This question of why are spicy hot foods popular in tropical cultures was recently posed to me. In our American society we love our cold drinks, and iced desserts. The concept of a hot tea or spicy meal as refreshing on hot day is very foreign. There are reasons however as to why these types of foods are the norm in many tropical cultures.
From a traditional herbal point of view, all foods and spices have a dynamic specific to that food that changes the way a person feels. "Foods" tend to be nourishing to the body. Spices on the other hand, are not really "food" in the classic sense but rather something that modifies food to make it better. The use of spices is regional because nature provides foods in an area that are specific to the needs of the people and animals in that area. Thus our food cravings are driven by our needs. This is why on a cold winter day no one is buying watermelon, but instead looking for the hot cider with cinnamon. These foods have a dynamic that helps us adapt to the environment. In the tropics people eat tropical fruits. Transplanting that diet to the north pole would not provide the residents of that cold climate the calorie density and dynamics that they need to survive.
These concepts become part of the cultural wisdom of how to prepare and eat food that is best suited to the climate in which those people are living. Spices tend to "disperse" energy out of the body, unlike say meats that nourish or add to the body. Most people are familiar with a drop in appetite when the heat and humidity get high. If you are living in an area that is chronically hot and humid then you need greater amounts of spices to “lighten” the heavy nature of the food so that you eat enough food to sustain you.
The other situation is the over-heating of the body. As mammals, food is heat to us, and that heat needs to be dispersed out of the body. If the food and or the digestion is "cooler" than the environment (because of drinking cold liquids or really hot weather) then the body pulls heat inwards to warm the digestion. This runs contrary to the natural flow of dispersing heat outward in the form of sweating. Pungent and "Hot" spices forcibly heat the digestion maintaining the flow of heat from the center of the body to the exterior and can induce sweating. Culturally you will find that the most pungent spices are used in damp climates regardless of temperature because they help the body cope with the heavy damp nature of the climate. Mint, lemon, and melons also disperse, but are cooling in nature and tend to be more useful when the heat is not as damp and oppressive. "Hot" spices also have the benefit of slowing the process of spoilage. A very important feature in tropical areas where food preservation is limited.
When the temperature goes up our bodies need spices to help move food energy through the body. The American tradition of iced foods and drinks can actually make a person feel sluggish and heavy. To see how this works, next time you find you are really hot, try a non-iced cool lemonade or cool rather than Iced tea. Have some spicy salsa as a snack. You may find can adjust to the heat more quickly, and sweat more to naturally keep your body cool.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066