Why do some cultures eat spicy foods while others lean toward a milder fare? You may have noticed that even food that comes from regions near each other may vary greatly in the spice levels of their food. For example, at a typical Chinese restaurant (here in America) you can find instances of this phenomenon. Most Chinese food is fairly mild, but the Sichuan (aka. Szechuan) region often lends some spicier dishes to our Chinese menus.
Why does this happen across the globe you may ask? This article will take a look at a few examples and explore the reasons behind such occurrences.
Where do chili peppers come from?
Although there are several cultures and cuisines around the world that we now associate with spicy food, it is important to understand that all peppers originally came from the southern part of North America, Central America, and the northern parts of South America. Most say they probably originated in the area we now know as Mexico. Peppers were one of the items that made its way from the Americas back to Europe after Columbus made his journey across the Atlantic.
Once peppers were brought back to Europe they were then able to make their way across Europe and into Asia by traders and missionaries. I find it really incredible that something that is now considered a staple in some countries and regions was actually only introduced to them four or five hundred years ago.
Why did some countries
adopt chili peppers so wholeheartedly?
Without much investigation at all, it is fairly evident that most areas that use a lot of hot peppers happen to be in warmer climates. If you have spent as much time reading and learning about hot peppers as I have, it seems that this may be due to the natural ability of spicy chilis to kill certain bacteria and micro-organisms.
As mentioned in an article by thedailymeal.com in 2015, research by Cornell University says that this benefit of spicy peppers to lower the incidences of food-borne bacteria, especially in times before refrigeration, would have been extremely useful. Particularly in warmer climates where bacteria can thrive much more easily than in cooler climates.
That article also proposes that the reaction of your body to sweat while eating spicy food may have added a cooling affect for people in hot regions. (To understand why this happens you can check out my article about how and why chili peppers react with your body.)
Another theory that I have, adding to the attractiveness of peppers, is that they are easy to grow. I don’t have much of a green thumb, sadly, but I have had pretty good success growing hot peppers. Also, you can get a lot of peppers from even one small bush, and a little bit often goes a long way with these spicy little fruits.
One more thing to add to this is that most chili pepper plants also need a warmer climate to grow and flourish. This is an obvious explanation of why they are more popular in warmer regions. No matter what part of the world you talk about, the people would have obviously been eating plants that can grow there- whether they are native or brought there, they need to grow well to consistently make it in to the regions’ cuisine.
This is the most likely explanation for the phenomenon I mentioned earlier of areas like the Sichuan region of China having spicier dishes than other parts of the same country. The Sichuan region is in the southwest area of the very large country of China, and this area is much more humid and warm than other more northerly areas, making it a perfect place to grow peppers.
Central and North American countries south of the United States, like Mexico, that have had chili peppers available to them from the beginning, have incorporated peppers into almost everything. Although they have often found ways to tame the heat of the pepper in many dishes, the flavor and health benefits of them are invariably in every meal.
Many of the hottest peppers in the world come from Caribbean islands such as Trindad and Jamiaca. Needless to say, these island nations have some deliciously spicy recipes. Due to cultural cross overs from Europeans bringing people from Africa and India to the islands, you can find quite creative dishes…really the original fusion food. Seemingly out of place, you will find that many of Jamaica’s most popular local dishes actually contain curry.
Thailand probably stands out to many of us as one of the spiciest cuisines. I have talked with several people from Thailand or who have lived there, and seems to be fairly common place for people to grow hot peppers in their yards. Here in the US we often even call the small, potent chilis found in much of Asian cuisine “thai” peppers or chilis. FYI, they are actually called bird’s eye chilis.
Most of China’s cuisine does not make us think of anything spicy, but as I was saying earlier in this article, parts of China are famous for their spicier fares. The Sichuan (where my favorite, Kung Pao Chicken comes from!) and Hunan areas in particular, are most well known for spicing it up. Of course these somewhat southwestern areas are nearer to other Asian countries that also showcase spicy dishes, i.e. Thailand, Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal.
Another country famous for its heated dishes is India (This is where the infamous Ghost Pepper comes from). Like Jamaica, not only do some Indian dishes contain hot peppers, but also hot currys. Jamaican heat is often tamed down by the addition of something a little sweet, but this isn’t really the case in Indian food.
Many African countries also have great spicy dishes, such as Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Morocco. If you have ever seen the Ben Stiller movie, “Along Came Polly” you may know that Moroccan food is not for people with week stomachs.
Building up a Tolerance
The countries listed above have been eating hot peppers for centuries. It is part of who they are. They have most definitely built up a tolerance to spicy foods. Many of their regular everyday dishes would probably be much too spicy for many Americans. Especially older Americans whose families have been here for a few generations, or that come from mild Northern European or Northern Asian countries.
Even though the United States borders Mexico, the birthplace of hot peppers, most of our country’s cuisine is oddly mild. Luckily, in recent decades food from other countries has gotten more and more popular, allowing some heat to infiltrate our menus.
Some of the southern US states do have a spicier array of regular meal options than the rest of the US. The Cajun cuisine of Louisiana shows its spicy influences from continental countries south of the border and the Caribbean.
More recently the addition of Buffalo Wings to american culture as helped spur the growing popularity of spicy foods, at least with young men. Of course, there are plenty of us women out there who love those saucy, spicy little wings too, but oddly, it does seem to really entice more men. Maybe it’s because they can get a little too messy for some prissy chicks. Not this lady, I love me some hot wings!
For chili pepper loving Americans like me, it is really exciting that spicy food is finally making waves all across America. One of the big jump starters for the spicy food craze, that is helping us to build up a tolerance nationwide, was the introduction of the Indian Ghost Pepper as the hottest pepper in the world. Taking first place in the Guinness Book of World records in 2007 as the first chili to be tested at a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000 Scoville Units.
The clever and haunting name seemed to elicit much excitement among many people. Most people, even people who don’t like spicy food are now familiar with this famous little pepper. Its real name is bhut jolokia, but that just isn’t as catchy as Ghost Pepper now is it? The popularity of this pepper spawned an explosion of all kinds of spicy sauces, and encouraged cultivators to find and create the hottest peppers on earth. (Check out my article on the Top 10 Hottest Peppers in the world for information and history on this topic, and also my recommendations for the best and spiciest hot sauces.)
In Conclusion…Why Do Some Cultures Eat Spicy Foods?
I hope this article gave you some insight into the spread and use of hot peppers across the world, and answered the question of why some cuisines are spicier than others. Chili peppers are really an interesting topic for so many reasons. The history and health benefits are seemingly never ending.
Please feel free to explore this website and read more about the awesomeness of chili peppers. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment below or you can reach me through the contact form in the main menu above. I will get back to asap! Thanks for reading, see you next time.