Spicy Foods Struggle to Get a Little Respect, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, May 6, 1998

“Maybe it’s time to get a few things straight about spices. Despite the increasing presence of fiery food on menus around the country, spiciness is still viewed with a certain condescension in our culture.

Heavily spiced food simply does not have the cachet that is automatically attached to more subtle foods. A salsa is rarely considered as worthy of praise as a cream sauce, for example, or a chili-enhanced vinaigrette as elegant as the herb-scented variety.

This bias is demonstrated by repeated efforts to discover the ‘real’ reason for using lots of spices. For example, one recent scientific study suggested that cooks in hot climates use spices liberally because the spices inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that can cause food to spoil. Underlying this theory seems to be the belief that people couldn’t possibly eat lots of spices simply because they like the taste.

The roots of the disdain for spiciness lie in food fashions that developed in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Spices were extremely expensive in Europe then and were therefore considered highly desirable. At banquets, the nobles displayed their wealth and sophistication by passing platters of cinnamon, galangal and cloves for guests to spoon onto already heavily spiced food. This captivation with spiciness was so widespread that in the book ‘Savoring the Past,’ the culinary historian Barbara Wheaton likened the use of spices in high-class medieval French cookery to that in India today.

Spice naysayers, however, present a less glamorous reason for the proliferation of spices during this time: they say it was to disguise the taste and smell of rotten meat.

But far from wanting to disguise the taste of meat that modern diners would consider so aged as to be practically rotten, Europeans of those earlier times were fond of it. Even as late as 1900, for example, many English cooks insisted that a pheasant was not at its height of flavor until it had been ‘hung’ so long that the meat was turning slightly green.

In addition, it would have made little sense to put extremely valuable spices to the task of masking the taste of rancid meat, as common herbs could do the same thing. As the social scientist Wolfgang Schivelbush wrote in ‘Tastes of Paradise,’ to explain the medieval fondness for spices in terms of hiding rancid tastes ‘would be like calling Champagne a good thirst quencher.’

In any case, when new trade routes to the East were opened, spices became less costly and therefore less stylish. It was then that subtlety of flavor was first elevated as culinary refinement, while spiciness was deemed a bit crude, not really suitable for a cultivated palate.

It’s time to put this gustatory provincialism to rest. Undoubtedly, there are numerous reasons for heavy spice consumption: people may well eat chili peppers because they provide a kind of ersatz adrenaline rush, or people whose diets are monotonously starch based may dote on spices because they add variety, or certain tropical societies may have gained an evolutionary advantage because their spices killed bacteria. But these explanations are no more the point of eating spices than is the storing of fat for periods of scarcity the reason that we eat butter.

Truly to relish the world’s great cuisines and to open our palates to all kinds of new flavor sensations, we will have to let go of yet another misconception about spices, which is that they overwhelm delicate flavors. For decades cooks have been taught that seafood should not be heavily spiced. But this theory is easily disproved by looking at the tropical world. In much of it, the quality of seafood consumed is far higher than in the United States, and it is served heavily spiced.

In even the smallest village market of Southeast Asia, for example, there are whole snappers, octopus, scallops, fresh water rockfish, spiny lobsters and a rainbow spectrum of crabs, clams and shrimp. When this ultra-fresh seafood is combined with fiery chilies, pungent ginger or aromatic coriander, the result is not often subtle, but it is frequently sublime.

So, as millions of Americans continue to develop an appreciation for the flavor dynamics of highly spiced food, why not do away with those outmoded notions of culinary superiority and just admit it: people eat spicy food because it tastes great. Then we can all enjoy a lot more wonderful dishes.”

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Spicy Foods Struggle to Get a Little Respect,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, May 6, 1998

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