Icy or Spicy: What’s Better for Combating the Heat?

One man’s quest to find out whether anything is so hot it’s cool

While cold-food sales in the States rise and fall with the mercury, I’ve always heard that many parts of the world fight fire with fire. Supposedly that’s why places like India, Mexico, and Thailand often pay homage to the Scoville scale (which measures chile heat) at meals. 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 Fudgsicle.

But after contemplating schvitz-ing my way through another summer, I decided to try an important (albeit unscientific) experiment. It began with a visit to Koreatown’s Natura Spa, where the sauna hovers around 180 degrees. After a few minutes of slow-roasting, I toweled off and headed to nearby Chosun Galbee, where I ordered the chilled noodle soup mul naengmyeon, a favorite of heat-struck Koreans. Made with ice-cold beef, buckwheat noodles, and radish soup, it packs slices of Asian pear that lend the broth just enough sweetness to remind you of straight-from-the-fridge Gator-ade. Postmeal, 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 from my apartment to Phorage on Overland. On a bus bench, waiting for the panting to subside, I could think of few things less refreshing than a boiling-hot bowl of washyugu pho with bobbing jalapeños. But then I dug in my chopsticks. As I slurped down the perfumed liquid, my body temperature seemed to match that of the warm beef stock. When I exited the restaurant, the breeze felt cooler than ever on my soup-sweat-drenched skin. I politely declined the Uber driver’s offer of water on the ride home.

Was it my imagination? Did I 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. pop with a thermos full of pho? Not likely. My love of instant gratification and frozen sugar trumps science every time.

More Alfresco L.A.