Darwinian Gastronomy: A spice story?

The Darwinian Gastronomy indicates that the spices protect us from food poisoning, thus enhancing our chance at survival. We question if spices are the only part of the food that contributes to our natural selection?
Darwinian Gastronomy: A spice story?
Darwinian Gastronomy is based on the 1998 survey by two Cornell University biologists. (A representational picture)TBC

English naturalist Charles Darwin’s evolution theory – Darwinism – was published in 1859. It states that all the living organisms have risen and developed through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase their ability to survive. While Darwin’s theory purely talks about evolution by natural selection, gastronomy becomes a large contributing factor to the same, since it’s the art and practice of cooking and eating good food – which helps one survive.

Now, Darwinian Gastronomy is something we stumbled upon while looking for something interesting to cover on the naturalist’s birth anniversary, February 12. The Darwinian Gastronomy indicates that the spices - which kill microorganisms in our food - protect us from food poisoning, and thus they enhance our chance at survival and reproduction. When we, however, came across the study - which is based on a survey conducted by two Cornell University biologists - it was abundantly clear that it has nothing to do with anything else, but spices. We, however, got to thinking and wondered - how spices can be one of the major key ingredients that facilitate evolution?

What is Darwinian Gastronomy?

To understand this better, we first read about the study based on the 1998 survey by biologists - Jennifer Billing and Paul W Sherman. The data used to establish a connection had more than 4,570 recipes from 93 cookbooks representing traditional, meat-based cuisines of 36 countries, other than this the categories that the study was subdivided into were basis - the temperature and precipitation levels of each country; the horticultural ranges of 43 spice plants; and the antibacterial properties of each spice.

The study, however, skilfully informs the reader about “spice” as biological parts of plants – vines, barks, leaves, fruits, flowers, etc. But the conclusion we got out of this was that the actual reason for the survival of Homo Sapiens is because of the plants that themselves have evolved to not only protect us from a variety of natural harms but also to safeguard themselves.

The suggestion made by Jennifer Billing and Paul W Sherman, in their research, was that a taste for spices served a vital evolutionary purpose that kept our ancestors alive - and this conclusion was the basis, mostly, the climate of the region. For example, the Norwegian cuisine, which is for the people of a cold country, might add minimum spices like salt and pepper; however, Indian cuisine, which is majorly for the people of a warm country, would use more spices like turmeric, red chilli powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, among many more – the reason being warmer the country, more the chances of food being spoilt, thus more spices! This increases the shelf life of the food and protects the person consuming it as opposed to a colder country where the shelf life of food automatically increases owing to the temperature.

Spices, oops, plants to the rescue!

So now that we all understand the basics of this theory, we further questioned the role of spices? To get a clearer idea, we reached out to the country’s household name – Chef Sanjeev Kapoor.

Speaking to TBC about Darwinian Gastronomy he said, “So essentially, it’s not only limited to spices, it’s just that more has been written about it. It’s all about anything (be) it plants or animals. It’s about self-preservation – of the living beings. They (plants) know how to preserve themselves. So there is an in-built, inherent property to preserve and prevent… But over some time, the changes happen, and what is Darwin’s theory - evolution. What is evolution? Evolution is change!”

Explaining the role of plants in general, without being dried or ground, in helping our ancestors survive, Chef Kapoor continued, and said, “…there are chemicals that plants convert into chemicals – so there are phytochemicals (chemical compounds produced by plants) that come out of plants – for example, chlorophyll. Now, chlorophyll has all the goodness, it’s good for you since the colour green in green vegetables is because of chlorophyll! Now we all know green vegetables are good and a lot of it comes from chlorophyll.”

Chef Kapoor, who likes tracing the history of food, did not only put a complex theory into perspective for us, but he also gave us a clearer picture on the question of whether ‘spices are more relevant in the said theory or plants,’ and said, “Okay, so what was the need to create pickles – a fruit, mango fruit, is only available in season, but I desire to have it not (only) in season. The way I can have it (all around the year) is, I can extend the shelf life, preserve it. And I can preserve it in many different ways – I can make mango jam, I can make mango pickle, right? So there are preservation techniques that are there, in that spices play an important role! Now, what are spices? They are all plants! Have you ever heard of animal spice?”

Darwinian Gastronomy: A 360° study?

The study that was originally done in 1998, though, took care of all the parameters while conducting the survey they did so only to understand the role of species in Darwinism. The questions however are, do energy sources like sunlight or water not play a huge role in gastronomy and thereby in evolution? The same question maybe applies to the microbes that help the plants to grow, or that force the plants to produce phytochemicals for self-defence, which in turn are good for Homo sapiens?

The study, although intriguing for people like us - who are interested in understanding the science behind the food prepared – seems very open-ended. Maybe we can hope for some more work in the area to help us understand better! For now, we can only hope.

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