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Too spicy for the French

Medical descriptions of sexuality, masculinity and spices in the colonial Maghreb
Trop pimenté pour les français ; Descriptions médicales de la sexualité, de la masculinité et des épices au Maghreb colonial
Nina S. Studer


Many French doctors and psychiatrists in the colonial Maghreb supposed that spices, sexuality and the dangers of “primitive” masculinity were intrinsically linked. They regularly described Maghrebi food as unbearably spicy and, consequently, local cuisine was often deemed inappropriate for European palates. These doctors and psychiatrists often suspected that the spiciness of their food affected the sexuality of North African men, causing an increase in libido, which was something that colonial authors feared as, to them, the sexuality of colonised men seemed immoderate, threatening and dangerous even before the added effect of spices. In his medical dissertation, for example, Gabriel Perrin described how older Algerian men used spicy food as a form of aphrodisiac, unwilling to accept that for them the “time of frigidity” had come (Perrin, 1895: 47).

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  • 1 All translations into English are by the author.

1Descriptions of local food form an integral part of settler memoirs and French accounts of travels through the colonial Maghreb, and introduced the notion of a novel, “exotic” cuisine to 19th and early 20th century readers in the Métropole. North African dishes were usually described as either lacking something or including something that somehow “spoiled” it for French tastes. The journalist and historian François Bournand, for example, described a feast in Tunisia that he had been invited to: “[…] the spicy dishes and the lack of cleanliness of the culinary preparations among the natives have always, despite the habit [i.e., his familiarity with life in Tunisia], inspired an invincible repugnance in me, which has never allowed me to eat much either among the Muslims or among the Israelites […]” (Bournand 1893: 325f.).1 Besides the lack of cleanliness, it was, as indicated by Bournand, primarily spiciness that ruined Maghrebi cuisine for the French in this time period.

  • 2 On this development, see subchapter “Spiced to Excess”.
  • 3 On the history of the introduction of chilli into the Maghreb, see: Wright, 2007: 42.

2For the French, most spices were historically associated with a specific kind of foreignness: As the food historian Andrew Dalby set forth in his book “Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices”, spices were traditionally associated with hot and arid regions (Dalby 2000: 123). In the hot and arid Maghreb, many of the spices that French authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries encountered had once been readily used by French cooks, as, between the 12th and the 17th centuries, Europe’s consumption of spices had been significant. In the 17th century, however, spices fell out of fashion in France. By the time of the military conquest of Algeria in the mid-19th century, these spices had become less common in most of Europe.2 Consequently, the popular landscape of spices in the Maghreb seemed very foreign to French observers. In a travel account, for example, Victor Cambon described a typical Maghrebi market by stating that the colonised North Africans tried to interest Europeans in “the food that they are trying to sell”, which, according to Cambon consisted of animals and “implausible spices and condiments” (Cambon 1885: 61f.). While Maghrebi food was seasoned with a variety of spices that had once been popular in France, spiciness came, according to most of the colonial sources, from chillis (Boutineau & Fray 1890: 44).3

3Dishes prepared with chilli and Cambon’s “implausible spices and condiments” were not usually agreeable to the French, as they were seen to distort the “natural” taste of food and were often pronounced as unappetising. In an undated travel report on the Maghreb, published around the late 1890s, Marius Bernard described a feast that he was offered in Morocco, which consisted of “the inevitable couscous”, and “the parade of all the culinary abominations that are prepared in Morocco: fish from Sebou, poisoned with pharmaceutical seasonings”, as well as poultry cooked with sugar, lamb with white honey and almonds, saffron pigeon, spicy mutton sausages, and, finally, various desserts (Bernard [n.d.]: 339f.). None of which agreed with Bernard.

4This distaste for these traditional Maghrebi “culinary abominations” expressed in many of the colonial publications was explained through the unwelcome addition of spices. French authors believed that North Africans consumed unreasonable amounts of spices and that this had consequences on their bodies. This was based on contemporary theories claiming that an abuse of spices could lead to specific forms of intoxication and even to physical dependency (Celle 1848: 234f.; Marit, 1862: 332). The Bulletin de l’Académie Nationale de Médecine, for example, listed in a 1907 discussion on alcoholism various other addictions, among them “aromatism, coffeeism, teaism, [and] the abuse of condiments” (Anonymous 1907: 141). This notion of spice abuse can be found in a variety of French publications specifically discussing the consumption of the colonised, for instance a book on plants in Algeria by the French botanist Jules-Aimé Battandier included an entry on “chilli”, in which he stated: “The natives make great abuse of it” (Battandier 1900: 42).

5Spices were not only believed to create dependencies but also to augment the sexuality of Maghrebi men, something that many colonial authors feared as, to them, the sexuality of colonised men already seemed immoderate. “The only inconvenience that one could blame these condiments for, pepper in particular, is perhaps that they stimulate the reproductive apparatus, already so excitable in the Arab, too much”, claimed the French physician Joseph-Marie-Fernand Lafitte in a description of spices in Tunisia (Lafitte 1892: 95).

6This article analyses the role that spices played in colonial accounts of everyday life in the Maghreb and contextualises the links that French authors like Lafitte made between spices, masculinity, and sexuality. This article will first give an overview of French reports on the overall frugal and sober lifestyle of the colonised Muslims in the Maghreb, followed by an analysis of descriptions of widespread excessive consumption of spices among the colonised, as well as a reference to French colonial voices that diverged from this common narrative. This idea of an excessive use of spices in Maghrebi cuisine will be contrasted with the spice consumption of French people in the same time period. In the next section, the belief that “civilised” European stomachs were unsuited to spicy Maghrebi food will be contextualised. In a final section, the supposed links between the excessive consumption of spices and an exaggerated libido among the colonised will be examined.

Narratives of scarcity and excess

7North Africans were believed by the French to have simple clothes, follow simple daily routines and be content with small amounts of simple food: water, laban (i.e. fermented milk), tea or coffee, dates and dried fruit, bread, rice and mostly vegetarian couscous were described as making up the vast majority of their diets (Montezon 1851: 22; Vignon 1893: 58; Brault 1905: 175f.). According to Salvatore Furnari’s article on the medical situation in Algeria, for example, couscous and laban were “the imperishable symbol of the customs of these peoples; the most characteristic emblem of their simple tastes and excessive sobriety” (Furnari 1845: 10).

8While there were, of course, vast differences in the eating habits of the different classes of the colonised Muslims of the Maghreb, as well as clear regional variances in the preparation of dishes, some colonial reports nevertheless painted a very homogenous picture. Food in the Algerian South was “absolutely uniform; all classes of society consume an almost identical menu, at all meals, for life” according to Jean-Claude Pouget’s medical dissertation. This uniform menu consisted of a soup “that is complemented among the more affluent with occasional pieces of meat and even poultry”, “the inevitable couscous”, bread and dates (Pouget 1956: 20). While some of the French authors differentiated between the limited access of the working classes to food and the opulent cuisine of the elites among the colonised (Montezon 1851: 22f.), others did not seem to understand that the frugal, mostly vegetarian lifestyle that so many of the colonised led, was due to poverty not choice.

  • 4 Ramadan was seen by some French authors as a prime example of this behaviour. In his medical study (...)
  • 5 This can also be seen in the discussion of the alcohol consumption of the colonised, where they wer (...)
  • 6 Paul Lemoine, for example, described the food that he was offered as a guest in Morocco – tea, a ta (...)

9Most of the French authors writing on everyday life in the colonial Maghreb believed that this hard, simple life was interrupted by moments of gluttony (Vignon 1893: 365).4 Both the frugality and sobriety of the colonised and these moments of excess – on religious holidays – were framed as being disproportionate, and Muslims, framed as immoderate by nature, were capable only of alternating between these two extremes.5 Yet there were authors who suggested that while the food that North Africans consumed every day was simple, they liked eating large amounts of it. Gaston Bonnefont, for example, claimed in an account of his travels through Algeria that “A few bites [of couscous] are enough of a meal for a European. The Arab, despite his habits of sobriety, swallows several pounds of it without batting an eyelid” (Bonnefont 1888: 139). This ability to consume large amounts of food in a short period of time – allegedly more than a European could have consumed6 – seems to have confused some colonial authors. Reporting in 1889 about a geography conference on Tunisia, geographer Jules Desfontaines described his surprise at the sheer quantity of food his Tunisian travelling companions had consumed during a feast: “Now is the time to wonder how these Arabs, of unprecedented sobriety, who usually know how to be content with the most basic ration, can, on occasion, swallow prodigious quantities of food without discomfort. Their stomachs, under the influence of a prolonged frugal diet, should have retracted and [should be] unable to relax enough to receive and properly digest masses of food.” Desfontaines suggested that only a biological difference in the make-up of stomachs could explain what he and others had observed: “These stomachs, which are essentially rubber, obviously form a special variety [of stomachs]” (Desfontaines 1889: 27f.).

“Spiced to excess”

10In the 14th and 15th centuries, French aristocratic kitchens had used a wide variety of spices in large quantities (Birlouez 2012: 76). Historian Paul Freedman suggested that the taste of many European medieval dishes differed strongly from contemporary European food and that it might have been close to upper class cuisine in the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries (Freedman 2015: 48). In France, this fondness for spices was reframed reproachfully as cuisines evolved in the 17th century, when more “natural” flavours became popular (Wright 2007: 42). By the 18th century, the copious use of spices had mostly disappeared from French menus.

  • 7 On the framing of this new cuisine as modern and elegant, see, for example: Freedman 2020: 86.
  • 8 For a very similar comment, see also: La Forge 1894: 138.

11The 19th century French travel authors and medical experts describing the landscape of spices in the colonial Maghreb had consequently grown up believing a lack of spices to be natural, modern and elegant.7 Contact with Maghrebi eating habits consequently came as somewhat of a culture shock, in which the spice consumption of the Maghrebi colonised was framed as excessive. This assessment was almost uniform among the French colonial authors, with few exceptions. The physician Amédée Maurin was one, explaining in a travel account that the food in Algeria was spicy but not more so than dishes prepared by “certain peoples of southern Europe” (Maurin 1873: 101f.).8

  • 9 From the Arabic word maraqa, broth.
  • 10 The same formulation can also be found in Daubeil’s report on Tunisia (Daubeil 1897: 22).

12However, the overall impression of French authors in the 19th and early 20th centuries was that Maghrebi cuisine was unreasonably spiced. A doctor Bernard, for example, described Algerian marga,9 the traditional sauce poured over a couscous, as “spiced to excess” (Bernard 1887 : 142)10 and Charles Lallemand exclaimed that, while a Tunisian soup with vermicelli was “very decent”, it was also “spicy according to the formula of the Arab culinary art, that is to say with an abundance of spices to revive a dead person” (Lallemand 1892: 107).

  • 11 There were, however, also authors who described Moroccan food as very spicy (Gaud 1933: 16; Lemoine (...)

13French travel literature and medical handbooks consistently described Algerian and Tunisian food as excessively spicy (Charmetant 1875: 29; Boutineau & Fray 1890: 44; Brault 1905: 60), while Moroccan food was sometimes described as somewhat less fiery in comparison (Martinière 1919: 229f.).11 Others, however, like the Algerian Mohammed Soualah, who wrote a study on the “Native Society of North Africa”, did not differentiate between the cuisines of the three Maghrebi countries or between the levels of spiciness in them. Soualah’s simple overall assessment of Maghrebi food was that “The native cuisine is strongly spiced” (Soualah 1937: Vol. 2, 215).

  • 12 This expression of the colonised being “healthy, noble savages” was used by Worboys in the specific (...)

14This perceived overconsumption of spices was believed to have consequences for the bodies of the consumers. This can be seen in the book on “Medicine and Hygiene” by the French physician Adolphe Armand, in which he warned doctors that they should be “remembering that their [the North Africans’] organs are less sensitive to stimulants than those of the latter [Europeans], because of the great use they make of aromatics and spices, and that it is therefore necessary to increase the dose of tonics and stimulants” (Armand 1859: 329). While Armand believed this insensitivity to be caused by the “great use” of “aromatics and spices”, his statement about North Africans’ organs being “less sensitive to stimulants” is also part of a wider medical narrative present in the 19th century, which framed the colonised, as “noble, healthy savage[s]”, to use a term proposed by the medical historian Michael Worboys in 1976 (Worboys 1976: 84). 19th century medical experts in the colonies often believed that the colonised were simpler and more primitive, but also physically tougher and more robust than Europeans.12

Unsuited for European stomachs

15This presumed excess of spices spoiled Maghrebi cuisine for most of the French authors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Colonial accounts of encounters with spicy North African food often followed the same order: descriptions of the environment, followed by a report on the menu and on the spiciness of the individual dishes, culminating in the assessment that this spicy food was unsuited to Europeans. Charles Carteron, for example, suggested in a travel account about Algeria that marga was “sometimes so spicy with red pepper and chilli that we seem to swallow pins” (Carteron 1866: 74). His second encounter with marga was no more successful: “No sooner had I tasted it, out of curiosity, when I thought I had swallowed alkali”. He left the sauce to his Algerian companion, who “devoured it by himself. Out of charity I gave him the bottle of fresh water in order to put out the fire he must have in his stomach; but he seems to have neither fire nor pain, judging by the good appetite he still shows […]”. He went on to state: “These Arabs are a curious race of men!” For him, they were “indolent and fiery” and men “who live on nothing, are sober or excessively insatiable; real iron bodies, they resist everything” (Carteron 1866: 330f.).

16Many French authors vividly described how their stomachs “rebelled” against the spicy food they were offered (Veyre 1905: 199), that the food was “indigestible for a roumi [Roman, i.e. European] stomach” (Astruc 1912: 36), and that consumers would need “a blind palate to swallow without contortions” (Bourquelot 1881: 167). Others described spicy Maghrebi sauces as “inaccessible to European palates” (Lenfant 1877: 87) and as something that “irritates delicate palates and burns the bowels of those who do not distrust it” (Reuss 1884: 96). The travel writer Paul Bourde further pushed this image in a report on an Algerian feast that he was invited to: “The meal, however, was of a terrible local flavour”, he wrote, disappointedly. According to him, all the different dishes had “only one taste: that of red chilli”. Bourde suggested that “One needs to have a triple-armoured palate in order to swallow this fire; otherwise, at the fourth bite, one admits defeat” (Bourde 1880: 222).

17Sometimes, these more delicate European body parts were directly compared to those of North Africans, with the conclusion that there must have been vast biological differences between them. This can be seen in a 1901 book by E. Josset, who quoted from a letter by someone called Léon Martin. While travelling through Algeria, Martin had been invited to a feast where they were served a roast lamb, hot buttered bread, and a “mutton stew with dried fruit and a sauce seasoned with chillies. What a horrible mix! My palate rebelled against such food! But we had to put on a good countenance and swallow the spiciest foods with a calm as profound as that of the Arabs who observed us.” The finale of the feast was a couscous, which Josset could not bring himself to eat: “It is probable that my stomach bears no resemblance to that of an Arab or a Kabyle, for I have never been able to swallow this pasty flour, steamed from a kind of pot-au-feu containing water, meat, vegetables and the inevitable chilli that seasons all native dishes” (Josset 1901: 113f.).

18Theoretically speaking, these colonial descriptions of North Africans being able to consume spicy food unsuited to European stomachs, did not carry any judgement on the bodies of the colonised. Yet the French understanding of Maghrebi bodies as being inherently different from European bodies – shown in their ability to eat food that was inedible for European stomachs – was part of a broader discourse around a supposed “primitivity”, shared by all North Africans, that determined aspects of their behaviour, their characters and their bodies. While widespread throughout the colonisation of the Maghreb, the pinnacle of this can be seen, in the 1930s, in the formulation of the influential theory of a “primitive mentality”, proposed by psychiatrists of the École d’Alger (Porot & Sutter 1939: 226). Within this very popular framework, primitive – even if understood as stronger, more robust and, sometimes, even more virile – was usually framed as inferior, as primitivity was seen as a deviation from the medically defined “norm”, i.e. male, European bodies.

Diverging opinions

19Medical handbooks for French settlers in the Maghreb usually recommended abstention from spices (Gélineau 1893: 66), as spices were believed to damage the stomach and cause intestinal issues (Postel 1883: 41f.). While describing the eating habits in Morocco the physician Maurice Gaud felt that “I must say a word about the various seasonings, of which the Moroccan native is fond and which he abuses, even [though it is] of great damage to his stomach” (Gaud 1933: 16). Yet there was also a small group of colonial authors who suggested that a controlled, moderate consumption of spices could have positive effects and help with acclimatisation. These authors believed that the colonised in the Maghreb had good reasons to eat spicy food, as spices were understood to help with digestion (Marit 1862: 331) and to stimulate the appetite, which was believed to be generally lacking in hot climates (Furnari 1848: 10; Marit 1862: 332). The majority of medical voices, however, advised caution to French travellers and settlers.

  • 13 The French word caïd comes from the Arabic qāʾid, i.e. notable.

20There was also a group of authors who suggested that Maghrebi food was agreeable to Europeans – not despite its spiciness, but very often because of it (Lallemand 1892: 107; La Forge 1894: 137; Daubeil 1897: 22; Martinière 1919: 229f.). Others explained that they had been able to overcome an initial distaste and had grown to like it. The French teacher Eugène Vayssettes admitted being astonished in 1859 at the food he was offered by a caïd13 in Algeria. He had enjoyed the whole meal and admitted that he not “suspected” such a “choice in the dishes, a delicacy in the preparation” among “the Arabs”: “From that day on I took a liking to this cuisine, both honeyed and spicy, which at first glance makes our delicate palates wince so much […]” (Vayssettes 1859: 25).

  • 14 Blanche Duplenne, for example, wrote in her medical dissertation that in Tunisia, couscous “will al (...)

21Reports on French settlers and travellers becoming accustomed to spicy Maghrebi food were sometimes directly linked to theories of assimilation or to fears about French settlers in North Africa losing their French identity. In 1847, i.e. in the first phase of the colonisation of the region, Paul Dieudonné Fabar described Europeans that “went native” in Algeria. While the “most ardent converted to Islam”, “others contented themselves” with adapting Algerian clothes and of making a “considerable absorption of chilli and couscoussou [sic]” (Fabar 1847: 27). The majority of the French publications suggested, however, that French stomachs could never get used to spicy Maghrebi food,14 based on ideas of a clear biological difference between colonisers and colonised.

There is nothing worse for an old man…”

  • 15 19th and 20th century medical sources are full of warnings about the sexuality of Maghrebi men. “In (...)
  • 16 Arguably, the excessive male North African sexuality could also sometimes be perceived as a potenti (...)
  • 17 There were, however, also French authors who believed Muslim North African men to be “under-sexed”, (...)

22French authors in the 19th and early 20th centuries believed both male and female North Africans to be, by nature, excessively sensual. The French physician Étienne-Paul Laurens, for example, believed there to be an exceptional frequency of sexual intercourse and masturbation among the Algerian colonised, whom he defined as people “who are particularly inclined to this” (Laurens 1919: 45). Colonial sources described male Maghrebi sexuality as being strong and omnipresent,15 as well as threatening to both local and settler women (Stoler 2002: 59; Keller 2007: 208).16 Historian Julia Clancy-Smith stated that male Muslim sexuality was “symbolized by polygamy and the harem” in colonial accounts. The mere existence of polygamy and the relative simplicity of divorce in Islam, which allowed men to have multiple sexual partners in parallel or at least throughout their lives, were, in the eyes of many colonial authors, proof of the excessive sexuality of Muslim men, who had, after all, consciously codified them into existence. Clancy-Smith further added that Algerian Muslim men were typically described as “over-sexed” by French observers (Clancy-Smith 1998: 162).17

  • 18 See also: Trumelet 1885: 297.
  • 19 Théodore Pein, for example, claimed that “Arab” men were “Very prone [to impotence], due to the exc (...)

23Many French authors also believed in the “precocious nubility” (Armand 1854: 446) of Arab women, who were believed to become “nubile” at “eight, nine or ten years” (Villot 1875: 60). Even though these colonial accounts framed these girls as victims and regretted their early loss of innocence, French authors also ascribed an innate sexual insatiability to Maghrebi women, which weakened – through overuse – the sexual drive of their husbands, who in turn had to turn to all kinds of medical and magical assistance. The French physician Lucien Leclerc referred to this female insatiability when writing about the prevalence of polygamy in Kabylia, by which he meant both a man having several wives and “consecutive” polygamy, i.e. remarriage after divorce. While polygamy was, for him, proof of the excessive sexuality of Muslim men, he believed that the equally active sexuality of Muslim women exhausted and prematurely aged Maghrebi men, whom he described as regularly inquiring about aphrodisiacs when they came into contact with European men (Leclerc 1864: 97f.).18 In Leclerc’s view, it was not the sexual needs of men that made them eager for aphrodisiacs, but the insatiable nature of Muslim women: “About forty subjects, often old men, came to us for aphrodisiacs. If we objected to their age, they would tell us that it was less for them than [in order to] to satisfy the wishes of their spouses” (Leclerc 1864: 97f.). This idea of willing or unwilling overuse having prematurely weakened the sexual drive of Muslim men can be found in many publications;19 indeed, impotence – often at an early age (Furnari 1845: 29) – was framed by some as a typically “Oriental” disorder (Henricy & Lacroix 1847: 35).

24The French worried about European underpopulation in the North African settler colonies, as the clear decline in French fertility rates, which had started in France in the late 18th century, could also be observed in the colonial Maghreb from the 1880s onwards (Prochaska 1990: 147ff.; Cook Andersen 2015: 9; 22; 90). These fears of a dominant minority population about being overwhelmed by the oppressed majority made them anxiously observe the sexuality of the colonised, which they perceived as being excessive – and as excessively producing non-French children!

  • 20 The French versions of this saying sometimes slightly differ in their structure. For the sake of si (...)

25The sexuality of the colonised was often connected by French medical experts to their consumption of spices, as seen in the aforementioned quote by Lafitte of spices stimulating “the reproductive apparatus, already so excitable in the Arab, too much” (Lafitte 1892: 95). In descriptions of eating habits of the colonised in the colonial Maghreb, French sources often returned to the wisdom of an “Arab saying”: “There is nothing worse for an old man than a good cook and a young wife.”20 This interlinking of overeating with sexuality was not something new or, indeed, particularly “Arab” or North African. Early Christian authors had long recommended asceticism, based on the assumption that the consumption of food could cause sexual urges (Walker Bynum 1985: 11; Frayne 2016: 193).

  • 21 Thābit ibn Qurrah as quoted in: Ibn Abi Usaybi'ah 2020: 127.

26Many French reports did not explicitly mention spices when referring to this saying, yet, as most French authors in the 19th and 20th centuries believed Maghrebi food to be defined by, on the one hand, a deep frugality and, on the other hand, this excessive spiciness, it is not unreasonable to suppose that, in their eyes, a good North African cook was somebody who used large amounts of spices. French authors attributed this saying to various notable Muslim scholars, such as Averroes (the Andalusian 12th century philosopher and doctor Ibn Rušd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, the famous 11th century Persian philosopher and doctor) (Villot 1875: 467, FN 1; Claretie 1893: 214). Most often the French sources attributed the saying to Thābit ibn Qurrah, a 9th century Arabic physician (Leclerc 1876: 170; Bertherand 1883: 15). Thābit ibn Qurrah was indeed recorded as saying: “There is nothing more harmful for the older man than to have a skilful cook and a beautiful young servant girl since he will take an excess of food and become ill, and will engage in sexual intercourse to excess and become senile.”21 The original Arabic version of this saying made no references to the effects of spices and was simply a warning about the dangers of overeating for those over a certain age. French authors who directly connected it to the consumption of spices of the North African colonised thus consciously or subconsciously contorted the initial meaning of the saying, in accordance with their assumptions about spiciness being the one defining characteristic of Maghrebi food.

27Gabriel Perrin referred to this saying in his medical dissertation, while suggesting that old Algerian men hoped to reignite their sexuality with the help of the spiciness of their food: “The most salient characteristic [of Algerian cuisine] is the strong taste of their cooking, strongly raised by spices of all kinds; especially elderly [men], for whom the time of frigidity has come before that of resignation, seek [in spicy food] for remedies for their failures, caring little for the precepts of Trabet Ben Corra [sic] (9th century): ‘There is nothing worse for an old man than a good cook and a young wife’” (Perrin 1895: 47). Other French authors framed spices as being used as an aphrodisiac outside of the specific context of Thābit ibn Qurrah’s saying. The physician Jean-Joseph Marit believed certain fish dishes in Algeria to have stimulating effects. He quoted the 15th century scholar Ğalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī (Sidi-Siouti 1856) as saying: “with spices it [fish] excites to copulation”. Marit added, however, that “this action is mainly due to the condiments” (Marit 1862: 309f.). Perrin and Marit thus belonged to a group of French colonial authors, who framed the spice consumption of North African men not only as increasing the (sexual) appetite of these men, but also as a traditional North African way of counteracting impotence. This explicit linking of sexuality with spices might have been familiar to French authors, as medieval and early modern European medicine had attributed aphrodisiac properties to many spices (Evans 2011: 4; Downham Moore & Pithavadian 2021: 31).

  • 22 According to the Australian historian Jack Turner, this same idea was also widespread in medieval E (...)
  • 23 Ben Ghabrit stated: “Abder-Rerraz offers us, for his part, some aphrodisiacs, which ‘excite, he say (...)
  • 24 Abder Rerraz seems to be a misspelling of an Arabic name, probably of Abd al Razzāq. It could not b (...)

28According to Captain Jules Erckmann, Moroccans generally consumed only “exciting” food: “for them, there are only two kinds of food; those that heat up and those that cool down” (Erckmann 1885: 171, emphasis in the original). Spices were interpreted as “heating” substances and in the Muslim world, heat had long been associated with passion and sexuality (Aubaile-Sallenave 1997: 104; Turner 2004: 223-225; Ze’evi 2006: 26, 35).22 Some French observers believed that this heating up was not only a welcome side-effect of the consumption of spices for the colonised, but sometimes one of the motivations behind their consumption. The French physician Édouard-Adolphe Duchesne, for example, set out how both male and female Algerian Muslims were excessively sexual, which explained, from his point of view, the commonness of sex work in Algiers (Duchesne 1853: 17ff). According to him, “The commerce of women is perhaps the only enjoyment they [male Muslim Algerians] abuse”, yet he also detailed that the men turned to aphrodisiacs to increase their sexual prowess. He stated that customers consumed, among other things, “certain aromatic and diffusible preparations” in order to “awaken their desires and to make themselves able to satisfy them”. Duchesne then added: “Pepper, and especially chilli, of which they make such a great use, must contribute to venereal arousal” (Duchesne, 1853: 96f.). Yet apparently, not all North African men took these “preparations” willingly or even consciously. According to the Algerian religious leader Si Kaddour ben Ghabrit, Muslim women prepared these preparations and gave them to their polygamous husbands in secret. He believed that, due to the stark rivalry among wives for the love of their shared husband, wives prepared traditional love potions – of an aphrodisiac quality23 – and used green ginger, nutmeg and pepper in them, in order “to force men to fall madly in love”. Ben Ghabrit attributed this to an author named Abder-Rerraz,24 who had allegedly stated: “‘Eating it [this potion, …] has a wonderful effect on the body!’” (Ben Ghabrit 1917: 129; emphasis in the original).

  • 25 For a discussion of this, see, for example: McClintock 1995: 14; Jacob, 2011: 3f.

29According to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, European authors sexualised and feminised “the Orient”, with the European powers taking the male active role and the “Orient” the feminine, passive, degenerate one.25 This also led to a de-masculinisation of “Oriental” men. In the context of the colonial descriptions of the spice consumption of the colonised, this mechanism seems almost to have been inverted. North African men were, by way of their ability to consume large quantities of fiery foods, seen as having stronger constitutions than French men. Additionally, spices were believed to augment the sex drive of North African men or to help them rekindle it once lost. In a worldview that often viewed strength as a sign of virility, this suggested that North Africans were somewhat more “virile” than European men, shown by their ability to consume quantities of spices that the allegedly more civilised – practically always male – European observers were physically unable to stomach. At the same time, however, this voracious predilection for spices was also seen as weakening male Maghrebi bodies, as it stimulated their already “oversexed” natures, which led to exhaustion, impotence, and their early demise. Yet while North African men were described as losing their virility, due to sexual overexertion, and trying to recover it with the help of spices, they were still framed as more sexually active than the Europeans writing about them.


30The overall French assessment of Maghrebi eating habits in the 19th and 20th centuries asserted that North Africans were inherently simple and sober, but that their frugal lifestyle was punctuated by excesses. Additionally, the spice consumption of the colonised North Africans was believed to lead to an excessive, uncontrollable sexual stimulation. This was part and parcel of the wider theory of an all-encompassing immoderation among the colonised, one of the main propositions of the École d’Alger’s theory of a “primitive mentality” shared by all North Africans. Thus, positioning North Africans as “other” allowed the French to frame themselves – in their consumption of spices as in their sexual appetites – as models of moderation, deemed a thoroughly French characteristic.

31Travel writers usually used descriptions of food in North Africa to “spice up” their accounts; readers of travel accounts and settler memoirs felt themselves transported into a mysterious world through descriptions of spices. Descriptions of the unusual, foreign and spicy food was a means of exoticising the French tourist experiences of daily life in the Maghreb. The exaggerated vocabulary of their accounts – spices as raising the dead, as pins, etc. – slots into the context of authors trying to keep their readership interested. Descriptions of exotic spices were a trope of the travel literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the linking of spicy food with sexuality played into Orientalist fantasies related to polygamy and the harem. While the sexuality of Muslim women was something that French authors disproportionately wrote and fantasised about, their consumption of food and their reaction to spices cannot be found in either the travel accounts or medical reports; both the subtle and the crude comparisons between palates, stomachs, and sex drives in the French source material are consequently comparisons among men.

32Additionally, many doctors wrote about the culinary qualities of Maghrebi food – not as mere consumers (which they undoubtedly also were), but in their capacity as transmitters of medical warnings to Europeans. The mere fact that it was often doctors writing about Maghrebi food – using medical vocabulary and medico-psychiatric theories – pathologised Maghrebi food. Many French doctors and psychiatrists in the colonial Maghreb supposed that spices, sexuality and the dangers of a “primitive” masculinity were intrinsically linked. They regularly described Maghrebi food as unbearably spicy and, consequently, local cuisine was deemed inappropriate for the European palates of “civilised” masculinity. In summary, descriptions of spices in Maghrebi cuisine by French writers, and especially French doctors, reflected colonial attitudes towards the colonised of the region, particularly in terms of race and gender.

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1 All translations into English are by the author.

2 On this development, see subchapter “Spiced to Excess”.

3 On the history of the introduction of chilli into the Maghreb, see: Wright, 2007: 42.

4 Ramadan was seen by some French authors as a prime example of this behaviour. In his medical study of hygiene in Algeria, Jules Brault regretted the excessive consumption of food after the religious fasting, saying: “So there would be nothing to say against Ramadan, if it was not sometimes followed by actual excesses, during the celebrations of Beïram that close Lent.” (Brault 1905: 177).

5 This can also be seen in the discussion of the alcohol consumption of the colonised, where they were believed to either never taste a drop of alcohol in their lives or, if they chose to drink, French doctors and psychiatrists believed them to necessarily become alcoholics (Studer 2020).

6 Paul Lemoine, for example, described the food that he was offered as a guest in Morocco – tea, a tajin and a couscous for lunch, and a similar menu again for dinner – as “too much for a European stomach” (Lemoine 1905: 26).

7 On the framing of this new cuisine as modern and elegant, see, for example: Freedman 2020: 86.

8 For a very similar comment, see also: La Forge 1894: 138.

9 From the Arabic word maraqa, broth.

10 The same formulation can also be found in Daubeil’s report on Tunisia (Daubeil 1897: 22).

11 There were, however, also authors who described Moroccan food as very spicy (Gaud 1933: 16; Lemoine 1905: 39).

12 This expression of the colonised being “healthy, noble savages” was used by Worboys in the specific context of European doctors trying to explain the perceived higher vulnerability of Europeans towards various diseases in hot climates (see also: Anderson, 1996: 99). Similar sentiments – of North Africans being less vulnerable towards outside influences – can, however, also be observed in the descriptions of the spice consumption of the North African colonised. One example of this is Charles Cameron describing the “real iron bodies” of the Algerians (Carteron, 1866: 331); see below.

13 The French word caïd comes from the Arabic qāʾid, i.e. notable.

14 Blanche Duplenne, for example, wrote in her medical dissertation that in Tunisia, couscous “will always be eaten with a sauce so spicy that our European palates cannot get used to it” (Duplenne 1927: 73).

15 19th and 20th century medical sources are full of warnings about the sexuality of Maghrebi men. “In questions relating to the sexual instinct, one must take into account the strong genital temperament of the Arab, conditioned by his customs and the climate of the country,” warned Sextius Arène in his 1913 medical dissertation (Arène 1913: 171f.).

16 Arguably, the excessive male North African sexuality could also sometimes be perceived as a potential danger to European men, as many of the doctors working with Maghrebi patients believed homosexuality to be a particular “vice” in the colonies. For the psychiatrist Adolphe Kocher, for example, the situation in Algeria was clear: “Like all peoples of the Orient, the Arab is a sodomist.” Kocher, 1883: 161. Emphasis in the original.

17 There were, however, also French authors who believed Muslim North African men to be “under-sexed”, so to speak. The physician Edmond Astruc, for example, jokingly stated: “The pepper that the Arab forgets to put into his love, comes up all too heavily in his soups: this is at least the impression that my civilised organs have retained from their first contact with local products”. In this context, Astruc interpreted the spiciness of Maghrebi food not as a form of sexual stimulation, but as some kind of ersatz for a perceived lack of passion in Muslim relationships. (Astruc 1912: 36f.)

18 See also: Trumelet 1885: 297.

19 Théodore Pein, for example, claimed that “Arab” men were “Very prone [to impotence], due to the excessive use they make of them [i.e. their reproductive organs], to the weakening of the reproductive organs […]” (Pein 1871: 206).

20 The French versions of this saying sometimes slightly differ in their structure. For the sake of simplicity, this version of the saying is used throughout the article.

21 Thābit ibn Qurrah as quoted in: Ibn Abi Usaybi'ah 2020: 127.

22 According to the Australian historian Jack Turner, this same idea was also widespread in medieval Europe, where “a loss of erotic interest or capacity was the result of excessive coldness” (Turner 2004: 219).

23 Ben Ghabrit stated: “Abder-Rerraz offers us, for his part, some aphrodisiacs, which ‘excite, he says, passions of old men, even when their age does not allow it anymore.’” Ben Ghabrit 1917: 129. Emphasis in the original.

24 Abder Rerraz seems to be a misspelling of an Arabic name, probably of Abd al Razzāq. It could not be reconstructed whom Ben Ghabrit referred to in this instance.

25 For a discussion of this, see, for example: McClintock 1995: 14; Jacob, 2011: 3f.

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Electronic reference

Nina S. Studer, « Too spicy for the French », Anthropology of food [Online], 16 | 2022, Online since , connection on 02 October 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Nina S. Studer

History, University of Bern,

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