The Hot Weather/Spicy Food Nexus

The Hot Weather/Spicy Food Nexus


Sometimes the coolest part of science is when your hypothesis doesn’t work out. That’s what happened to a team of researchers from the Australian National University, as reported recently by the delicious food blog Gastro Obscura. They attempted to investigate if there was a scientific reason behind the correlation between the spiciness of a location’s cuisine and the average temperature, weather-wise. They even created a handy chart cross-referencing the mean number of spices used in recipes with the region’s mean annual temperature. The numbers clearly show that as the temperature goes up (from a low in Norway and Japan to a high in South India and Thailand), so do the cuisines’ spice levels.

There are, of course, pleasantly fascinating exceptions to the rule.

“Some of the world’s spiciest food comes from countries with the hottest climates: Indonesia and Thailand, the Caribbean and Kenya, and several Indian states, including Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. These places cluster together in the upper right corner of the graph. One country outdoes all of them: Ethiopia, spicier by far, despite having a slightly lower average temperature than all of them.

If you want to know just how spicy Ethiopian cooking can get, try some doro wat, a fragrant, slow-cooked chicken stew that one reviewer describes as, “Very spicy. Super spicy. Like I-don’t-know-how-Ethiopians-have-any-taste-buds-left spicy.” On the other hand, some very hot countries are considerably less spicy: The Philippines is in the same spiciness league as Hungary, and Ghana is as spice-poor as the UK.”

The team theorized that a greater amount of spices is being used in hotter climates as a preservative, to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. They were, however, unable to prove this, because it turns out the collision of food and culture is far too complex to be the result of one reason! Which I’m glad of – sometimes a bit of mystery is welcome in the human experience. Not knowing the reason why doesn’t reduce the enjoyment I get out of trying out a yemisir wat recipe, or developing spicy new condiments. In fact, it increases it!