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Summer Heat on the Tip of the Tongue

Readers, your quest towards Hot Girl Summer is incomplete without capsaicin.

Run-of-the-mill summer recipes are heavy on sugar, acid, and ice, dominated by freezer-ready desserts, light salads, and a shocking amount of mayonnaise. Certainly the choice is instinctive, but all that cream and raw leaves surely gets sickening.

Enter the chilli pepper: an appetite-inducing, nerve-buzzing, aromatic, bond-forming, and chemically addictive accomplice to your culinary escapades.

Contrary to popular belief, eating spicy food in a heatwave won’t make you melt from the inside out. In fact, this kind of literal fight-fire-with-fire combat in the digestive tract cools the body. From a Chinese medicine perspective, different foods have warming or cooling properties affecting bodily ‘heat’ (irrespective of the temperatures they’re served at) and though excessive consumption of ‘warming’ foods like chillies is discouraged in the summer, a healthy amount of spice is thought to drive sluggish dampness out of the body. Capsaicin, a phytochemical compound found in chilli peppers, stimulates the same skin receptors that respond to heat, causing sweating and the loss of body heat through evaporation. For example, hotpot enthusiasts in the humid valley city of Chongqing enjoy fresh meats, vegetables, and noodles in rolling boils filled with broth and dried red chillies every summer, braving 40℃ outdoor evenings and slightly scandalising a New York Times journalist back in 1997. The most memorable spicy summer meals aren’t half-hungry expensive-restaurant affairs, but rather involve copious volumes of sweat and cries of pain, best indulged in the company of close friends and loved ones.

Nature herself leaves subtle clues, encouraging you to tingle your tastebuds during the scorching season: the hotter the summer, the higher seasonal chillies climb up the Scoville scale. These colourful jewels of heat effectively kill microbes when used as food preservatives, which partly explains their popularity in warm climates like the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. However, science and tradition aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of spice consumption. While tropical cuisines are known to delight in flaming flavours, there is insufficient data to show that this cultural preference is purely due to climate adaptation. These places and cuisines are simply too vast to have one motivation for liberal capsaicin usage. Instead, we must consider pleasure and agricultural patterns. From southern Italy to Ethiopia and from Sichuan to the Mexican coast, peppers come into season in July and bear fruit all the way into the fall, giving us ample time to put away those sad cayenne shakers and embrace their juicy-fresh, rainbow-coloured cousins. Summer is the perfect time to enjoy peppers in their height of glory: they’re at their boldest when raw, but they soak up other flavours beautifully in grills, pans, soup pots, and anywhere else.

Barring inoffensive bell peppers, the jalapeño is likely the most popular pepper in the West, but the world of sweet, fresh summer heat is incredibly wide. A family favourite is the Chinese screw pepper, a brightly green variety whose tender skin and mouth-watering heat make it a perfect vegetable for stir-frying. These are harder to access without nearby Asian markets, but in their absence any soft-skinned pepper can be eye-popping when splashed with sizzling hot oil and soy sauce. Alternatively, mince a few birds-eye chillies into your salad dressing for a thrilling kick to the throat, or top your pizza with some beautiful habaneros. Pickling your local chilli variety brings on a whole new dimension and lets you chomp into briny, juicy heat any time of the year, while packaged kimchi, Calabrian chilis, and Lao Gan Ma serve up convenient, concentrated flavours to pair with your main dishes.

Or simply embrace chaos and drizzle chilli oil over your sundae. Any path you choose, a delectable summer awaits.

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