Food & Nutrition

The Foods of Love

The steamy truth about food's amorous properties.

Montezuma, they say, drank 50 cups of chocolate a day to increase his virility. Casanova popped raw oysters daily. And Marc Antony fed Cleopatra grapes to get her in the mood. Foods that purportedly increase sexual desire or performance, or aphrodisiacs, have been part of our cultural lore (and Saturday night courting rituals) for millennia.

Some foods, such as chocolate and chili peppers, are valued for their physiological effects, like heat or euphoria, thought to mimic the flush of being in love. Other foods are prized for their erotic shapes or textures (think bananas and oysters). According to Jonathan Zearfoss, Professor in Culinary Arts at the Culinary Institute of America, while the science behind the lore is scant, the psychological effect—knowing a food is rumored to have amorous powers—can count for a lot.

Zearfoss recommends cooking at home to increase romance. "We associate food with love. Making a meal for someone shows there's caring and commitment and that in itself will predispose people toward positive feelings." He also suggests serving interactive food, like fondue, or dishes that have to be eaten with your hands. And if all else fails, there's always chocolate, a treat whose psychological associations with decadence and sin, says Zearfoss, are practically a shortcut to seduction.

Ready to get started? Here are some classic aphrodisiacs and healthy ways to work them into a romantic Valentine's Day dinner à deux:

  • Oysters: They're loaded with zinc and are believed to have, uh, a positive effect on the male libido. Have them shucked, then arrange the half-shells on a tray of shaved ice and serve with fat-free sauce: mix together rice vinegar, chopped ginger, diced chives and a squeeze of lemon juice.
     
  • Lobster: It's pricey—but very worth the splurge. If cracking them at the dinner table doesn't make your heart thump, remove the meat ahead of time, mix with mango, red onion and a light dressing and scoop into lettuce cups for "mmm"-inducing finger food.
     
  • Asparagus: According to folklore, its vaguely suggestive shape drives women wild. Combine with mushrooms and saffron for a heavenly risotto—just skip the finishing butter. (For added flavor, purée half of the stalks—not tips—with a cup of the cooking broth.) Lazy day option: Spray asparagus with nonfat olive oil cooking spray and roast until tender; sprinkle with sea salt, lemon zest and chopped parsley.
     
  • Chili peppers: Certainly, they make you hot and sweaty. Whip up a spicy salsa to feed to each other on baked tortilla chips, or spoon on top of poached white fish or chicken breasts for a main course. Just chop rehydrated ancho or pasilla chiles with tomatoes, onions and cilantro.
     
  • Chocolate: It contains the potentially mood-enhancing stimulant phenylethylamine, which is thought to relieve depression—and the Aztecs swore by it. You don't need much—pear halves poached in a sugar-water solution and drizzled with store-bought chocolate sauce is elegant and delectable. Alternatively, break up a small, high-quality dark chocolate bar to munch with dried apricots and figs.
     
  • Strawberries: They're juicy—causing you to lick your lips a lot. Make individual trifles by layering sliced berries with low-fat ricotta whipped with almond extract. Or, simply drizzle with good balsamic vinegar.

Keep these tips in mind for added amour:

  • Seduce with small dishes: Nibbling at an array of appetizer-sized dishes is more suggestive than working away at a slab of steak.
     
  • Go the extra mile: Consider splurging on a special-occasion-only treat—fresh tuna from the fish market, for instance, or an aged balsamic vinegar from an Italian gourmet shop.
     
  • Finger-licking encouraged: And because knocking yourself out over the stove isn't exactly sexy, invite your partner to chop and dice along with you.