Legend has it that eating a fresh fig while naked in front of a woman is one of the world's most erotic acts. As a woman who likes men and dislikes figs, I can’t vouch for the particulars, such folklore is testament to the fig’s old-as-dirt reputation as an aphrodisiac. You’d be euphoric about figs if you knew of some of the other, more gag-inducing aphrodisiacs consumed in the name of love.
Along with oysters, Casanova used “Spanish Fly”, a ground-up green beetle indigenous to Europe that, when ingested or topically applied, supposedly gave him a leg up in the bedroom. Now we know it’s actually an excruciating irritant that can cause permanent damage. Too much yohimbe, the bark from a West African tree, can turn you into a stiff by fatally raising blood pressure. And you’ll have to tap into your inner Andrew Zimmern to try Filipino “balut,” a fertilized duck or chicken egg with a nearly-developed embryo that is boiled and eaten whole. The theory here may be that it’s so disgusting that it has to work.
Don’t try the Fly, says “Fork Me, Spoon Me” and “Love Diet” author Amy Reiley. Instead eat “Red Curry Shrimp with Mangoes,” “Stove-Top Salmon with Apricot Fennel Slaw” or “Hot Honey Nuts.” The kitchen is the new erogenous zone, she says, and that makes food a massive turn-on. In our DIY-age, Reiley’s recipes are aphrodisiacs for the home cook.
Aphrodisiacs come in five loosely defined categories: Things that increase circulation and raise body temperature (curry, ginger, chilis); foods that resemble sexual organs (peaches, cucumbers, avocados—the Aztecs called them “ahuacatl,” “testicle” in their language); foods involved with reproduction like eggs and sexual organs; rare and exotic substances (see above); and foods that affect and stimulate the senses and promote well-being (wine, spices, chocolate). Reiley adds nuts, which increase testosterone production and are loaded with quality protein, foods rich in minerals (oysters, figs) and fiber. No, fiber isn’t sexy, says Reiley, but you’re not going to deliver a peak performance if you’re bloated.
Evolutionarily, food and passion have always been linked. “We have to breathe and we have to sleep, but we crave sex and food. Back then it was as much about fertility as well as virility,” says Reiley, one of only two Americans to hold a Masters of Gastronomy degree from Le Cordon Bleu.
She says that the mere act of eating can be arousing, an arousal heightened by the right foods and dampened by the wrong ones. While romantic to some, a steak and baked potato dinner has so much protein and starch it robs you of energy for other pursuits (though she green lights the red wine that usually goes with it.) She says men are particularly susceptible to the belief “that if they eat man parts, like bull testicles, they’ll be more manly. They’d be just as well off eating a bison burger.” And no, she adds, beer is not an aphrodisiac. The only quick fixes out there are drugs like Viagra, but they’re temporary and artificial. She says modifying your diet will let you eat your way to a better sex life with no side effects.
Reiley’s top six natural aphrodisiacs:
Figs: Living up to the hype of their visual eroticism - “I don’t get it. I could look at a fig all day and not get aroused” Reiley says – figs are loaded with manganese, magnesium, vitamin E and zinc, which are essential for sexual health. And they’re a good source of fiber.
Watermelon: Contains citrulline which signals the body to release arginine which relaxes blood vessels. Texas A&M scientists say the effect is similar to Viagra. Citrulline is concentrated closer to the rind and is more abundant in yellow watermelon. Reiley says geneticists are working to create varieties where citrulline is dispersed throughout the melon.
Champagne: Bubbles mean it enters the bloodstream more quickly than wine so you drink less of it, which is a good thing. Plus, champagne with pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes have as many antioxidants as red wine. However, while alcohol releases inhibitions and lessens performance anxiety, overindulgence disappoints your partner.
Rosemary: A great circulation booster, says Reiley, plus the aroma is very relaxing and it aids digestion. “If you’re preparing a meal of seduction, you want something that will be easier to digest. You don’t want blood flow diverted to your stomach.”
Chili peppers: They raise body temperature, making you want to throw off your clothes, she says, and they replicate symptoms of arousal: flushed cheeks, a tingle on your tongue and plumper, more kissable lips.
Cheese: Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA) a chemical that raises blood pressure, releases endorphins and puts you in the mood. Cheese has ten times more of it. “Chocolate’s really just a comfort food. It’s not going to give you an orgasm,” says Reiley. Goodbye, Godiva. Hello, Gorgonzola.
If you’re not a cook but want to set the mood, Reiley says a simmering pot of lavender and pumpkin spice revs guys up while vanilla appeals to older men. The smell of cucumbers and licorice, specifically “Good ‘N Plenty,” arouses women, as do black truffles. To women they smell like male pheromones, which is why female pigs hunt for them.
As Henry Kissinger famously said, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. For Casanova, it was oysters. The “if it works for you” aspect of aphrodisiacs is entirely valid, says Reiley. But she argues that the multi-sensory experience of eating, when combined with the right ingredients, nutrients and intentions, makes food positively sexual. And given the frequency with which we eat, that makes food the ultimate aphrodisiac.