Too spicy? Keep calm and curry on.

Biology. Evolution. Geography. And why some cultures like their meats hot.


spicy curry chicken - found in many parts of south and southeast asia

1-Minute NomNom

When it’s cold, a bowl of spicy curry can sound like a really good idea. So here’s a quiz: which geographies have more spicy foods – colder ones or hotter ones?

Spicy Tom Yam Kung soup (Thai cuisine)

Spicy Tom Yam Kung soup (Thai cuisine)

Paradoxically, the answer is the hotter ones. Look at tropical places in Southeast Asia and South Asia, such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. They are hot all year round, but their cultures also have more spicy dishes, especially meat dishes.

Why is this so? Scientists in Cornell University found that the answers to this culture and culinary paradox appears to lie in climate, evolution, biology and microbiology.

South and Southeast Asia

For much of human history, before refrigeration was invented, meat spoiled more easily in hotter climates than in colder climates. The bacteria from spoiled food are poisonous, even deadly, when consumed by humans. Spices and spicy food can kill these food spoilage bacteria.

Hence, from an evolutionary biology standpoint, humans in hotter climates who liked spicy food were more likely to survive the risks of spoiled food. They were likely to be healthier, lived longer lives, and had more children. They were also likely to pass on their knowledge and genetic preferences of spices, spicy foods, and recipes.

Over time, the cultural evolution of these places was shaped by these to what we have today: more spices and spicy food recipes in hotter climates, because it meant people could keep calm about bacteria and curry on eating their food.

Indian spices collection with titles isolated on white background

How effective spices are in killing bacteria varies with different spices. According to the Cornell scientists:

Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano, for example, were found to be the best all-around bacteria killers (they kill everything), followed by thyme, cinnamon, tarragon and cumin (any of which kill up to 80 percent of bacteria). Capsicums, including chilies and other hot peppers, are in the middle of the antimicrobial pack (killing or inhibiting up to 75 percent of bacteria), while pepper of the white or black variety inhibits 25 percent of bacteria, as do ginger, anise seed, celery seed and the juices of lemons and limes.

Selection of indian food with pilau rice, naan bread, poppadoms and samosas a popular choice for eating out in european countries

Recipes often use these spices in combination. Curries, for example (and depending on which part of the world we are in), often include the spices:

  • garlic (kills 100% of bacteria)
  • onion (100%)
  • cumin (~85%)
  • lemon grass (between ~85%)
  • chilies (~80%)
  • ginger (~35%)

You can see the full list of the top 30 spices ranked by anti-bacteria properties at the Cornell website. While you look at that, I will curry on eating my spicy curry. Yums.


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Spice up your life by liking me to discover more. All you need is a minute a day to explore the world’s marvels through the phenomenon of food!

photos: in order – depositphotos/BlinztreesommaillbelchonockegalStocksolutions


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