• Celina Zhao

Hot or Cold

Why do Asians drink hot drinks like hot water and why do Americans like ice in their drinks—can you discuss the norms of different-temperatured drinks between countries and cultures?

The temperature you drink your water at has more to do with economic ideology than preference (Shutterstock).

Want to hear the tea on why different cultures prefer drinks on polar opposite temperature scales? Let’s boil it down together with two case studies: China and America.


We all know that water primarily exists in three states of matter: solid ice, liquid water, and gaseous steam. All three states and their junctions -- melting ice and boiling water-- play a role in our daily hydration process. But on a broader, generalized scale, why does culture play such a distinguishing role in which form we choose to consume? Asking for ice cubes in your tea in China is equivalent to the social gaffe of serving lukewarm lemonade in America: so, at what point was this line of demarcation frozen?


In China

People in East Asia have been drinking hot water since the 4th century BCE, with much of the ideology rooted in health. For one, boiling water effectively kills harmful microbes, allowing the water to be potable. Many of the most prominent traditional Chinese medicine texts have also espoused the cause, including the earliest known work—the Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经)—that was written over 2,000 years ago.


The most fundamental tenet of Chinese traditional medicine is the body’s balance between yin 阴 and yang 阳, roughly translated as cold and hot energy respectively. Maintaining this equilibrium is crucial for good health. However, if the yang becomes too strong and upsets the equilibrium, the body’s internal temperature rises, leaving the person vulnerable to illnesses. Common afflictions from this loss of balance include frequent chills, thirst, depression, sleepiness, and bloating or retention of fluids.

The Huangdi Neijing is one of the oldest medical texts in the world, and the foundation for hot water hysteria (OCC).

Restoring stability requires cancelling out this extra yang through consuming food or drink in the yin category -- such as hot water, for example. Despite physically being warm, though, hot water is actually believed to decrease the body’s internal temperature, restoring the balance between yin and yang and ultimately, the person’s health. Other yin foods include watermelon, bitter gourd, crab and most green vegetables, but hot water usually is the most immediately accessible.


The history doesn’t just stop here. In fact, what truly solidified hot water as a staple in the Chinese diet comes from recent history. Both the Nationalist and the Communist parties heavily promoted the benefits of drinking hot water (particularly the cleanliness post-boiling) during their rules, even forging a connection between hot water and nationalistic patriotism. Posters hung in schools broadcast messages like “Children should cultivate the habit of drinking boiled water three times a day!”


With such an extensive tradition, it’s no surprise that drinking hot water is still a widespread custom today.


In America

On the other hand, what solidified ice as a hallmark in American beverages? It seems to be a cold case at first: America is united with so many international cultures, how did iced drinks take precedent over the rest? But a few specific innovations might melt the confusion.


Let’s pivot across the globe to Walden Pond, home to the famous Henry David Thoreau. Beyond serving as a muse to Thoreau, Walden Pond was also prized for another reason: the huge frozen blocks of ice that could be harvested during winter.

Modern refrigeration was piloted from Tudor's companies, the lingering reason for ice-cold water in America (Getty).

Frederic “The Ice King” Tudor, became one of America’s earliest millionaires by capitalizing upon Boston’s ice scene in the early to mid 1800s. With the entrepreneurial idea of selling ice from New England to the tropical Caribbean, where ice could help preserve food and medicine, Tudor pivoted to the readily available hunks in Boston waters.


As this business grew increasingly profitable, Tudor planned to even further increase his profits by suggesting that ice could be used to chill drinks as well. From refreshing cold cocktails to brave off the summer heat to icy lager beer to boisterously celebrate with friends, ice became a necessary commodity inextricably intertwined with American refreshments in this New Ice Age.


Cover: Shutterstock

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