A touch of magic: the history and science behind aphrodisiac foods

Because spice begets spiciness, ANNA MCCOOE looks at the traditional aphrodisiacs, which are still seducing diners today.

Photo: Chris Court

Chris Court

Cleopatra bathed in saffron-infused milk to send her lovers mad with desire and Casanova downed 50 oysters for breakfast each day for sexual prowess. Kirsten Tibballs – possibly the most seductive of the lot – prefers the loin-stirring qualities of chocolate. The pastry chef and chocolatier from the Savour Chocolate & Patisserie School is one of many Australian chefs dabbling in alleged aphrodisiacs.

You don’t have to go the full nine and a half weeks to know food and sex go together like Kim Basinger and a 1986 Mickey Rourke (don’t let us keep you from your erotic foodie fantasies). Take, for example, chocolate, which Tibballs believes to have undeniable chemistry. “From a technical point, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are four neurotransmitters that, when released from the brain, are responsible for our happiness. They are also released when we eat chocolate, which can replicate the feeling of being in love,” she says. “The melt-in-your-mouth texture followed by that pop of flavour also contribute.”

Like us, Tibballs isn’t here to dish out medical advice or push a wellness agenda, she just really loves chocolate in all its sensual glory. Her favourite dessert for sparking romance is a decadent chocolate lava cake – “a warm, baked chocolate pudding with a gooey chocolate centre that slowly flows out once you break into the dessert.” Technically, it is more saucy than spicy but it’s still utterly irresistible. “Even something as simple as melted chocolate drizzled over ice-cream, enjoyed while cuddling on the couch, can set a romantic mood.”

Through history, there have been aphrodisiacs, which are mostly symbolic like figs, asparagus, and cucumber and those that spark lust because they are rare and precious, such as truffle and saffron. Seafood earned its seductive reputation early thanks to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite (or Venus in the Roman world), who emerged from the sea on a scallop shell. According to aphrodisiac foods authority Amy Reiley, who has her Master’s degree in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide, the topic of what makes an aphrodisiac is a complex one. “I like to recommend foods that have both a folkloric history and some sort of scientific evidence to support their use as an aphrodisiac,” says the Fork me, Spoon Me author.

Oysters fit into the symbolic category, but they are also scientifically sexy thanks to the high quantities of zinc, which improves testosterone levels. Caviar is another extravagance, which pairs fertility imagery with a big zinc hit. And we all know nothing sets the mood quite like a mobile caviar service, delivering bumps directly to the snuff of hands. Add a little eye contact into the mix and there’s a reason the Russians used caviar as a weapon of “sexpionage” in the Cold War.

Then there are aphrodisiacs that stimulate, which is where things get truly spicy. Peruvian chef Samuel Rivas from Pastuso in Melbourne is a master of the invigorating cuisine. “Peruvian food is super aphrodisiac,” he says. At the root of this claim is the Peruvian aji amarillo chilli, a bright and fruity chilli with high levels of circulation-boosting capsaicin, reputed to heat things up. The yellow chilli’s powers are most potent when added to citrus, fish offcuts, scallops, and other Peruvian chillies to create a marinade for ceviche called aji amarillo leche de tigre (Tiger’s Milk), a legendary aphrodisiac (and hangover cure). As Rivas says, “This type of chilli combined with other ingredients, like seafood, makes the Peruvian food an aphrodisiac bomb.”

Also, on the menu at Pastuso is maca root, which is whipped into an emulsion and paired with an alpaca tartare. The Incas used it to increase their sexual appetite and fertility and, today there is science-backed evidence to show they were onto something.

Warming spices such as ginger, cinnamon, pepper and cardamom come into play too. Just ask O Tama Carey of Lankan Filling Station, who does a Sri Lankan love cake packed with cardamom, cinnamon, white pepper, salt and urban mythology. “The cake was influenced by the Portuguese when they came and then it was Sri Lankanified,” she says. The delectable dessert either got its name for being the cake a young woman baked to win the love of a suitor or as a hand-mixed labour of love. “It’s a very physical cake to make,” Carey explains. Either way, the story has a happy ending; fluffy egg whites over a golden outer crust and a dense, gooey middle. Plus, a pretty smell of rose, which Carey says is “very aphrodisiac”. With such an effect, Carey is lucky the love cake is the last course not the first. She laughs, “This is true. We need them to stay to the end.”

Rare and expensive, the aphrodisiac qualities of saffron are legendary. The ancient Greeks brewed it in love potions while, in quantity, it is thought to be a mind-altering hallucinogen, hence Cleopatra and her sexy saffron baths. As British ayurvedic chef Anjum Anand tells it, newly married couples from wealthy families in old India were given a glass of saffron milk every night for the first week of their marriage.

But is it simply the desire for luxury that needs quenching or is it more carnal? Anand can’t confirm or deny an aphrodisiac effect but says saffron offers numerous qualities that contribute to a libido boost. “Saffron is harmonising and, in the right quantities, good for our general immunity. It is good for the digestive system and for circulation as well,” she says. “It has also been considered good for one’s mood and has even been clinically proven to reduce depression. It is also said to improve PMT and menstrual issues for women and improve men’s fertility and, shall we say, vigour.”

Separately, she believes a few strands of saffron in her morning tea will aid in a youthful glow, though she also loves it in a kulfi or biryani. “If you can feel well physically and mentally, be in a good mood and glow, you are going to feel good about yourself and then you are at your most attractive.”

But what to wash it all down with? Isn’t a moderate amount of alcohol the most evocative aphrodisiac of all? Champagne is a reliable libido-enhancing libation, going to the head and then the hip-adjacent region with its inhibition-loosening effervescence. At Loulou Bistro in Sydney, chef Billy Hannigan loves Champagne with oysters, strawberries, and John Dory farçi, an elegant dish of poached Dory and scallop, dressed in a rich velouté of caviar and Champagne. Hannigan also calls it “the flirtiest dish on the menu at Loulou.”

By power of science or just suggestion, Champagne, chocolate, oysters, caviar and all their spicy contemporaries certainly put romance on the table. Even if they don’t make your dinner date any more attractive, one way or another, you will be seduced

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