The British love affair with spice is no secret – while traditional British cuisine is often roundly mocked for its sole use of pepper as a heating agent, Brits have taken to curries and spices like duck to Thai holy basil. Which could explain why Indochinese cuisine is fast becoming a British favourite – despite the fact that southeast Asian descendants make up a tiny percentage of the British population, you only need to try to book a table at your local Thai restaurant in Maida Vale at short notice to see how the cuisine has exploded in popularity.
But why do people love spice so much? Is there an evolutionary reason, and isn’t liking something which causes us pain counterproductive? Is spice even the thing we really like about hot foods, or is it really the flavour lying beneath the fire?
We’re not the first ones to question the science behind spice’s allure – Paul Rozin, a noted psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, began his quest to determine spice’s magnetism from an evolutionary angle. Through testing pigs and dogs, he found that other animals vastly prefer non-spicy food – even raising rats on spicy crackers and curing sick rats with medicine placed in hot food couldn’t get the little critters to take to spice. Rozin concluded that our attraction to spice is psychological, rather than evolutionary – and here’s how.
Pain and pleasure are uniquely linked in the human brain – they both activate dopamine receptors and areas of the brain responsible for consciousness and perception. This is why slight pain makes us more alert – the way you might pinch yourself to stay awake, for example. And endorphins are released when we’re in pain, to help protect us from it – these psychological factors combined explain why the slight pain spicy food induces gives us such a stimulating rush.
But pure heat isn’t enough to captivate the human palate – otherwise we’d simply chew on peppers straight out of the pack. What makes southeast cooking so uniquely delicious, is the way it balances heat with other key flavour sensations (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy) to create truly mesmerising dishes. It’s all about managing different elements to create harmony. In this way, you will never have an Indochinese dish which is simply ‘hot’ – it may be salty, then sour, then sweet with a kick of spice, or sweet, spicy and sour with a savoury finish, but almost without exception Indochinese dishes use at least three opposing yet complementary flavour sensations.
So it seems that our love for spice is more complicated than it may initially appear, but it’s more logical too – a little layer of heat on a delicious, multi-layered dish really is the key to great taste sensation. If we’ve inspired a yearning for fragrant Asian curry dishes in you, or you fancy a winter warmer, head down to Banana Tree to discover fresh Indochinese food which perfectly balances heat and flavour – and there’s plenty of less spicy dishes on the menu for the timid amongst you, too!