If you want to create an awkward moment at your dinner party, mention the word “aphrodisiacs” and wait for the reaction. Expect outright laughter mixed with bashful giggling. Or, at the very least, watch your friends blush and quickly change the subject.
But the link between stomach and passion is as old as Greek mythology—maybe older. The word itself stems from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and humans have been trying to connect food with romance ever since.
From the ancient Roman physician Galen to 13th-century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, theories abound on what makes a specific food love-inducing or not. Things like texture, shape and taste all played a part in a food’s aphrodisiac status.
While most modern aphrodisiacs center around passion, it wasn’t always so. With average life expectancies hovering around 25 years, reproducing quickly was a matter of immediate importance in 16th-century Europe. When rural peasants weren’t too busy avoiding starvation, birthing offspring was next on the list of life goals. Enter foods like the mandrake root, which was thought to be a potent, albeit poisonous, fertility drug. A number of everyday foods, including potatoes at one point, were also considered aphrodisiacs, which is understandable given that simply having enough to eat was probably attractive for the average preindustrial citizen.
The popular legends surrounding aphrodisiacs didn’t stop after the Middle Ages. While the science surrounding aphrodisiacs is muddled at best, the idea has persisted right into modern times.
“I remember eating two-dozen oysters as a 16-year-old because somebody told me it was an aphrodisiac,” says Bellevue Club Chef Paul Marks. “While some foods stimulate the release of endorphins, most of it is the power of suggestion or experiences surrounding the food, instead of the actual food itself.”
Although searching for a true aphrodisiac is akin to a miracle youth elixir, here is a special glimpse at the fact and fiction surrounding popular aphrodisiacs—just in time for Valentine’s Day.
The Top Five.
Part of the human diet in South America since 7th century B.C., the heat-producing compound of capsaicin in chili peppers packs plenty of positive benefits, including pain relief through the release of endorphins. As an amorous apertif, the chili pepper induces profuse sweating and increases heart rates—kind of like a first date.
Valentine’s Tip: Start a fever with a searing Thai curry laced with chili peppers.
While oysters top the list of underwater aphrodisiacs—Casanova was said to slurp up 50 of them per day—there’s a whole ocean of love out there for adventurous diners. Rich in protein and seasonally rare, lobster and other crustaceans join the less mobile mollusks on the plates of romantic dates throughout the world.
Valentine’s Tip: Indulge your date with fresh Dungeness crab dipped in butter by candlelight.
“I think anything red can be considered an aphrodisiac,” says Chef Paul. Fortunately, these little heart-shaped love links have real benefits like being high in vitamin C and a great source of disease-fighting antioxidants.
Valentine’s Tip: Cover them in chocolate (see above) for a delicious cliché. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“Forget love, I’d rather fall in chocolate,” the old bumper sticker proclaimed. While the early Mayans and Incans saw the two as related with their cacao bean drinks, no study has found an increase in desire as a result of chocolate consumption. However, there have been a number of studies linking chocolate and healthy serotonin levels and pleasure benefits in the brain.
Valentine’s Tip: Throw academics out the window and share a rich, dark piece with a loved one.
Although fungi sniffed out by trained pigs might not sound like the most romantic thing you could put in your mouth, the idea of truffles as an aphrodisiac originated with French royalty. It’s true that truffles contain a specific pheromone that can have a sentimental effect on pigs, but for humans, it just tastes good. But since nothing says romance like sharing a fancy meal with your date, forget the pigs and go for the truffles anyway.
Valentine’s Tip: If you’re going to spend the money, don’t mistake truffle oil—much of it is artificially flavored olive oil—for the real thing.