The Surprising Reason We Eat Spicy Food. When we talk “spices” we’re talking more than just hot things. “Culinary spices” include dozens of aromatic plants and their seeds. Compare the number of spices in recipes far from the equator, to ones close to it. People in warm climates use way more spices even though northern countries have access to just as many herbs and veggies they could cook with.
It’s something any food lover sort of intuitively knows, but have you ever wondered why people near the equator think spice is so nice? The history of spices extends far beyond the kitchen. To many peoples, they came to hold monetary and cultural value. When Alarich, leader of the Goths, besieged Rome in 408 BC, he demanded 3000 lbs. of pepper as ransom. Neolithic graves have turned up with spices in tow, and Egyptian scrolls from 1555 BC describe adorning the deceased with aromatic plants.
Caring for the dead was thought to discourage spirits from sticking around, and a lot of those plants happened to preserve the bodies. The oldest example of spice use in cooking is 6,000-year-old pottery found with traces of garlic-mustard, a plant with otherwise little-to-no nutritional value. But beyond the interesting smells and rich history, there’s a hugely important use for spices that might surprise you. They kill bacteria. Plant tissues – including those we use for spices – are full of phytochemicals, compounds which give many plants their flavor.
Plants manufacture numerous chemicals to defend themselves from insects and microbes, by poisoning or ripping apart foreign cells. When these flavorful phytochemicals hit our food, they can have the same microbe-killing effects. The 30 most commonly used spices from recipes around the world all inhibit growth of some kind of bacteria, often the same ones that cause foodborne illnesses.
Uncooked meats and cooked meat dishes stored at room temperature can build up massive bacterial populations in just hours. Places where food spoils faster use more bacteria-killing spices per recipe. And the spices used most often turn out to be the ones that are the strongest bacteria-killers. There are exceptions to the geography/spice rule. Some neighboring countries, like Japan and Korea, can have wildly different spice habits despite having similar climates.