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By "Today" Food Editor
updated 2/2/2007 8:40:51 AM ET 2007-02-02T13:40:51

Thousands of years ago, Egyptian priests were forbidden to eat onions.

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Onions? Were the authorities worried about bad breath in the palace? No, the pharaohs were concerned that the temptation for sex might become too great!

Onions an aphrodisiac? Well, maybe the chefs on the Nile had a special recipe. But the plain fact is that many foods over the years have acquired a reputation for creating desire. And while some of that may be based in science — increased blood flow and enhanced mood are brought on by some foods — much of the aphrodisiac effect would appear to be psychological.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, an aphrodisiac can be explained as: “The psychophysiological reaction that a well-prepared meal can have upon the human organism. The combination of the various sensuous reactions — the visual satisfaction of the sight of appetizing food, the olfactory stimulation of their pleasing smells and the tactile gratification afforded the oral mechanism by rich, savory dishes — tend to bring on a state of general euphoria conducive to sexual expression.”

Indeed, it’s a combination of several senses that create these aphrodisiac qualities, so setting the proper mood on Valentine's — candles, an attractively set table, and so forth — can be just as important as the foods.

So, get out your best silverware and crystal, and consider some of our favorite food and beverages for a special celebration. And before you run to the store to make this year's Valentine's the most romantic ever, remember that most researchers who have looked into the romance-inducing qualities of various foods all agree on one thing: that the mind is the most powerful aphrodisiac.

Enjoy!

Naughty ol’ chocolate
Ever wonder why Valentine's has become synonymous with chocolate? Well consider this: Chocolate is a source of quick energy and can even elevate some people’s moods. So start your Valentine’s dinner with a beautiful chocolate heart (but just take one bite!).

Want to know which part of the country is most likely to use chocolate to boost the Valentine’s spirit? Well, we asked the folks at ACNielsen to analyze the top cities in the United States to see which one buys the most chocolate for Valentine’s Day … and the winner in 2004 was Portland, Oregon! (By the way, the area with the lowest Valentine’s chocolate sales was New Orleans.)

As lots of Portlandites will know, chocolate contains two related alkaloid stimulants — theobromine and caffeine. It is also rich in PEA, or phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring compound that has effects similar to an amphetamine.

So, while research hasn't proven that chocolate is a true aphrodisiac, many would suggest that being happier and in a better mood leads to better romance.

A potent love potion
The other side of the aphrodisiac equation is drink. Too much, of course, can lead to romantic disaster, but a little can increase relaxation and promote sociability. Combine that with aphrodisiac ingredients and you have a potent brew.

And here’s a little something to loosen things up, the Kahlua White Seduction cocktail created by the bar manager at the super-trendy Frederick’s bar in New York City (and one of the top sellers in their clandestine “members-only” room). The drink, made with milk, Kahlua (a coffee-and-vanilla based liqueur from Mexico) and Stolichnaya Vanil vodka, combines alcohol with the aphrodisiac qualities of coffee and vanilla.

Caffeine is a well-known stimulant that helps improve blood flow in both body and mind (but be careful, as too much caffeine, like alcohol, can also be a depressant). Vanilla, according to Mexican lore, is a powerful romance-enhancer. Legend has it that Xanat, the young daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess, transformed herself into a vanilla plant when thwarted in the desire to marry a mere human. As a vanilla plant, the tale goes, she would provide pleasure and happiness for evermore. And indeed, vanilla’s aroma has been proven to evoke a pleasant and romantic feeling in most people.

Oooooh! Oysters…
Oysters get much of their love-enhancing reputation from their appearance and the mouth-feel of swallowing them whole. However, because they are rich in zinc and iron, there may well be some science behind the potency promise. Iron is known for its transport of oxygen through our systems, and zinc is an essential element for stimulating our metabolism, which in turn creates energy. Oysters also contain on average 18 micrograms of Vitamin B12, another metabolism booster.

(A word of caution: Shellfish spoils quickly, so be sure to buy oysters only if the shells are tightly closed. Oysters will show their freshness by "flinching" when you squeeze lemon juice on them. Also, the rule of only eating oysters in the months that contain the letter R is a good guide to follow — non R months mean warmer water temperature, which may promote bacterial growth. In addition, always buy fresh oysters from reputable retailers, and have them pack them in a plastic bag with ice for you to bring home.)

Put your faith in figs (and arugula and truffles)
Figs have long been a symbol of love and fertility. (The breaking open of a fig and eating it in front of your lover is said to be a powerful erotic act, so be sure to eat figs with your fingers for the most sensuous effect.) Meanwhile, the musky scent of the truffle, the rarest of the fungi family, is said to stimulate us and to make our skin more sensitive to the touch. And arugula, a pungent salad green, is one of the first foods documented as an aphrodisiac (in the first century A.D.). Here’s a tempting salad, from the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Fla., which combines all these ingredients and more:

Fresh Figs, Prosciutto and Arugula Salad with Shaved Parmesan and Truffle Vinaigrette
(Serves 2)

2 fresh figs, cut into half
2 very thin prosciutto slices
1 cup arugula leaves
2 pieces shaved Parmesan cheese, approx. 2x3 inches
Truffle Vinaigrette (see recipe below)

Lay the prosciutto slices onto the center of a plate. Place the cut figs on either side of the prosciutto. Toss the arugula leaves with the truffle vinaigrette and place in between the figs, and then lay the parmesan slices onto the arugula salad. Bon appetit!

Truffle Vinaigrette
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons Jerez (sherry) vinegar
2 drops white truffle oil
1 teaspoon minced black truffles
Salt and pepper, to taste

Place all ingredients into a bowl and whisk, season to taste with salt and pepper.

Groovy garlic
And the ultimate aphrodisiac may just be the one that is the most surprising. Yes, GARLIC. (So maybe those onion-avoiding pharaohs weren’t too far off the mark….)
Used for centuries in Europe and among the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Japanese, garlic was one of the most widespread aphrodisiac remedies. It is said to stimulate the secretion of gastric juices, thus aiding digestion and increasing the blood flow.

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