifting the goalposts for high-end food, they began to emphasise dishes
where the focus was the purest essence of the basic ingredients, combined with
flavours that served to bring that out. In a word – it may have been snobbery,
Singh writes, that erased the thrill of spice from many European palates.
          Indeed, the role of human culture in determining whether spice is hot or
not cannot be underestimated. Like all animals, we use taste as a way to
determine what’s safe to eat, and once we get used to certain flavors signalling
the familiar, we like them all the more. It would not be surprising if some
people, having acclimated to chillis, began to prefer them over the absence of
          Today, we have our own reasons for eating spicy foods, and they may have
more to do with adrenaline than social status or sheer flavour, per se. The
physiological reaction to peppers, as we’ve discussed here before, is the result
of temperature sensors in the mouth being activated. Your body responds as if
you had burned it, causing you to sweat and flush, and in extreme cases
          The thrill of triggering this intense experience without (usually) any
long-term effects is thought to be part of the attraction – as well as, for some
chilli fiends, the bragging rights.
          Antimicrobial qualities and body temperature regulation are probably not on
the list of possible draws today – something to ponder, and thank your lucky
stars for, as you wait for your next curry.

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