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Fire and Ice: The Geography of Food Preservation

How Spices and Smoking Food Developed in Hot and Cold Regions



In colder climates, the use of spices to preserve food is unnecessary. Photo of Disko Bay, Greenland.

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Before the development of modern refrigeration, humans had alternative methods of deferring the decay of food. Although the world of microorganisms had not even been discovered, societies in very hot and very cold regions were using ingenious methods to inhibit bacterial growth and thus delay food decay.

Hot and Humid Regions

Chili peppers were one of the first domesticated plants of the "New World" and we eaten in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru over 4,000 years ago. From the New World many different spices, most notably the chili pepper, were introduced to India by the Portuguese as part of the Columbian Exchange. In fact, before the Columbian Exchange, Indian cuisine was completely devoid of chili peppers and many of the other spices that are give Indian food its characteristically hot flavor, although sweeter spices such as cumin, saffron, and mustard seed were used prior to the introduction of chilies.

From India , chili peppers and other spices spread over great distances. Already in Central and South America, spices were widely accepted and became an integral part of South East Asian, African, Caribbean, and Indian Subcontinent cuisines. A common thread of these areas is that they are located in geographic regions close to the equator that are very warm and moist. Many of these spices have in fact evolved to grow best the hot and humid environments most vulnerable to rapid food decay, creating a symbiotic relationship between the humans who cultivate them to use in dishes.

As food spoils quickly in warmer temperatures, a leading hypothesis explaining to correlation between the use of spices and environmental temperature is the fact that spices act as natural antimicrobials agents. Spices have been shown experimentally to inhibit and even kill bacterial growth. As bacteria causes food to decay, the use of spices in foods aids in slowing the decay of food.

A University of Michigan study found that spice use was significantly greater in warmer climates than in cooler climates by comparing the amount of spices used in 5,000 recipes from 36 different countries. In addition, this study found that dishes containing meat, which decays at a higher rate than vegetables, were more likely to be heavily spiced than vegetarian dishes. Although the temperature of these areas would make it impractical to keep food out for a week or longer, spicing food undoubtedly helps curb bacterial growth over the timescale of hours or a even up to a few days.

Cold Regions

In contrast to the heavily spiced foods characteristic of regions close to the equator, the northern reaches of Europe and North American contain fewer spices. One theory is for cold climates is that food left out for periods of time is more likely to freeze than to rot, spices are not necessary to discourage short-term bacterial growth.

In cold regions short summers and long harsh winters meant that a very short agricultural production period had to provide enough sustenance to nutritionally support a community for months through a long and unforgiving winter. Thus, much more drastic measures for preserving food had to be taken than those seen in preserving food from day to day in warmer regions through the heavy use of spices.

In northern coastal regions such as northern North America and European Nordic countries, fish are a dietary staple. In order to insure the availability of fish throughout the winter, fish are preserved via drying, smoking, salting, or pickling.

Smoke acts as a natural preservative and is often used in conjunction with drying methods to reduce the moisture content in foods, making it an inhospitable medium for bacteria, which need water to live. Heavy salting, seen in pickling and salting, likewise creates a hostile environment for most microorganisms. In addition, vinegar used in pickling contains acetic acid that acts as a natural antimicrobial.

The need to preserve fish in winter months has led to some unique local delicacies. For example, Scandinavian Lutefisk, or "Lye Fish", is made from seeping preserved stockfish in lye, a harsh chemical traditionally used in making soap, in order to further its shelf life. Norwegian "Rakfish" is created by seeping fish in brine and allowing it to ferment underground for several months to a year. In Iceland, sharks are caught, beheaded, and buried underground and allowed to ferment for weeks, after which they are hung and allowed to dry for four or five months, the taste of which is often described as something similar to a very strong, fishy cheese slathered in ammonia.

Similarly, meat is preserved to last the winter in cold regions via smoking, drying, or making it into innumerable varieties of sausages. The ability of sausage to act as a food staple in these countries is evident that in Finland; today, even with modern refrigeration technologies, about one third of its meat is consumed in the form of sausage.

Through ingenuity and trial and error, humans somehow were able thrive in these extremely challenging environments. Using relatively low-tech methods, residents of very cold and very hot regions were able to prolonging the freshness of food specific to their society's needs before the advent of modern refrigeration, an undoubtedly amazing accomplishment.


Roach, J. (2005, November 11). Why some like it hot: Spices are nature's meds, scientist says. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/11/1111_051111_spicy_medicine.html

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