Pin It

Cooking to Seduce: The New Culinary Aphrodisiacs

Can you chew your way to titillation? Sabrina Shim puts three sensual foodstuffs to the test. Her findings are accompanied by an equally delicious realisation by Jess Bonham and Gemma Tickle

TextSabrina ShimPhotographic EditorHolly HayPhotographyJess BonhamSet DesignGemma Tickle

Food and sex are undoubtedly two of life’s greatest pleasures. When united, they prove as fascinating now as they did in 4BC, when famed Greek botanist Theophrastus recommended a “love potion” chock-full of leafy mandrake. In fact, from there on after, foods as 'aphrodisiacs' – a word derived from the goddess of love Aphrodite, unsurprisingly – began making titillating appearances within historical accounts, folklore, literature, and art. 

Over the course of history, practically anything edible has been considered an aphrodisiac at one point or another (potatoes, beans, and according to [Roman author and natural philosopher] Pliny the Elder, “a man’s urine in which a lizard has been drowned”, to name a scant few). While certain foods were known for their aphrodisiac properties simply due to their appearance – with symbolic colours, phallic shapes or texture and plentiful seeds (signifying fertility).

Nowadays, we predominantly consider aphrodisiac foodstuff in connection to sexual innuendo and lust. But with modern scientific investigation, we’re also discovering foods that genuinely contain properties that not only stimulate pleasure centres in the brain, but also aid sexual function – and not just mimic physiological reactions to intercourse. So, while I say go ahead, indulge in all the chocolates, strawberries and oysters you want, I’ve also taken the liberty of sampling three other new sensual foods on your behalf...


Aphrodisiac properties:
While the association with Aphrodite has been enough to solidify beetroot’s reputation as an aphrodisiac over the centuries (she ate them to enhance her beauty), we know now that beets are a natural source of tryptophan and betaine, both of which can improve mood. Something the patrons of the Lupanar brothel in Pompeii could probably guess by the frescoes of beets. But the gold star must go to boron, a trace mineral found in high amounts in beets that has been shown to boost the production of sex hormones, which affects libido, fertility and sperm mobility improvement (three decidedly unsexy words, sorry).

The thought of eating beets for breakfast was just plain wrong, so I opted for making the same beet-heavy lunch and dinner as some kind of penance, on a day the husband wasn’t home for meals. Though if punishment means an Ottolenghi roasted beetroot and plum salad with grilled mackerel, life could be much, much worse.

In ancient folklore, it’s said that if a man and woman eat from the same beet, they will fall in love. Which might explain why after the husband arrived home, I was shopping the online sales in one room and he was scarfing down Domino’s pizza in another. We went to bed with just a kiss.


Aphrodisiac properties:
Another day, another superfood. Meet moringa oleifera, a small tree native to Northwest India that can boost the immune system and energy levels with its potent nutrients (seven times the amount of vitamin C compared to oranges, four times the vitamin A of carrots, four times the calcium of milk, plus others) and amino acids. Several recent studies, however, also show moringa oleifera enhances sexual performance, albeit mainly in males. What’s more, it contains a good dose of saponins, a phytochemical that supports libido and testosterone levels (which are necessary for both sexes).

Moringa oleifera is available as tea and in tablet or powder form. Given the studies relate to male sexual performance, I insist that my husband get involved. We drink only moringa tea or moringa powder mixed into a smoothie for three days straight. Thankfully, moringa tea tastes like jasmine tea with a whiff of cocoa, so nothing offensive.

As a neuroscientist, my husband is fairly qualified to judge the scientific studies and they seem to check out. He is, however, generally annoyed at how horribly unscientific my aphrodisiac experiment really is, and specifically aghast that we had to forgo booze for three days. Which looking back, were the perfect conditions to replicate the study about sexual performance in stressed male rats. Alas, neither of us felt particularly frisky in this time so didn’t test out the “increase of erectile function” promised in another study. Instead, we both curiously had three nights of the soundest sleep.


Aphrodisiac properties: 
The fig has been associated with sexuality in almost every culture. It was allegedly Cleopatra’s favourite fruit and in ancient Greece, the arrival of a new crop even elicited a copulatory ritual. Figs are indeed a paradox – their many seeds represent fertility, their flesh a woman’s sex organs or their shape male testicles, while their leaves are associated with modesty. Filled with antioxidants, flavonoids, fibre, potassium and amino acids, they are said to help increase sexual stamina and production of nitric oxide, which gets the blood really racing through your veins.

I’ve kept it simple: eat two figs in front of my husband in the hopes of a reverse DH Lawrence’s Women in Love moment (the picnic scene with Rupert and Gudrun). He’s never had a fresh fig before so tries one.

While I cannot attest to actually being flooded with nitric oxide, potassium, et al, our own fig episode showed how strong a role belief and anticipation still plays in sex. Sure it was a bit ridiculous, but perhaps the hilarity dissolved any inhibitions. In any case, even though we probably didn’t need it, I made moringa tea for another good night’s sleep.

Shoot credits: Photography: Jess Bonham at East; Set Design: Gemma Tickle at East; 
Photo Assistant: Lewis Bench Post-Production; David Wood at Passeridae.