From plump oysters and sea cucumber to pearly roe and more, we uncover the age-old mysteries and allure of aphrodisiacs in gastronomy across different cultures.
For eons, men and women have had a long-lasting affair with foods believed to drive sexual desire. Aphrodisiacs – substances that stir up the mojo – appear in every culture on the planet, and vary from phallic root vegetables to shellfish, and from aromatic Ayurvedic spices in India to straight-up tiger penises (yes, you read that right) in China.
Arousal and sexual performance is a complicated thing, not likely stimulated by just one or two ingredients. Some of the biochemical effects of certain foods are backed by science, but most are just based on long-held beliefs and folklore. The concepts date from a bygone era of nutritional deficiencies, and it stands to reason that vitamin-rich foods that boosted general wellbeing such as figs, grapes, avocados and pomegranates were considered aphrodisiacs. It may have also been their suggestive shapes – long, firm stems that are obvious allusions to potency, abundant clusters of egg-like spheres signalling fertility, or certain shellfish like abalone and oysters that some say resemble the female genitalia.
OYSTER, BAMBOO SHOOTS, FISH ROE
The successful cross-cultural, century-spanning branding of the oyster as an aphrodisiac is probably due to the sexiness of the experience itself – sipping its briny juices from the shell, then a sensuous, hard suck to dislodge the plump, slippery bivalve so it can slide down one’s throat. Or perhaps it’s because oysters are high in zinc content, which is key to spermatogenesis and testosterone production that’s essential in both male and female arousal.
At Amber, chef Richard Ekkebus serves up a sublime starter of Ebisu oyster, bamboo shoots, sweet garden peas, pea shoots and roe. Ebisu oysters from Kyushu have a rich, nutty, almost almond-like taste, so Ekkebus pairs them with a cultured butter of almond emulsion, a plant-based lacto-fermented fat. The bamboo shoot is slowly roasted in its own skin over charcoal.
All sorts of roe – pike, trout, salmon and caviar, and even lobster for its pearl-like texture – burst sensuously in your mouth. “I mean, there would be no life without eggs,” remarks Ekkebus. “Fine dining usually sets the tone romantically. My goal is to have people be energised after a delicious meal. If I enhance the yin-yang and make people want to make love to their partner afterwards – hey, even better!”
GINSENG, LIQUORICE, SPERM SACS
Since antiquity, Korea has produced quality ginseng. Cartloads of this miracle adaptogen were sent to the Emperor of China, his court and those who could afford it to boost their immune systems – or cure their erectile dysfunction. Samgyetang, Korea’s classic ginseng chicken soup, prominently features the earthy root, flavouring a whole bird stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujubes and chestnuts in an earthenware pot. This hearty elixir is traditionally consumed during the hottest summer days to boost vitality.
At modern Korean fine dining concept Hansik Goo – the Hong Kong outpost of chef Mingoo Kang’s Seoul-based Mingles – chef Steve Lee adds danggui (Angelica sinensis) and gamcho (liquorice) to his chicken jus for a complex, earthy, herbal flavour profile. It’s poured over the restaurant’s Samgye Risotto, which is a deconstructed samgyetang showcasing a succulent roulade of fried chicken with unctuous glutinous rice on the side. “I wanted to add more herbs so that it’s warm and comforting for any season, to make you stronger,” says Lee. “I also added pickled garlic in the rice.”
Danggui – dubbed “female ginseng” – is the go-to herb used in Chinese medicine for promoting blood circulation. It’s widely used amongst Chinese women as a daily fortifying tonic for their monthly cycles and rhythm. The Chinese, Egyptians and Indians have all used liquorice to boost sexual arousal and stamina, as the root contains phytoestrogen sterols, which affect both oestrogen and testosterone levels.
Those in the know will ask for chef Lee’s sundubu-jjigae with shirako. Only eight portions are served per night of this mildly spicy stew of soft, fresh curdled tofu that hasn’t been pressed. The dish features shirako (literally “white children” in Japanese), the creamy milt (that’s the sperm sac) of cod. Like a luscious, runny cream cheese with mildly oceanic overtones, shirako is yet another seasonal Japanese food luxury item that Hong Kong foodies have gone gaga for.
In English, the soft-bodied slug-like echinoderm is euphemistically called sea cucumber. It’s not just its phallic shape that makes it an aphrodisiac, though. In China, it’s known as “sea ginseng” thanks to its array of bioactive benefits. It’s an impressive profile of valuable vitamins (A, B1, B2, B3) and appreciable amounts of anti-everything properties including anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-hypertension and anti-carcinogenic. Sea cucumbers are also low in fat, high in protein, with 70 percent of their body wall composed of collagen, which converts further into gelatin by slow-cooking (as most traditional Chinese recipes call for) to act as a functional bioactive substance.
The best varietal, sold dried and fetching the most exorbitant prices, is Liaoshen, the spiky sea cucumber from Liaodong in northeastern China. Halfway between Beijing and Pyeongyang, the pristine port city of Dalian on the Liaodong Peninsula gets fresh sea cucumber for three months during wintertime. Harvesting is strictly prohibited until they grow six rows of knobby spines after four or five years, signifying adulthood.
At his modern Chinese fine-dining manifesto Wing, chef Vicky Cheng offers a moreish mapo tofu with blood sausage mixed with glutinous rice, topped luxuriously with sea cucumber. Upstairs at his French-inspired VEA, the chef has been serving his signature spiked sea cucumber since the restaurant’s inception. “I wanted to change the natural gelatinous texture of sea cucumber,” explains Cheng of his deliciously unorthodox dish, with its beautiful blistered exterior and jubilant crunch.
MILK, AYURVEDA, ASPARAGUS
“The whole philosophy of aphrodisiacs was born in India at least 3,500 years ago,” says chef Manav Tuli of Chaat, the exquisite modern Indian fine-dining establishment at the Rosewood Hong Kong. “All the spices used in Indian cooking are used to boost wellbeing and increase your vitality. Sex was not considered a taboo [in ancient India]; in fact, it was a respectable form of worship – [spiritual] satisfaction though sensual benefits.”
Practically most of the spices and aromatics – garlic, chilli, cloves, ginger – that make up a masala are considered aphrodisiacs, according to Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu “knowledge of life.” The top spices, according to Tuli, are fenugreek seeds and saffron. “Fenugreek helps synthesise the sex hormones, and Cleopatra was supposedly bathed in milk and saffron every night.”
Tuli reveals he’s actually done much research on Ayurvedic aphrodisiacs, as he used to do an aphrodisiac menu at Tamarind in London for Valentine’s Day. Tuli is set to reprise the Valentine’s menu at Chaat, which will start with Philtres Milk, a drink based around the concept of the Panchamrit (five elixirs) of honey, milk, saffron, yoghurt and ghee – perfect aphrodisiacs in Indian culture. Even Bollywood films allude to the nuptial activities when the married woman gives her husband a glass of warm milk before bed.
For a culture that reveres the cow, there’s great emphasis on milk as a purifying nectar for both gods and humans. Obviously it nourishes newborns, but milk is also viewed as an aphrodisiac for adults, as the liquid is believed to easily produce new blood and converts readily into semen. There are strict rules for dairy to function as healer. We’re talking fresh warm milk straight from the cow, the first 21 days reserved sustainably for the calf. Ayurveda also clearly prohibits the consumption of milk after eating non-vegetarian food, especially seafood.
Other tentative items on Chaat’s Valentine’s aphrodisiac menu include bharwan mirch pakora (stuffed banana chilli fritters) and an asparagus shatavari masala. Used in Ayurveda for thousands of years, shavatari (literally “she who has a hundred husbands”) is the root of the Asparagus racemosus plant native to India. This Ayurvedic “queen of herbs” is an adaptogenic herb with strong antidepressant abilities as well as phytoestrogens that boost female fertility.
Asparagus, meanwhile, needs no introduction, as the long firm stalks have been held in high esteem as an aphrodisiac in Europe. Nineteenth-century bridegrooms in France were required to down three courses of asparagus at their wedding banquets. In the wake of modern research, asparagus still reigns as a “superfood” due to its intense nutritional value, the common side effect of serious-smelling urine notwithstanding.
The Mayans and Aztecs considered chocolate as food of the gods, and it’s no surprise that chocolate still reigns supreme as the it-gift for Valentine’s Day – a dark, sexy ambrosia that stimulates and elevates mood.
Since September last year, chef Ricardo Chaneton of Mono has been making chocolate from scratch – not from beans, but from the whole pod. He buys fresh cacao fruit from Ecuador and Taiwan, as his home country of Venezuela doesn’t export fresh cacao pods. Recent botanical studies have proven that cacao originated in the fertile Venezuelan Andean mountain ranges, birthplace of the delicate “criollo” cacao fruit, the holy grail for most chocolatiers.
“It’s very personal to me, as most Venezuelan cities were built on the cacao trade, and Venezuela produces the best cacao,” says the chef. Chaneton stresses that his home country doesn’t produce the best chocolate, though. That honour goes to neighbouring Ecuador, and in Europe, usually to Belgium, Switzerland or Italy.
“Everybody loves chocolate, but nobody knows how it’s made or where it’s from,” says Chaneton. “I love sharing cacao with my guests.” At his Latin American-inspired French fine-dining restaurant, he ferments the pods with banana leaves to develop aromas of tropical fruit such as mangosteen and even lily bulbs. He then dries, roasts, peels, and grinds the beans. Sugar is added to the extracted plant-based fats – the unctuous cacao butter – and only then can it be called “chocolate”.
Chocolate contains the amino acid L-arginine, which acts as an effective, natural sex-enhancer by increasing nitric oxide and promoting blood flow to the sexual organs. “When we’re making it in the restaurant, guests can smell it – and it makes them happy and excited,” adds Chaneton. “We don’t add heat or emulsifiers so we don’t kill the amino acids. We don’t kill the love.”
These aphrodisiacs across different cultures work with a range of mechanisms that affect the brain, blood flow and hormones. Others enhance both male and female fertility to augment the chances of successful conception. The effect of aphrodisiacs, like most natural remedies, tends to be subtler than pharmaceuticals, yet is very real. As humans also eat first with the eyes, beautifully presented food or a fine-dining experience will inevitably create a certain mood. While some may argue that such factors are mainly psychological, the brain is, after all, the most important sex organ. So any ingredient a culture believes to be an aphrodisiac probably becomes an aphrodisiac – and it’s worth a try on your next date night.
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 6