Fight fire with fire.
The closer to the equator, the hotter the food.
Think about it – want spicy food? You don’t turn to Norway or Canada; you look to the equatorial and tropical cuisines – India, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Ethiopia. Louisiana’s cuisine is spicier than Wisconsin’s. New Mexico will set your tongue on fire. Idaho? Not so much.
The evolution of an equatorial fiery diet is thought to be a combination of heat-fighting properties of peppers and a culinary tradition of preserving foods with spices.
Ground chili peppers bring the heat to southern Vietnamese food, while the northern areas prefer a generous helping of black pepper. Garlic, ginger and lemongrass add to the potent punch, if not the heat factor.
Many Asian food stores offer shelves full of hot and spices sauces that can be used in all types of dishes – beef, pork, seafood, chicken, vegetarian. They range from the sweet heat of red pepper to darker, almost bitter bite of potent curries.
Of course, Asia doesn’t have the monopoly on heat. Caribbean cuisine brings its own brand of fire.
Jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk fish and other meats use a special blend of herbs and seasonings – including a healthy portion of cayenne pepper. Caribbean cuisine evolved from the multitude of global influences that have landed on the island shores including African, Chinese, Indian, Spanish and more. A spice blend could use anything from cinnamon and nutmeg to habanero, tamarind and thyme..
On the other side of the Atlantic, Ethiopian food is known as some of the most delicious, and hottest, on the planet. The national dish, wat, is a heavily spiced stew, which may include meat or only vegetables and legumes. The stew is seasoned with a traditional blend called berbere, made from a blend of dried red peppers, herbs, spices, dried onions, dried garlic and salt.
But will heat of these high-temp regions’ food on the inside make you cool on the outside?
Well, it’s a complicated “which came first, the jerked chicken or the egg” conundrum.
Spices grow better in hotter climates, and the same chemical properties that give their unique flavors help ward off the bugs and mildew that cause lesser plants to crumble. These properties also help preserve food in hotter climates – or mask the taste of food that is past its prime. So the addition of spices to food through the ages was probably as much functional as it was flavorful.
So, the heat grows the spices, and the spices help foods fight the heat.
As for the humans eating the food, we may have adapted to eating the spicy foods out of necessity. Then, as spicy foods increase blood flow, cause sweating and drive us to drink, they cool us down in return – right after the wasabi or the habaneros heat us up.
Whether it’s jalapenos or horseradish or a Caribbean rub, eye-watering heat is tied to cold drinks and good times. There’s always room for a little spice under the sun.