Why Eating a Giant Bowl of Pho Is a Smart Idea on a 118-Degree Day

According to a neuroscientist, and also our own super unscientific experiment
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While ice cream sales in the States rise and fall with the temperature, I had always heard—mainly from Travel Channel shows and my buddy’s dad who slams spicy masala chai on hundred-degree days—that many parts of the world fight fire with fire. Supposedly, that’s why the cuisines in Thailand, Mexico, and India all have such an intimate relationship with the Scoville scale

I say “supposedly” because I’m not the sort of person who lets folk wisdom get in the way of immediate gratification, especially when it comes to using a heat wave to justify my midday Choco Taco habit. You’ll have to pry that tortilla-shaped waffle cone out of my sweaty, dead hands. But after schvitz-ing my way through the first part of the summer in a pretty much AC-less apartment (it’s got of those portable units that makes more annoying noise than cold air), I decided to try an important, super unscientific experiment.

It began with a visit to Koreatown’s Natura Spa, where the sauna hovers somewhere around 180 degrees. After about 15 minutes of slow-roasting (and pretending to baste myself with butter) I toweled off and headed to nearby Chosun Galbee, where I ordered the chilled noodle soup mul naengmyeon, a favorite of heat-struck Koreans.

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Made with ice-cold beef, buckwheat noodles, and radish, it packs slices of Asian pear that lend the broth just enough sweetness to remind you of straight-from-the-fridge Gatorade. After the meal, outside the air-conditioned dining room, I found that the sun had turned into a new monster: hotter, brighter, more likely to cause unpleasant sauna flashbacks.

A few days later it was time to test easing the heat with more heat. On a balmy 85-degree evening, I did the unfathomable and jogged a mile (total humble-brag) from my apartment to Phorage on Overland.

Sitting on a bus bench, waiting for the panting to subside just enough to avoid looking like a crazy person, I could think of few things less refreshing than a boiling-hot bowl of jalapeno-filled washyugu pho. But then I dug in my chopsticks.

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As I slurped down the perfumed broth, the soup and I reached a singularity. We became one. I felt like my entire body was floating in a bowl of slightly-above-room temperature beef stock. Or maybe my brain was shutting down from heat stroke and convinced myself I was a literal bowl of pho. Either way, when I left the restaurant, the wind felt cooler than ever on my soup-sweat-drenched skin.

Was it my imagination? Did I only feel cooler after hot soup for the same reason that bitter coffee makes dessert taste sweeter?

According to Peter McNaughton, a neuroscientist at King’s College in London, the answer is more complex. “Hot food or drink activates heat-sensing nerve fibers, and so it tells the body to cool down,” he says. “The body reacts by sweating, and so your temperature drops.”

Am I going to replace my 2:30 p.m. Choco Taco with a thermos full of pho? Not even close. My love of instant gratification and frozen sugar trumps science every time. 

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