The combination of salt and pepper is the staple “seasoning” on most American food. At times, it can be the only seasoning on American food. If you’ve ever tasted food from other cultures, you’ll realize that there is a wide range of flavors, colors, and spices added to simple dishes that turn them from simple into absolutely extraordinary.
So what happened in history that caused Americans to dismiss the beautiful world of spices, other than the plain old salt and pepper? The answer isn’t simple, but it’s worth investigating. Researchers have delved into history to help us understand why some cultures live a spicy and colorful cuisine lifestyle while others stick to the basics and seem to turn their noses up at spices.
A quick peek into the past reveals a lot about the cooking traditions of cultures around the world and why white people decided to turn down the spicy alternatives.
So many spices
If you love to cook, you know that adding spices can really enhance the flavor and change flavor of the entire meal, if you combine the right ingredients.
Different is good
Depending on your background or upbringing, the way you cook something can vary greatly from how other cultures make the same thing.
Only salt and pepper
Have you ever been to a friends house and they ask you if you want your food spicy, then proceed to offer you only salt or pepper? It’s awkward because you know there are so many options, but these poor, tasteless friends think there are only two spices in this world.
To spice or not to spice
So why do some cultures pack on the spices while others seem to avoid them entirely?
Let’s start from the beginning
If we trace back the origin of spices and how different cultures combine them, or entirely dismiss them, the facts tell a pretty interesting story. History has a lot to say about spices.
Spicy is a lifestyle
A few studies were done focusing on different philosophies of spices and their history, leading to a better understanding of why some cultures stay spicy with their cuisine and others stay pretty salt-oriented.
Just to name a few
Indian culture is known for how they combine rich spices that add intense flavor to curries and other popular dishes. An NPR journalist named Maanvi Singh, who grew up on North Indian cuisine, said her father often mixed spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, anise, cumin and bay leaves, just to name a few spices.
Things that taste good don’t always make sense
Indian cuisine tastes so unique because they often combine flavors that, based on their individual taste, wouldn’t seem to mix well. But when combined with other flavors, create a beautiful masterpiece of intense flavor.
European cuisine uses a lot more complimentary flavors and ingredients that just make sense, like using potatoes and garlic or scallops and white wine.
A little bit of adventure
Basically, European cuisine played it safe and didn’t venture far from what they thought tasted good enough, while other cultures veered from the shores of simple cooking and dove into the spicy wonderland of flavors.
A recent study performed by the Indian Institute for Technology tried to understand why there is such a divide between European and Indian cuisine.
Also, spice-ology isn’t a real word but it seemed fitting.
Taste test, in the name of science
Researchers looked at the ingredients list from over 2,000 recipes from Eastern and Western cultures in order to better understand the chemical components used that give their cultures such unique flavors.
Indian cuisine is risky and it pays off. What gives their food such wonderful flavor is their ability to mix together a wide variety of ingredients that have various flavor molecules, ones that don’t overlap or have a lot of similarities.
Different, but the same
Opposed to Western cuisine, whose flavors usually had similar flavor compounds, not veering from simple and congruent ingredients.
Let’s break it down
Although this approach of using various flavors with different flavor molecules is not unique to just Indian cuisine, there is some historical significance in varying flavor compounds from different countries around the world.
In the early 1600s, flavor combinations were pretty consistent around the world. Most people used similar flavors such as saffron, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, in order to season their foods.
A strange trend
I wonder if that’s why the cinnamon challenge was so popular? Does anyone remember this? It was hilarious to watch but painful to perform.
Why so basic?
The confusion that researchers found in their studies was wondering why the powerful Western cultures stuck to such similar flavors when they had access to basically any and all flavors they wanted to get their greedy little hands on.
No to flavor, yes to higher class
As Europeans colonized many parts of India and parts of America, they basically had an all access pass to all sorts of spices and ingriedents, but took a hard pass on flavor town in order to maintain their upper class status.
Much more than taste
What researches found out through their study was that the change in flavors had way more to do with economics, politics and religion than it did taste.
Rich and spicy
In the Middle Ages, spices were pretty expensive, leaving these amazing flavors to be accessed by only the wealthy. It was a sign of upper class social status if your food was flavorful and richly spiced.
Spice for all
Eventually, spices became more affordable and common among all classes, not only being exclusive to the upper class.
Elite and exclusive no longer
Krishnendu Ray, an associate food professor at New York University, basically a certified foodie, said that “the elite recoiled from the increasing popularity of spices,” as they became more affordable for everyone.
They needed to be different
The Europeans wanted to continuously differentiate their social and economic status, so as spices became common, they needed to find something new and distinct that would signify their wealth, separating them from the common man.
No new friends
They began to focus on how the food looked and its presentation, which a lot of the times meant saying no to spices. They also wanted to enhance the flavors that were already there instead of trying to mix and combine new ones.
Bland and boring
“Rather than infusing food with spice, they said things should taste like themselves,” Ray explained, regarding the shift in flavor. “Meat should taste like meat, and anything you add only serves to intensify the existing flavors.”
Is this not the definition of boring?
The little black dress of flavor
Paul Freedman, a history professor at Yale, described it in terms of fashion, saying “It’s sort of like — in fashion — for a while having more frills, more jewelry was fashionable. But then someone said that a basic black dress with some pearls is much better.”
This makes more sense!
A big theme in owning and feeding into privilege that can even apply to cuisine, is that you want to stay away from those in a lower class, or a minority group. In this case, since spices were accessible to the common person, the privileged class did not want to be on the same level as those using the spices.
Using a wide variety of spices slowly became a thing of the past, as many Europeans said thank you, next, to all those beautiful spices.
Europeans also started to obsess over meat, using meat stock and broth as a main sauce, instead of those delicious pureeés that much of Indian cuisine used, and still use today.
“In Europe, meat was considered the manliest, strongest component of a meal,” said Rachel Laudan, a food historian at the University of Texas, Austin. “Chefs wanted it to shine, so they began cooking meat in meat-based gravies, to intensify its flavor.”
Meat eaters only
Meat became a major source of flavor and also was used as the main entree for most meals, where other cultures didn’t glorify a steak as much as Europeans, and now most Americans do.
It all makes sense
Americans love their meat, and hardly ever use seasoning, and after reading these studies, everything makes a whole lot of sense.
Only the necessities
For some white people, not all of the, salt and pepper just gets the job done, and we’ve read the facts that prove it.
Don’t live a bland life
It’s not too late to spice up your life and try new spices, no matter your cuisine background. Just don’t stick to plain old salt and pepper. There’s a whole world of spices out there that can take your boring meal and turn it into a masterpiece.