Posts Tagged ‘spices’

Flavouring the seasoning gave us the oldest profession

November 20, 2020

Once upon a time, a designated chef at an ancient hominin hearth demanded compensation for his culinary art and started the oldest profession. Cooking predates the oldest cave paintings and may well be the oldest human art form.

Preserving is unambiguous but salting is a word that is rarely used anymore. The distinction in language between seasoning and flavouring is not so much ambiguous as wishful thinking. Theoretically, seasoning is considered the use of additives which allegedly enhance existing flavours, whereas flavouring adds different flavours. In practice this is a nonsense distinction. We have our five or possibly seven basic taste receptors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami and maybe pungency and a fatty richness) and our olfactory receptors which can distinguish a myriad smells.

Five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savory) are universally recognized, although some cultures also include pungency and oleogustus (“fattiness”). The number of food smells is unbounded; a food’s flavor, therefore, can be easily altered by changing its smell while keeping its taste similar.

Any particular flavour we perceive in our brains is then due to a particular combination of activated taste and smell receptors together. With a change in sufficient activated taste or smell receptors our brains recognize a change in flavour. Generally seasoning involves salt (always) and sometimes some pepper and acidic matter (lime, vinegar, ….). Flavouring is considered predominantly to be through the use of herbs and spices. However, the difference between seasoned and unseasoned is a difference of perceived flavour in our brains. No self-respecting chef will ever admit that seasoning is merely a sub-set of flavouring, but even chefs must be allowed their self aggrandizement.  It is entirely false that proper seasoning cannot be tasted. A lack of salt is perceived when there is a lack of an expected activation of salt receptors. Adding salt always changes the combination of activated receptors and is always a change of flavour. Cook books generally perpetuate the misconceptions.

Canadian Baker 

Many ingredients are used to enhance the taste of foods. These ingredients can be used to provide both seasoning and flavouring.

  • Seasoning means to bring out or intensify the natural flavour of the food without changing it. Seasonings are usually added near the end of the cooking period. The most common seasonings are salt, pepper, and acids (such as lemon juice). When seasonings are used properly, they cannot be tasted; their job is to heighten the flavours of the original ingredients.
  • Flavouring refers to something that changes or modifies the original flavour of the food. Flavouring can be used to contrast a taste such as adding liqueur to a dessert where both the added flavour and the original flavour are perceptible. Or flavourings can be used to create a unique flavour in which it is difficult to discern what the separate flavourings are. 

Seasoning is always about changing perceived flavour and is a particular sub-set of flavouring. The story that seasoning originates with food preservation through the use of salt, whereas the use of herbs and spices for flavouring derives from when hunter-gatherers wrapped food in aromatic leaves for transport is plausible but little more than speculation.  Salt is inorganic and is not considered a spice but is the major ingredient for seasoning as opposed to flavouring. Herbs and spices are always organic and plant-based. (The proposed use of crushed insects as flavouring can safely be ignored. The use of cochineal insects – E120 – to give a carmine food colouring is not relevant.) Yet the manner we use small quantities of salt with foods is much too similar to the manner we use small quantities of herbs and spices not to have been the role-model and the precursor for the culinary use of herbs and spices.

Though this history is as presented by a purveyor of spices, it is both informative and credible.

History of Spices 

Abundant anecdotal information documents the historical use of herbs and spices for their health benefits. Early documentation suggests that hunters and gatherers wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this process enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries, and bark. Over the years, spices and herbs were used for medicinal purposes. Spices and herbs were also used as a way to mask unpleasant tastes and odors of food, and later, to keep food fresh. Ancient civilizations did not distinguish between those spices and herbs used for flavoring from those used for medicinal purposes. When leaves, seeds, roots, or gums had a pleasant taste or agreeable odor, it became in demand and gradually became a norm for that culture as a condiment.

Our taste receptors did not evolve for the purposes of culinary pleasure. Bitterness detection is clearly a defense mechanism. Most animals reject bitter foods as a defense against toxins and poisons. All animals need salt. Mammal brains are designed to prevent a debilitating lack of sodium and have evolved the detection of saltiness as a tool. A craving for salty food has been shown to emerge spontaneously (and not as learned behaviour) with sodium deficiency. This has been shown to apply to many animals including sheep, elephants, moose, and primates who seek out salty food when suffering sodium deficiency. It is very likely that the capability to detect sweetness has also evolved as a way of urgently seeking energy rich foods. Exactly how or why it became important to detect sourness or umaminess is in the realm of speculationVegetarian food contains less salt than meat or fish. Our primate ancestors were mainly vegetarian and, like primates today, would have resorted to eating pith and rotting wood to counter sodium deficiencies. 

Hunger for salt

When multicellular organisms evolved and crawled up the beaches to dry land, they had to take the seawater with them in the blood and other body fluids. The mineral content of human blood plasma today is still much like that of the seas of the Precambrian era in which life arose. …..  And the ancestors of man for at least 25 million of the last 30 million years were almost certainly vegetarians, and therefore got little salt in their diets because most plants store little salt. To compensate for the scarcity of a substance vital to life, the brains of our ancestors and those of other mammals developed powerful strategies for getting and keeping salt. Inborn, Not Learned.

….. sudden improvement after one copious salt meal may also help explain the ritual acts of cannibalism once practiced by tribes in the Amazon jungles, the highland regions of New Guinea and elsewhere. Sometimes the body of a fallen foe was eaten in a final act of triumph and to absorb magically the strength of the defeated enemy. In other cultures, bones or other parts of a departed relative were eaten as a final act of devotion and also to gain back the strength of the dead person.

There are those who suggest that human use of salt as seasoning (as opposed to for preservation) only took off in the Neolithic after the advent of agriculture and our diet became more vegetarian. I don’t find this theory entirely plausible. Before hominins and bipedalism (c. 4 million years ago) our ancestors were primarily vegetarian. Meat eating became more prevalent once bipedalism led to a more actively predatory life-style as hunter gatherers. With more meat, diet now included larger amounts of salt and detection of saltiness was needed less for survival and could be diverted to culinary aesthetics. The control of fire appears around 2 million years ago and coincides roughly with a shift to eating cooked meats and the rapid (in evolutionary terms) increase of hominin brain size. I can well imagine a hominin individual – perhaps even a Neanderthal – designated as the chef for the day and being berated for lack of seasoning with the grilled mammoth steak.

In my story, the use of salt with cooked food as seasoning and to enhance flavour must go back – perhaps a million years – to our hunter-gatherer forbears who had shifted to a meat-rich diet.  It is thus my contention that it is this shift to cooked meat which released our flavour receptors from survival tasks and enabled them to be diverted to culinary aesthetics. Even the use of herbs and spices comes well before the Neolithic agricultural revolution (around 12,000 years ago). Herbs and spices being organic do not survive long and are very rare in the archaeological record. However, pots from about 25,000 years ago containing residues of cumin and coriander have been found. The theory that hunter-gatherers packaged meats for travel in large leaves and added – by trial and error – other plant-based preservatives or flavourings, is not implausible. The medicinal use of herbs and spices must also have been discovered around this time. In any event, even the first use of herbs and spices purely for flavouring must go back at least 50,000 years. Though diet must have included more vegetarian food after the advent of agriculture, the culinary arts of seasoning and flavouring had already been well established before the Neolithic. By the time we come to the ancient civilizations of 7 – 8,000 years ago, more than 100 herbs and spices were known and regularly used.

Whether first for food-wrapping or for medicinal use or for use as preservatives, the use of salt and herbs and spices entirely and specifically to make food taste better marks the beginning of the culinary art. No doubt there were many cases of trial and accident and failures and error. The failed attempts did not make it to the stories of spices though some are now probably included in the history of poisons. There is a case to be made for the culinary profession to be considered the oldest in the world.

image univ of minnesota

Spice addiction prolongs your life

August 7, 2015

red chilliesEven growing up in a family which liked its food very spicy I was regarded as being extreme in my like of fiery dishes. The story is – and I have only some very vague reflections of this – that I sucked my thumb as a child for a very long time. After my parents gave up on their attempts to stop this depraved habit my grandmother took charge. She wrapped my thumb every morning in a gauze bandage steeped in powdered red chillies. This continued all through one winter she spent with us when I was about two. She was “accused” by mother of “child cruelty” but she was determined to bring the depraved child back into line. Apparently I did not cry or complain – unnatural child that I was. Only my right thumb was wrapped in the chillie-bandage but it did not get me to stop or even to shift to my left thumb. In any event this “torture” went on for about 3 months but did not cure me of sucking my thumb (and that continued, I am told, till I was almost four). Thumb-sucking came to its natural end in due course but by then red chillies had been established as my “natural comforter”. I no longer suck my thumb, even at times of great stress – but I do find a blisteringly fiery meal strangely comforting.

But perhaps my grandmother has helped prolong my life. A new study in the BMJ reports on an observational study which makes no claims about cause and effect but merely reports a correlation between the eating of spicy food and a decrease in mortality.

Jun Lv et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. BMJ, 2015 DOI:10.1136/bmj.h3942

Press ReleasePrevious research has suggested that beneficial effects of spices and their bioactive ingredient, capsaicin, include anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammation and anticancer properties. So an international team led by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences examined the association between consumption of spicy foods as part of a daily diet and the total risk and causes of death. They undertook a prospective study of 487,375 participants, aged 30-79 years, from the China Kadoorie Biobank. Participants were enrolled between 2004-2008 and followed up for morbidities and mortality. …… 

During a median follow-up of 7.2 years, there were 20,224 deaths. Compared with participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods 1 or 2 days a week were at a 10% reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death was 0.90). And those who ate spicy foods 3 to 5 and 6 or 7 days a week were at a 14% reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death 0.86, and 0.86 respectively).*In other words, participants who ate spicy foods almost every day had a relative 14% lower risk of death compared to those who consumed spicy foods less than once a week.

The association was similar in both men and women, and was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol. Frequent consumption of spicy foods was also linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, and ischaemic heart and respiratory system diseases, and this was more evident in women than men.

Fresh and dried chilli peppers were the most commonly used spices in those who reported eating spicy foods weekly, and further analysis showed those who consumed fresh chilli tended to have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and diabetes.

spice tinThere is no chocolate dessert which is not better for the addition of a sprinkle or two of red chillie powder. It is not just chillies of course. A little cumin in the cheese can do wonders. A touch of cinnamon in the Irish coffee is decadently good. A little asafoetida in the traditional Swedish pea-soup can bring it to life. Bangers and mash with hot mustard on the bangers and onions and red chillies in the mash is a student’s delight. Coriander added to the mint with any lamb dish is the way to go. A touch of saffron on any fish or crustacean dish can hardly go wrong. I even find that there is no over-rated, Michelin-starred, French dish which cannot be improved by the addition of a little of the right spice.


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