In my last post I shared the science behind the carbolicious diet consumed in the highlands of Ecuador. Now I'd like to delve further into our local cuisine by exploring the reasons behind what many expats describe as the "blandness" of food here in Cuenca. Hardly a week goes by without someone saying something to me like, "Man, I wish a Thai restaurant would open here," or "Why isn't there one good Mexican joint?"
In truth Cuenca's local food is mildly seasoned. It's rare to even find a pepper shaker on the tables of most restaurants. A small bowl filled with a liquid concoction called ahi is used instead. There's always salt though, which is often used so abundantly I sometimes wonder why the diner doesn't save time and just unscrew the top and pour instead of shake.
But once again there's a counter-intuitive scientific explanation for our spicy shortcomings. The hottest food all around the globe is concentrated near the equator. Ecuador certainly meets that categorization, but at 8400 feet altitude Cuenca falls short in the temperature department.
Because you see it's in areas with the hottest climate that super-spicy foods are consumed. You don't hear much about Eskimo hot and sour blubber, right? H-m-m-m---so why in the heck do people that are already sweltering love to chow down on the heat? Wouldn't that make them even hotter?
Exactly. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers, creates some interesting changes in your body when consumed. Blood circulation is increased which brings more blood to the skin's surface, and the capillaries in your skin dilate. The combination of these two physiological effects? You sweat!
And sweating is one of our bodies' primary defense mechanisms against overheating. The heat that increased blood flow brings to the surface is radiated out and away from the body, helping stabilize the core temperature.
Eating habits around the world have evolved over very long periods of time. The earliest settlers no doubt ate experimentally and gradually learned what foods provided optimum health in their particular habitat. In those steamy, low-lying areas the hotter the better. In Cuenca-------not so much.
Oh, one last thing about spicy cuisine. It's common for people consuming capsaicin-flavored food to experience feelings of pleasure and even euphoria. So your mouth may be burning, but other areas may be yearning.