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History and The Whys of Spice Based Cuisines?

I don’t know if any CHs are interested in food history, but lately I have been thinking about the topic of why certain cuisines developed as they did. What has spurred my curiosity and
reflection has been a recent experience of eating Afghani food in Boston. My experience of it, objectively-intended, is that it is a relatively mild cuisine with little use of spices and with a very limited larder. I started to think- India is so close by- why does India have such a large larder of spices and a hugely complex array of cuisines, and Afghanistan does not? With regard to spices, I might say the same thing about Mexico and Guatemala or El Salvador- why are the latter two’s cuisines so tame when they are so close to spice- abundant Mexico?

I have not done any reserach yet; these are my initial ramblings in this quest. So far, I have come up with three main factors that may be key in explaining how a spice based cuisine has developed:
1) Native Plants
2) Hot climate
3) Trading patterns( i.e. while most Americans identify Italy with pasta and tomato sauce, the former did not enter Italian cuisine until Marco Polo brought it back from China, and the latter did not appear in Italian cuisine until the Americas had been discovered.)

I started to wonder if the development of a spice based cuisine (hundreds or thousands of years ago) had anything to do with the respective country having a majority of poor people who survived on starches (rice and beans and corn in Mexico, and rice and lentils in India)who were spurred on to discover and cultivate spices to give their bland diets some vivacity. But then I thought about China. China has a larger population that India and Mexico combined, and their subsistence food is also rice, but they have not developed a spice based cuisine, rather they have come to use soy sauce, ginger, vinegars (and one spice- chilis) to liven up their rice. So why not spices in Chinese cuisine? Might it have something to do with climate? Mexico and India are both very hot countries(in general); China is not.

This is the extent of my initial thoughts. Does anyone have any reflections or explorations or facts to share or link us to?
Thanks so much.

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  1. Ever wonder what Thai food was like before chiles came from the Americas?

    Some comments on your points:

    1) Native plants -- definitely. Most spice plants are tropical or subtropical.
    this relates to
    3) Sure there were trade routes, but imported spices were expensive. In places where spices had to be imported, the people who were eating cheap, starch-based diets couldn't afford expensive imported spices. I also read a book that used this fact to refute the idea that in Europe spices were used to cover up the taste of foods that had gone off. Rich people who could afford spices could also afford fresh, high-quality food.

    and as for 2) people tend to have lesser appetites in hot weather -- spices make food more appealing, plus many people feel that spicy food is actually cooling,

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      "used this fact to refute the idea that in Europe spices were used to cover up the taste of foods that had gone off"

      As if such a daft idea ever seriously needing refuting.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        hi ruth, i was thinking about trade playing a major part in the establishment/ the foundation of a cuisine's identity, as in -way back when arabic traders introduced cumin and coriander to India, which then adapted those spices as their own and began to grow them so that those originally traded spices became part of the foundation of India's cuisine.

        i don't think that any country that continued to depend on trade for their spices- ever developed a spice based cuisine.

      2. A) if you think Chinese food is not spicy, clearly you have not had XO nor schzwan.
        I have no idea but I see the development of flavors in a culture, not so much as a palate but a storage issue. Alot of spices are dried, easily carried, stored. Storage is a multi- fold issue. It could be that it was so hot Climate) your fresh kill could rot before you could finish it and you needed somethings to help you overcome some of the taste as you ate those rotting parts. You were nomadic, weight counts and dried carry of something from your summer place was good for you in your winter one. Also as you expressed, the other way to store an item was fermentation. I.E. Soy sauce, fish sauce.
        People were hunter/gathers first. YOu extend your hunt fresh kills as long as possible and when you could you preserved what you gathered as well as you could, as light as you could since you were always moving, taking it with you. Then farmers, more if not totally stationary. So you seek ways to store your crop.

        yeah I think about stuff like this, My favorite wonder is, looking at things like Durian, Sea Urchin roe, nuts as in coconut, cashews, what made us look at that as food? I mean cheese developed not for the taste (as well as yogurt stuff) but as a way to store and not waste the milk of the animal you herded, another progression, herder.

        1. Surely the keys to any national cuisines are (1) plants that grow well and (2) trading patterns and (3) immigration patterns.

          For example, the chilli was brought to India by the Portuguese colonists who brought it from their other colonies in South America.

          1. Chinese regional cuisine is definitely spicy both in terms of heat and flavorings. While classic spices such as cumin, chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cassia, etc. have their place, fresh herbs, dried shellfish and fermented products also give a huge flavor boost to Chinese cuisine.

            With respect to Ruth's comments, cuisines which prominently feature chili spice do predominate in tropical climes partially because they are thought to cool off the consumer as they promote sweating.

            9 Replies
            1. re: JungMann

              My intention is for 'spice based' cuisine to mean cuisines where spices are everything, not just in a few dishes. China is a ginormous country and the spices you mentioned above are certainly used, some more than others (cumin did come into china through the silk road but is not commonly found in many dishes in chinese cuisine) but I do not believe China has a spice- based cuisine.

              it is possible that morocco may also qualify as having a spice based cuisine in my definition.

              1. re: opinionatedchef

                Are you thinking about the same spices being used across the board (with meat, grains, and sweets), or just that spices of one type or other are used in nearly all dishes? Does you idea of spice include herbs, and aromatic vegetables (onions, garlic, leaks)?

                You mention cumin. From the Wiki article I see that it probably originated in Iran and the Mediterranean region in general. It also says it's the 2nd most popular spice (after black pepper). It is " popular in Nepalese, Indian, Pakistani, North African, Middle Eastern, Sri Lankan, Cuban, northern Mexican cuisines, central Asian Uzbek cuisine, and the western Chinese cuisines of Sichuan and Xinjiang. " Spain is also mentioned, as is its use in breads and cheese else where in Europe.

                For coriander (leaves and seeds) "Coriander is common in Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Mexican, Texan, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisine." Before 'cilantro' came into wide use in the USA, cookbooks called it 'chinese parsley'.

                If you broaden your notion of 'spiciness' to include pungent flavors and others that develop by way of fermentation, ripening or even spoilage, you could easily expand the list of spicy cuisines. Europe has a well developed culture of strongly flavored cheeses. Taiwan is known for its stinky tofu. China, Korea and Europe all have fermented cabbage. Or consider sour dough breads.

                1. re: paulj

                  hi paul, you helpful fellow you!
                  i am just focussing on spice based cuisines, cuisines for whom the spice larder is everything,for all types of food ( not just in a few dishes and not just a few spices). not herbs, not vegetables. it's a complex enough question as it is; i just want to keep it focussed. Some of the major complexity of the question is in the negative side of it- as in- ' why did neighboring countries NOT adapt a spice based cuisine?'>>physical barriers(mountain ranges?) ; political or religious enemy status?older established cuisine that resisted change?....... I named a few neighboring country examples in my original post above.

                  also, if anyone has books they'd recommend or websites, plse fire away! thanks again.

                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                    You view India and Mexico as having 'spice based cuisines'. Why? Mexico is exceptional in its use of chiles, using both mild and hot ones. But its use of other spices is not exceptional. There are some native herbs like epazote and culantro, but most of the rest came to Mexico with the Spanish, much as the did to other parts of Latin America.

                    I asked a Mexican shop keeper what they used star anise for (sold in cello packages). She could only think of medicinal uses. But in China it is frequently used in braised meat dishes and 5 spice powder.

                    India does make a wide of spices; but what do they usually flavor their sweets with? Cardamom, pistachios and rose water (the later ones may have been borrowed from Persia).

                    You mentioned Afghanistan. There are several distinct ethnic groups in that country, so one or two restaurants in the USA should not be viewed as representative of the whole country. Historically the area has had greater ties with Persia and central Asia than with the Indian peninsula. Via invaders and rulers like the Moguls, there may have been more cultural flows from central Asia into India, than the other way.

                    What do you (or I) know about Persian cooking? Is that spice based or not? Is Korean spice based, or just hot?

                    1. re: paulj

                      paul, to my knowledge, no east asian cuisine(incl korea) is spice based, though i wonder about indonesia. india uses many spices in their sweets.mexico uses many spices in sweets and savories in addition to the many varieties of chiles.

                      1. re: opinionatedchef

                        Does Mexico or India use more spices in their sweets than Spain or France?

                        I don't understand how you classify one cuisine as 'spice based' and others not. Do you count the number of spices that are 'typically' used? Or measure the quantity per capita? I don't see you can say India is more spiced based than Indonesia, or Mexico more than Peru.

                        1. re: opinionatedchef

                          I am with PaulJ, I am very unclear what you mean by spice based. And the Korean grocery I know is the only place where you can 5Lb bags of chili pepper powder.

                          And I also do not think that saying every dish savory or sweet must contain a "spice" for the cuisine to be "spice based"
                          Kimchee is eaten at pretty much every meal daily.

                          I guess I am not in the loop, but sorta feels like you are trying to define your theory by judging responses and saying, "nope, that's not it".

                          1. re: Quine

                            Q, I admit to having little patience with posters who don't read through the threads that they are joining. I really did try to explain, numerous times above, what my quest and thoughts are.

                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                              Sorry, but I read every word, made a serious reply early on. But now I am confused. So I will just watch and read.

                              But self moderation on a thread you start to explore a quest is always good, the old more flies with honey theory. ;-)

              2. Are we confusing 'spice' with 'chile heat'?

                1 Reply
                1. re: paulj

                  I'm not.

                  Spices are spices - so much more than just heat.

                  Although my use of the chilli pepper (is that technically a spice?) is particularly relevent. Prior to the introduction of the chilli pepper to South Asia, heat was gained from pepper, one of the most prized spices of international trade.

                2. Some books on the subject on Amazon...these 3 might be a start.

                  Spice: The History of a Temptation
                  The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice
                  The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: escondido123

                    thnks so much,esc, i've requested those through my libr now!

                  2. The definition of spice seems to be very broad: any of various aromatic vegetable products (as pepper or nutmeg) used to season or flavor foods (Merriam-Webster).

                    With this definition, many cuisines are spice-based, such as Sichuan and Vietnamese. Is this the definition you are using?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: raytamsgv

                      This is what I have in mind, from Wikipedia:

                      "Spices can be grouped as:

                      Dried fruits** or seeds, such as fennel, mustard, and black pepper (i think chiles fall into this category)
                      Arils, such as mace.
                      Barks, such as cinnamon and cassia.
                      Dried flower buds, such as cloves.
                      Stigmas, such as saffron.
                      Roots and rhizomes, such as turmeric, ginger and galingale.
                      Resins, such as asafoetida."

                      (** remember- fruits, as a botanical term, does not just mean apples, oranges etc.)

                      wiki article:


                    2. D Kennedy on Spices
                      "Generally speaking, spices are used very sparingly in Mexico so that their flavors do not overpower those of the other ingredients.... One of the great failings of commercial Mexican food in the United States ... is the spicing is uneven and far too strong."
                      p 156, From my Mexican Kitchen Techniques and Ingredients

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: paulj

                        you may be mistranslating 'sparingly'. D means that they use alot of spices but not with a heavy hand, i.e. not in overpowering amounts as is often unfortunately done in the U.S.

                        1. re: opinionatedchef

                          See now you are using a very strong vinegar!

                          Are you D. Kennedy? Unless you are, you cannot speak to what D means, only say what you think it means, and you can both be right and/or both wrong.

                          And that quote is pretty clear; "are used very sparingly in Mexico". The "very" is VERY key.
                          Do you have some personal addenda going on with paulj? On this thread, seems like whatever he posts, you jump on with concrete high heeled boots.

                          Just saying.

                          1. re: Quine

                            I'm just asking some pointed questions about a background point - the definition of a spice base cuisine.

                            The popularity of various spices, their spread, and role a cuisine can be discussed without clearing up this definition, but it would be harder to draw universal conclusions.

                            1. re: paulj

                              PaulJ, I was replying not to your post but to opinionated, I agree with what you posted.
                              +1 on the "I'm just asking some pointed questions about a background point - the definition of a spice base cuisine."
                              Moi aussi.

                          2. re: opinionatedchef

                            She describes 12 spices in this book, including salt and pepper. There are 16 entries in the herbs section.

                        2. Is there any evidence that traditional diets in India or Mexico were blander than their neighbors - before the adoption of 'spices'?

                          I think it is mistake to think of Indian cooking as just bland rice and lentils enhanced with loads of spices. That ignores the wide range vegetables they use, and the multiple ways that basics like rice, wheat, and legumes are used. And depending on subculture, meat and fish are used in many ways. Dairy is also in integral part of the Indian diet.

                          Rice, beans and corn were common through out the Americas, where ever there was sufficiently settled agriculture. We don't know, though, that much about season in places like the US South or NE woodlands. The Andean areas also had these staples, plus a wide variety of potatoes and related tubers. The Andes were also the home place of domesticated chiles.

                          The diet in Medieval England was heavily based on wheat (bread) and meat, but spiced as heavily as one's finances allowed. If you couldn't use imported spices there were still locally grown herbs.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: paulj

                            And a very important factor, using India as a point, religion.
                            Jains in India (a very old religion) are totally vegetarian and they do not use onions nor garlic. Their food is not bland.
                            The Portuguese brought alot of New World items to India, but their settlements were not large and closely held religiously. My husband's family is descended from Goa and is Catholic from this.
                            Missionaries brought alot to new cultures beside religion, germs, guns and foods. Trade crossed borders bringing foods but so did religion. And it flowed both ways. How do you think curry houses became so popular and abundant in England?

                          2. Via the Wiki article on spices

                            A summary of a 1998 study that linked the use of certain spices and their anti-bacterial effects to climate
                            " Fans of hot, spicy cuisine can thank nasty bacteria and other foodborne pathogens for the recipes that come -- not so coincidentally -- from countries with hot climates. Humans' use of antimicrobial spices developed in parallel with food-spoilage microorganisms, Cornell University biologists have demonstrated in a international survey of spice use in cooking."

                            According to that study, the top dozen for anti-bacterial effect (above capsicums) are:
                            1. Garlic
                            2. Onion
                            3. Allspice
                            4. Oregano
                            5. Thyme
                            6. Cinnamon
                            7. Tarragon
                            8. Cumin
                            9. Cloves
                            10. Lemon grass
                            11. Bay leaf

                            I wonder if there has been much of a follow up to that study.

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: paulj

                              Perhaps it's most interesting that most of the list are not, in fact, spices but herbs, many of which happily grow in countries far cooler than they usually recognised "spice growing" ones. .

                              Perhaps even more interesting would be to know which vested commercial interest funded such research.

                              I really wouldnt pay too much attention to this article or give the research too much credance.

                              1. re: Harters

                                Why do you suspect a vested commercial interest?

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Because a vested commercial interest very often sponsors academic research.

                                  It is always sensible to enquire about such matters before relying on the apparent evidence of such research.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    In this case the researchers were an evolutionary biologist and a senior undergrad. A key piece of the study was a collecting data on spice use from 93 cookbooks in the library of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

                                    Other pieces were
                                    "; the temperature and precipitation levels of each country; the horticultural ranges of 43 spice plants; and the antibacterial properties of each spice."

                                    Again I ask, why would a commercial interest want to support or influence a study like this? What interest? Gilroy garlic growers association?

                                    I don't think the authors of this paper studied the antibacterial properties of spices themselves. That data probably was collected from published literature. I'd have to see the paper and its references to be sure.

                                    1. re: paulj

                                      The OP has an intuitive notion of what is a 'spiced based cuisine', with India and Mexico fitting, China not. The OP also wants to link this to the need to enhance a bland rice and beans diet.

                                      The Cornell paper takes a more quantitative approach to spice use - count their use in thousands of recipes from nearly 100 cookbooks. Also they are focusing on meat recipes, since the anti-bacterial properties of 'spices' would be more valuable from a survival standpoint.

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        Now why wouldn't China fit? Their earliest uses of spices were cinnamon, spring onions, garlic, ginger and red pepper.

                                        Thanks paulj for posting that link to the 1998 scientific study. Fascinating stuff and you can read their abstract online. In essence the authors say that spice is and has been used to “enhance food palatability” and that the traits for “spice” or “spiciness” as it were have been passed down both genetically and culturally.

                                        They looked at the frequency of use of 43 spices in 4578 meat-based recipes from 93 cookbooks; compiled information on the temperature and precipitation in each country, ranges of spice plants and the antibacterial properties of each spice.

                                        They concluded that spices help to cleanse food of pathogens helping people to live longer and discount the notion that eating spicy food helps to increased perspiration and helps to cool the body. Hot as hell outside? We’d be better off just moving into the shade!

                            2. I couldn't tell you why some cultures prefer spicy while others have a mildly spiced cuisine.

                              However, I haveto comment on this:

                              "What has spurred my curiosity and
                              reflection has been a recent experience of eating Afghani food in Boston. My experience of it, objectively-intended, is that it is a relatively mild cuisine with little use of spices and with a very limited larder."

                              Afghanistan is culturally, linguistically, and culinarily different than nearby India. The cultural break starts in Northern Pakistan in the Pashtoon Belt. The terrain is different, the people are fairier skinned and they tend to have a different physical phenotype than Indic peoples, their language families are further away from the Northern Indian languages, and so on. Their cuisine is different, too.

                              Afghanistan has regional and ethnic cuisines, but for the sake of generalization, let's just say "Afghan cuisine" here. Chiles, dried and fresh are present in Afghan cuisine. However, chiles are used much less heavily than further south in the region. Afghan cuisine has all of the garam masalas of the Indic cuisines. A powdered garam masala mixture (char masala) is a major spice mix for Afghans. Turmeric is used. Fresh and dried fenugreek, mint, and cilantro are used. Onions, garlic, ginger, and leeks (gandana) are used. This is hardly a bland cuisine with a limited larder. This is a Silk Route spice-trade cuisine.