The temperature is cruising into sultry summer territory. After the Winter Without End, a couple of hot and sticky days are a welcome development (for now).
And, as the temperature has (finally!) reached summertime levels this week, our thoughts have wandered to turning up the (spicy) heat on the grill and in the kitchen.
That’s right. We eat spicy food to help us keep cool.
It seems counter-intuitive, right? How could eating flaming-hot foods like Jamaican Jerk, Szechuan BBQ, Ethiopian stews, Creole dishes, south Asian curries, and Habanero salsa cool you down? Sounds crazy.
But it’s true. Some of the cuisines that hail from the hottest parts of the world — whether Central and South America, India, much of the entire African continent, the Caribbean — are themselves made up of some of the “hottest” foods humans can eat. And people in these hot, hot places eat these hot, hot foods to keep cool in their sweltering climate.
What’s the connection between culinary “heat” and beating the heat? There are a couple of things.
Gonna Make You Sweat. Eating spicy foods actually raises your internal temperature to match the temperature outside. (If you or your dining companions have ever had Thai food on the “five star” spiciness setting, which turned your face red and made you begin to perspire profusely and uncontrollably, you know exactly what I mean).
Here’s how it works: You eat spicy food. You feel warm at first. Your blood circulation increases. You start sweating. Once your moisture (that is to say, sweat) has evaporated, you’ve cooled off — and far more effectively than if you had tried to beat the heat with a glass of iced tea or a popsicle.
I heat up; I cool down. (Scientists call this spicy food/heating/cooling phenomenon “gustatory facial sweating,” because indeed you usually start sweating in the face first. What a yummy-sounding name.)
Another piece of the heating/cooling puzzle: there are special nerves in our tongue and mouth that have special molecules in them called receptors, which receive signals from the foods you eat. One special receptor (the TRPV1, and yes, this will be on the test) responds to “hot” heat from drinking hot coffee and tea and eating soup. But the TRPV1 also responds to chemicals in chili peppers, which is why chili peppers seem hot (and cause our bodies to respond in a sweating/cooling fashion.
There is a Korean saying: yi yul chi yul, meaning “fight fire with fire.”
Want to beat the heat? Have a heaping helping of something hot – and spicy.
(We suggest something tasty, made with some of our chilies, something grilled or roasted with some of our more fiery rubs and blends, or perhaps some vegetables or a salad dressed in a spicy infused oil (like Baklouti Green Chile, Cayenne Chile Olive Oil, Harissa Olive Oil, or zippy Chipotle Olive Oil)).