Traditional Japanese recipes date back to a time when much of the meat and fish consumed in Japan was fresh and local, making the preservation properties of spices less essential. As a result, Korean meat recipes today typically call for more spices than Japanese ones. Some theories point to spice use in hot climates to increase perspiration and cool the body by evaporation.
Very few spices actually make us sweat. And it’s probably a myth that people used spices to mask the smell and taste of spoiled meat before refrigeration, because these antimicrobial spices really only work their magic by keeping fresh meat fresh for longer. Before modern awareness of chemistry and microbiology, spices may have seemed downright magical.
And that “magic” might be why many of these spices are ingredients in witches’ brews: Eye of newt is just another name for mustard seed. Tongue of dog refers to an herb called houndstongue, and lion’s hairs are just turnip leaves. Combining modern scientific knowledge with historical spice traditions has led to some interesting recent discoveries. Doctors have used a compound from cinnamon bark to ward off bacterial infections like MRSA, and in another experiment rosmarinic acid added to hamburger meat reduced the level of carcinogens after cooking.
We may be entering a renaissance of plant-inspired medicine, but just like the actual Renaissance, there’s plenty of bad science alongside the good stuff. So take outrageous spice claims with a grain of salt, because that essential oil could really just be snake oil. Without a recipe for a time machine, it’s hard to pin down exactly why we started to use spices.
The dishes we eat are part of local traditions that today are spreading around the globe. Recipes have often been passed down for so long that no one quite knows how – or why – they originated. But whether we were driven by taste, tradition, medicine, or all of the above, we stumbled upon some delicious knowledge along our evolutionary history.