One of the challenges that humans have faced since they became meat-eaters was how to preserve their food. While Europeans were long accustomed to using salt as a preservative as they began to expand out and explore the world during the so-called Age of Discovery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they encountered people in other places who had developed other methods of food preservation.
Long before the development of modern refrigeration and before the discovery of the world of microorganisms, humans had developed alternative methods of deferring the decay of food. People living in very hot and very cold regions were using some ingenious methods to inhibit bacterial growth and thus delay food decay.
Wind and Sun:
On the plains of Alberta, Canada, American Indians have been hunting buffalo for thousands of years. Using a buffalo jump, the people could harvest large numbers of these huge animals at one time. Then came the problem of processing and preserving the meat before it spoiled.
Cutting the meat into thin strips and then hanging these strips on simple wooden racks exposed a great deal of the surface area to the drying effects of the wind and sun. Since most of the weight of the bison meat is water—about 65%--this process of drying makes the meat lighter and easier to transport. More importantly, drying the meat in thin sheets converts it into a form that retards the process of decay. This dried meat could last for months, and even years.
Shown above is a model of a fish drying rack used by the Indians along the Columbia River. This was one of the ways used to preserve the fish. The dried salmon would be pounded with a stone pestle in an oak mortar until it was finely pulverized. The salmon powder would then be tightly pressed into baskets lined with salmon skin. This dried, powdered salmon would keep for a long time.
Along the Fraser River in British Columbia, an outdoor drying rack was used. This drying rack was roofed over for protection against direct sunlight and possible showers. Dried salmon was generally good for about six months, though some might last for a year.
Food tends to spoil more quickly in warmer climates. In these climates, humans have discovered that the use of spices can help preserve their food. Spices act as natural antimicrobial agents which inhibit and even kill bacterial growth. The cause of decay in food is bacteria and thus the use of spices as a part of the cuisine in warm climates slows the decay of the food.
A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that in warmer climates dishes containing meat, which decays at a higher rate than vegetables, were more likely to be heavily spiced. While the warm temperatures make it impractical to keep food out for a week or more, spicing the food helps curb bacterial growth.
By about 4,000 years ago, Native Americans had domesticated chili peppers. For the Native people in Mexico, Peru, and Brazil this led not only to a unique cuisine, but also provided them with a way of preserving their food. With the arrival of the Europeans during the sixteenth century, a process known as the Columbian Exchange began and the use of chili peppers spread to other parts of the world.
The Portuguese brought chili pepper from the Americas to India. Prior to this, (East) Indian cuisine did not include the use of chili peppers and many of the other spices which are associated with this cuisine today. Prior to the Columbian Exchange, (East) Indian cuisine used sweeter spices such as cumin, saffron, and mustard seed.
From India, chili peppers and other spices spread to other areas. In general, the areas which incorporated chili peppers into their cuisines are located in geographic regions that are very warm and moist. Interestingly, the spices which grow best in hot and humid environments tend to curb bacterial growth and thus there is a symbiotic relationship between the humans who live in these regions and the spices which thrive there.
In many cultures, smoke is used as a way of preserving goods. The smoke acts as a natural preservative. Smoking is often used in conjunction with drying methods which reduces the amount of moisture in the food and thus makes it somewhat inhospitable for bacteria (since the bacteria need moisture to live).
Along the Columbia River, American Indians traditionally smoked fish, particularly salmon, as one way of preserving them. In doing this, they would build special huts in which the fish would be placed in racks. The smoke would then circulate through the hut, escaping through venting gaps in the construction, and smoke the fish.
Smoking fish was also common among the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast. An important part of the fishing camps in these areas was the smoke house. Some smoke houses had a second story which was reached through a notched poled ladder. Inside the smoke house, poles would hold up the fish and allow the smoke to permeate it before escaping through a hole in the roof.
On the Northern Plains, Indian nations such as the Blackfoot would place thin strips of buffalo meat on racks over a smoky fire to let the smoke cure and preserve the meat.