I may be tempting fate by saying it, but summer has now truly arrived in the UK. It’s almost hard to believe the weather forecasts of temperatures more akin to holiday destinations. Another day of sun? Again?? It almost feels greedy to experience such a run of glorious sunny days filled with blistering heat. With no end in sight and only the odd interruption of a storm to clear the air, we may actually defy the odds of not having the common English variety of summer, of rain and more rain. However, there appears to be only so much good weather that people can take. It only takes a couple of degrees for the blue skies to transform someone’s sunny outlook to a flared temper that can rapidly morph into the mother of all meltdowns. Luckily, the remedy is always the same: chill. But getting cool is easier said than done and I am often surprised by some of the unusual attempts and methods used to achieve a little comfort. Especially when it comes to food and drink.
There are those that swear by eating spicy foods when the temperatures rise in order to get some relief. They point out that in hotter countries such as Mexico, Vietnam and Malaysia to name a few, the cuisine typically features copious amounts of chilies. Chillies contain capsaicin and as soon as we eat something spicy, the capsaicin in our mouth triggers our bodies’ internal AC to start up and we begin to sweat around our forehead and neck. By sweating, we begin to release more heat from our bodies as our sweat evaporates into the air. We carry on with the sweating until we have cooled down and reached our normal temperature range.
Of course, there are as many types and ways of using chillies in cooking as there are strengths. In Mexico, chillies and chilli powder is sprinkled on just about anything including fruit. In fact, one of the most common street foods available are brightly coloured overflowing pints of ensalada de fruta. These massive plastic cups are filled to the brim with diced pineapple, papaya, watermelon, cucumber, jicama and lots of chillies which is then doused with lime juice. Or you could try to cool down with a chamoyada, a Mexican version of a granita, with a difference. Sounding not too dissimilar to a craving experienced during pregnancy, a chamoyada typically contains mango, chilli powder and salsa that is frozen and blended into a slush. It is then topped with more salsa and served in a cup like a spicy Frappuccino, but not before sprinkling it with some Haribo-type sweets. I don’t imagine Starbucks taking on any of this soon but I could be wrong.
Although I do like my chillies, and will eat Mexican food at every opportunity, I am not so sure if eating something spicy in hot weather to stay cool works for me. If sweating is supposed to cool my body down, why does it make me feel hotter? Can eating spicy foods actually work to dial up my AC if I am already sweating beforehand? What if my internal AC is working on full power when I eat something spicy? Is there a danger my AC could blow after one too many chamoyadas? Perhaps there is a sweating tipping point.
Another school of thought says that to cool down you should bypass the chillies and instead eat or drink something that is hot in temperature. Using the same argument, by the time the hot food or drink hits your stomach, it has triggered your internal AC to do its magic. But this time, you sweat in all the usual places which means that more heat is lost from your body than by eating spicy foods. In terms of food and drink, proponents of this practice point out that tea is traditionally taken in numerous hot countries around the globe. With over 1,500 varieties of teas to choose from, it is the world’s most consumed drink after water. Why would everybody be drinking it to stay cool unless it really worked? As for food, the obvious choice would be a soups, stews and hot pots and this method of cooking is customary in many of these same countries. But many traditional dishes even go one step further in the heat stakes and intensify the heat by combining the hot and spicy. There are many dishes to choose from such as the Ethiopian doro wat, a stew of chicken and whole boiled eggs, the Thai tom saab kra-dook aon, a soup of pork cartilage and Thai bird chillies. However, you always could stick to a favourite culinary import to the UK, the vindaloo curry.
However, I am not entirely convinced that eating or drinking something hot really works to cool me down. Although I drink the odd cuppa and still enjoy a coffee throughout the summer I have to say that when it is really sweltering, I prefer it on ice. After all, when the humidity doesn’t allow your sweat to evaporate, a hot drink seems to only work to make you sweat in places you didn’t know were possible. As for hot food, I can’t seem to bear it on a hot day even if it contains my beloved chillies.
But there are those in yet another camp who believe that if you want some cool relief, the choice of what to eat and drink is no mystery. You should obviously eat or drink something cold when it is hot outside. As you would expect, there are also a wealth of tempting examples from hotter climes to back up the simple notion that consuming chilled foods and drinks will do exactly what they say on the tin. Instead of trying to lose your body heat by spending all the energy sweating, the theory goes that the low temperature of the cold foods and drinks will instantly shut down your internal AC. By shutting off the power and subsequent sweating, and lowering your temperature, you will get instant relief.
In terms of food and drink, ice cream and iced drinks immediately spring to mind as do frozen grapes, smoothies and chilled fruit. Crisp salads also take centre stage when the sun is beating down, full of leafy greens and crunchy veg that also helps to quench your thirst. Then there are many people who on a hot day, like nothing better than to sit down to eat a nice bowl of soup, but ladled out ice-cold. The chilled soup gold standard has to be the Spanish gazpacho, essentially a tomato soup teaming with garlic and cilantro. However, a rival chilled soup also exists in Spain. Described as a white gazpacho, the ajo blanco, is actually prepared with almonds, bread and masses of garlic. Other well-known chilled soups throughout the world include the vibrant borsht beetroot soup from Poland and the French vichysseoise, a purée of leeks, onions, potatoes, cream and chicken stock. There are also plenty of competing recipes for fruit and vegetable chilled soups which can sometimes turn out as something a little too similar to a smoothie that you have to eat with a spoon. However, I think the most unusual chilled soup I have come across is the Korean mul naengmyun. This cold noodle soup is a bowlful of buckwheat noodles swimming in cold beef stock that is topped with several slices of cold beef, a halved hardboiled egg and slivers of cucumber, Asian pear and pickled radish.
I have to say that the idea of having a cold drink to cool down really works for me. I am also a big salad eater and it is my ‘go to’ meal when it’s hot outside. As for ice cream, if I am going to have one, it has to be on a hot day. However, the idea of eating a chilled soup simply leaves me cold. To me, soup = warmth and the chance to warm up icy fingers on a massive bowl. In fact, during the winter months, my family embraces soup season, where each and every Saturday becomes a ‘souper’ Saturday. On this day we make one of our many hundreds of different soup creations for dinner. As we sit down and dip great hunks of bread into our heaven in a bowl, I am in utter bliss. But dipping bread into a cold gazpacho or a borsht??! Or cold NOODLES?! Admittedly, I have never tried cold noodles in soup and I may be missing out on a bowlful of deliciousness. But instinctively, it just feels wrong because I don’t know what would I do with my hands…and all that bread??
So in the end, we have 3 widely held but different practices of eating and drinking to help stay cool in the heat. But which one works best? Will we stay cooler if we eat or drink something spicy, something hot or something cold? Worldwide, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of opinion and as you would expect, beliefs are rooted in tradition. What is true is that when you are roasting, you will do anything you believe works. So despite the science and growing evidence that gives a slight edge to the effectiveness to eating or drinking something hot to reducing body heat, I can’t say I will be taking it on board. It may not reduce my body temperature as quickly as a steaming cup of tea but I still believe that there is nothing better than sitting back with an ice cold drink on a hot summer’s day. Unless, of course, there is some especially good ice cream on offer or some cold watermelon or berries…Anything chilled – except soup!
Speaking of which, here is an easy recipe for Summer jelly pops to give you some ice cool relief. It makes a great afterschool (or after work) snack and is a healthier alternative to whatever the ice cream vans are peddling. You will also save yourself the inevitable disappointment of discovering that they have, once again, increased the price of a Flake 99.