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Hot vs. Cold (or “Hold the ice, I’ve been baking”)

Like any culture, Nicaraguans have traditional beliefs about health and what causes sickness that have been passed down for generations.  Here, many of those beliefs are focused around the balance between hot and cold, or avoiding going from one extreme to another too quickly.  For example, ironing with wet hair, or getting rained on after ironing would be extremely dangerous.  If you have worked outside in the sun and come in for a drink of water, it better be lukewarm because a cold glass of water would ‘hacer daño’, do damage.  A cup of coffee would be a better option.

“Enjoy Lukewarm Coca-Cola”

I remember when I was a volunteer here eight years ago.  My host mother was baking little pastries and she needed to get another ball of dough out of the refrigerator.  I was already in bed, almost falling asleep when she got me up and asked me to get the dough out of the fridge.  Because she was so ‘hot’ from baking, opening the fridge would be very dangerous for her.  I was cool so it was fine for me.

Two weeks ago we had that family over to finally meet my parents during their visit to Nicaragua.  When I asked everyone what they would like to drink with dinner, my former host mother asked for orange juice, and made it very clear it should be without ice, because “she had been baking.”  She had probably wrapped up her cake-making over two hours before, but apparently she had still not fully returned to normal temperature.  I’m sure she was horrified that both my mom and I, who had been working over the stove less than 5 minutes before, drank water with ice!

I’ve recently read a bit more about this (there are actually several medical journals about these cultural beliefs), and I find it fascinating that it’s not only the physical temperate of things that is important.  Instead, in many cultures in Mexico, Central America and even in Haiti, people believe that some types of foods are intrinsically “hot” or “cold” based on how they react in the body.  For example, some fruits can be hot (mangoes) while others are cold (citrus) regardless of the physical temperature they are at.  Illnesses also are thought of as either hot or cold and should be treated by bringing the body back to equilibrium.

I love this anecdote from a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua.  To counteract an (hot) inflamed ankle, her host mother was looking for a (cold) toad!

I want to be a culturally sensitive person.  But to me this seems to fly in the face of basic science and germ theory.  It’s the old “don’t get stuck in the rain, you’ll get a cold” belief.  Many people still have that belief in America too.  It’s not the rain, it’s the cold virus that gives you a cold!

But then I stop and think about the sheer number of people who hold these beliefs and I feel so arrogant that I think they are all wrong.  I mean, this hot/cold thing isn’t limited to Nicaragua.  You see similar iterations of these beliefs throughout the Americas and Asia and the Middle East.  So there’s got to be some nugget of truth in there, right?  Or maybe there is some common thread or explanation why many cultures explain the world this way.  I guess if you put it in perspective, germ theory is a relatively recent discovery compared to how long humans have been around.  Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that it will take a few more generations for it to spread.  For some people, I imagine blaming invisible little creatures called ‘viruses’ that jump from person to person for sickness sounds just as silly and superstitious as the ‘evil eye’ does to me.

Just the other day our housekeeper was defrosting some chicken by putting it in lukewarm water.  But the problem was she also had peeled carrots and potatoes and they were floating in the same water as the raw chicken.  I told her that was not a good way for her to defrost chicken because the bacteria of the chicken could get on the vegetables.  She looked at me like I was crazy.  I guess it goes both ways.

55 Comments Post a comment
  1. What…you don’t like your carrots with a heaping helping of salmonella? I’m stunned…


    Very interesting observations here. The cultural filter is a strong one to be sure…

    January 6, 2011
  2. This is so neat! Something I’ve never heard of before but goes along the lines of “be gentle with yourself” (which I am a total fan of)! Great post & congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    January 6, 2011
  3. Nice post,I got some inpiration after readling this post.
    Thanks, keep posting !!

    January 6, 2011
  4. the last paragraph kind of creeps me out…i mean culture aside, thats just not healthy, right/

    January 6, 2011
    • stmemory #


      January 6, 2011
  5. LOL…I had no idea! The funny thing is…I can totally understand why they are like that. I can be like that from time to time. After a workout I hate to leave the gym if it’s cold outside.

    January 6, 2011
  6. Hi, I have gone form extremely hot to very cold conditions for the last 5 years and have not gotten sick once. Let me explain sauna at the gym to freezing cold outside in the winter time. ~SW

    January 6, 2011
  7. Love it! I live in Chile and there are a lot of the same beliefs.. you can’t have the air conditioning on in the car on a hot day, or an open window with a breeze coming through. And don’t even think about going outside with wet hair, because you will DIE! Suegras are definitely the worst for it, but most people generally believe that the cold they caught yesterday was from the air conditioning – not the guy that sneezed on them on the metro! Very nicely balanced post though.. it’s definitely not the job of an outsider to come in and tell people how to run their culture!

    January 6, 2011
  8. If you stand in freezing cold rain do you not stand more chance of getting a cold then? Surely you do? I think that saying is true…or am I missing something?

    January 6, 2011
    • Aphreal #

      If you have been exposed to a virus, being in cold weather can put extra stress on your immune system and make you less able to resist getting sick from the virus. So there’s a bit of truth to the belief, but it isn’t the cold, wet weather that makes you sick; it’s the virus. If you haven’t been exposed to a virus, the rainy day won’t make you sick on its own.

      January 7, 2011
  9. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, especially because it spoke truly to what I have encountered throughout my life. I have been told countless times that certain foods are ‘hot’ and others ‘cold’. I tend to ignore it as nothing but fuss, but how arrogant indeed for me to think that there might not be some truth in there. Also, the US is the only place where I have always put eggs in the refrigerator…not the case anywere else.

    January 6, 2011
  10. You’re correct that being cold cannot make you sick; however, being extremely cold can bring your immune system down and make you more susceptible to catching a virus. I think this has been blown out of proportion and is where these somewhat crazy theories come from.

    January 6, 2011
  11. We all have our superstitions but this is one I have never heard before.

    January 6, 2011
  12. efultz #

    Interesting! That same idea was (and maybe still is) applied to sports teams–when I was in high school Track and Field, I heard about coaches giving very hot water to their exhausted athletes, because cold water would shock their systems too much. I was relieved my coach didn’t ascribe to that…

    January 6, 2011
  13. It’s the cold virus that gives you the cold — but going out in the rain and getting chilled — shivering,etc which depletes your energy — that makes you susceptible to the cold virus. Without the “stress” of being chilled (or overtired, or dehydrated, or undernourished, etc) the immune system can fight off those little invisible creatures better.

    January 6, 2011
  14. Pedro Eugênio #

    O problema é que muitas dessas crenças originalmente eram só para meter medo nas crianças, para que elas agissem em determinadas situações como convém aos adultos, (não só a história do quente frio, mas também as histórias inventadas do velho do saco, personagem que pega as crianças teimosas, ou a mula sem cabeça, que é na verdade uma mulher que namorou um religioso da igreja católica) porém elas cresceram e alguém esqueceu de desmentir depois foi passando de geração à geração como se verdade fosse.

    January 6, 2011
  15. I love things like this…I believe old wives tales and adages I think there is much wisdom there! These “tales” have been passed down for ages so to me there seems to be some reason?!

    January 6, 2011
  16. I have heard that when you are cold and wet, a well person’s nose will run. Instinctively, we wipe it off, and we go around touching surfaces that might have a cold virus on them, and then wiping again. Particularly if there are germ magnets (i.e. children :)) running about.

    So really, cold temperatures actually help the cold virus spread. Modern medicine tells us to be careful about germs and stuff, but many of those “old wives tales” turn out to be scietifically founded if not a little misguided.

    January 6, 2011
  17. I find the angle you take to be very interesting — you visit the country, yet know you can’t shake your own culture to immerse yourself in theirs…

    While one could say you’re not living it fully, especially when flying in the face of the traditions, but I understand — I try to have the same angle on the musics that I take from other cultures. I’ll never be able to write a paper about Indian raga, but I sure can analyze it and synthesize the information into a hybrid.

    Neat read.

    January 6, 2011
  18. Great piece. I remember being in Corinto, Nicaragua in the early 80s and being told that eating fish and drinking guava juice was also deadly combination. I never heard it again, but in Denmark they are sure that if you sit on a cold rock you will get a bladder infection….. so it spans continents this hot and cold theory.

    January 6, 2011
  19. I’ve actually never run across this superstition before but there are certainly some in every culture. Thanks for sharing.

    January 6, 2011
  20. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, don’t cross the path of a black cat, and my grandmother would just die if you touched her feet with a broom while sweeping, lol! Every culture has them.

    January 6, 2011
  21. To each, his/her own!

    January 6, 2011
  22. Hi! We found your blog while we were setting one up for our forthcoming trip to Nicaragua. Interesting stuff so far as we have read and will look at it some more. Good photos too! We leave UK on 21st January for a 5 week visit. We have posted the address of the blog for our 2010 visit to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize which will tell you more about us – this year’s will be but there is nothing there yet! Looking forward to reading more! Best Jan & Alan

    January 6, 2011
  23. Mama Haas #

    Interesting post – I’ve never given a lot of thought to this, but my husband (from Mexico) and all in-laws subscribe to this belief of foods being hot/cold. To some extent, I do see how it can affect the body. You see this belief in aryuvedic cooking and other Asian dishes (sweet, sour, salty, hot, cold) to help ‘balance’ the body. Canela, or cinnamon, is perceived as hot – and if it’s in food, deserts, teas, my husband has a fit. He doesn’t see that it’s the bread or gluten causing the problem, but the spice. And maybe it is…who knows.

    My mother in law once suggested for kidney/stomach pains to make a mash of tomatillos, slather it on my back side, and wrap with plastic wrap, then a towel, overnight. The only thing I can think this topical treatment did was to cause a rash the next morning. Another one of her cures to ‘cool my stomach’ was to drink a smoothie of water, sugar, and linseeds. Not fun, and ineffective on this gringa.

    January 6, 2011
  24. Rea #

    I’m a Canadian in southern Spain, where temperatures never vary by more than 5 degrees. But my Spanish in-laws are mortified that I would take my baby out in such weather. For them it can be too hot and too cold on the same day, within 5 degrees. The sensation of hot and cold is a personal experience!

    January 6, 2011
  25. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia. My experience there was not so much a concern about being out of balance, as always avoiding cold. Women should not sit on the bare ground during summer picnics, for fear of freezing their ovaries and damaging their ability to have children — but as long as there was a thin blanket you were ok. (My sister was scolded vigorously and chased off by an older woman at a museum for sitting on the icy marble steps in July.) Air conditioning was unheard of, but no one left the window open on 80+ F degree nights for fear of drafts. And iced drinks! Everyone drank scalding tea, even on the hottest (100+F degree) days. One PCV friend would sneak bottled water into the freezer of her host family’s refrigerator overnight, and let it melt during the day — she got into big trouble when her host mom caught her. In fact, my host family told me a story of a man they “knew” who had gone to America and had a meal where everything served was cold — cold food, iced drinks, even (*gasp!*) iced tea! They swore he was dead within a week. *hand over heart*

    I agree with the other posters who claim that the grain of truth in these beliefs is likely the lowering of our immune systems when we are physically cold. And in extreme circumstances, these kinds of conflicts between hot and cold are likely true. My mom tells a story of my grandfather, who was a contractor, putting a roof on their home on a very hot August day. He kept taking short breaks to jump in their pool and cool off, and then would get back on the roof. However this affected his internal temperature (shock? heat exhaustion?), he ended up getting very sick and passing out partway through the day, something that had never happened to him before while he was working. So there may be some biological and scientific reality at the heart of these beliefs, which are presumably based on observation. Who knows!

    January 6, 2011
  26. Nicaragua is too far away from my country (Iran) but this similarity was interesting for me ! We have something like it here, about avoiding rapid change from hot to cold or vice verse. But it seems that here are much milder !

    January 6, 2011
  27. haha I love this article. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica and encountered a lot of similar situations. One belief that I heard multiple times was that it’s bad to take a shower after eating food. This could possibly have something to do with the warm food and cold showers. Needless to say, I never had a health problem from showering after eating!

    January 6, 2011
  28. There is another one too if you come from work or doing any sports they often say to no get on the shower because your body is hot and you need to cool down before taking a shower.

    January 6, 2011
  29. Rob #

    Love it. Thanks for sharing.

    January 6, 2011
  30. “One shouldn’t eat fish and drink milk at the same meal”, “Drinking coffee stunts your growth”, “Get your hair cut on the night of a full moon”(enhances growth), “Don’t let a black cat cross your path”(bad luck), “When you hear the same advice three times in a row, follow it”, “Bad luck when the groom sees the bride right before the wedding”….”Always sleep with your head direction North, feet direction South”……I could go on. I have found some of these beliefs to be true. Nice post! Congrats!

    January 6, 2011
  31. jule1 #

    My one experience with cooling food that works is soy. In acupuncture, food is part of the treatment and foods in China are categorized as hot, cold, neutral, cooling, etc., as well as sweet, sour, bitter, etc.

    I went to an acupuncturist for a time and also bought a book that explained the properties of many foods, and retained some of that info in my mind.

    Fast forward to menopause. I started having hot flashes and night sweats a few years ago and it was not pleasant. I didn’t want to take drugs, but definitely want to alleviate the symptoms.

    Tried black cohosh, didn’t feel any different. Tried evening primrose oil, no difference. Upped my soy consumption — just more tofu (in salads) and soy milk (maybe a couple times a week on muesli). BINGO! Big change. No more hot flashes or night sweats. If the night sweats come back (and they do reassert themselves on occasion), I just remember to up my soy content a little and that has worked very well for me.

    Because in China soy is considered a cool food, and because that’s the effect it had on my body (night sweats and hot flashes are both excrutiatingly HOT), I have to believe some of that information is correct, whether it has been scientifically proven or not. I have my proof, and I’ve told other women about it. Some have benefitted, some have not. But it clearly works for some people, and my feeling is that is because each body is unique and we all have our own responses (or lack thereof) to different things.

    January 6, 2011
  32. It’s interesting that you discuss the hot/cold preoccupation in Latin and Caribbean culture as it is also present in Chinese medicine and I suspect in many others (1). The key to unlocking a great deal of the mystery behind it–or at the very least seeking its origins–may be found in natural healing books that talk about the effects of certain herbs and foods. It is well known, for example, that certain foods such as eggplant, potatoes, and tomatoes cause inflammation (2). There could be some truth to the hot and cold debate, especially if you consider that physiologic stressors such as body temperature and sleep among others are linked to immune system function. While drop in body temperature alone won’t make someone sick–the spread of viruses and bacteria do this–a weakened immune system resulting from stressors can impact its ability to fight infection, especially if a virus or bacteria is already present (3). I guess the take home message is do your best to maintain your immune system so that it will reward you with good health.


    January 6, 2011
    • Whoops… I submitted my response before properly labeling the references. They should read 1, 2, and 3 instead of 1, 1, and 2. I don’t see a way to edit my original reply.

      January 6, 2011
  33. Yes, don’t go outside with wet hair. Put your socks on if it’s cold or you’ll catch a cold. Things our parents would say and now we say them out of osmosis or habit. And as I’m saying it I wonder if it’s really true or not. Interesting about the “hot” or “cold” foods though.

    January 6, 2011
  34. This is fascinating to me!

    Someone mentioned eggs not being refrigerated in other countries; I assume this is because they use them up quickly whereas we sometimes leave them in the refrigerator for a long while.

    January 6, 2011
  35. That’s interesting. I’ve heard about the intrinsic “heat” and “coolness” from Oriental and Ayurvedic medicine, too. I never expected that the same idea to come from South America. Maybe there is something to it…
    Or maybe all humans just think alike.

    January 6, 2011
  36. I believe the word superstition may not be approprite here as staying away from facing extremity in temprature do follow some logical and scientific thinking. The term Superstition is more approprite if used in behavioural pattern which lack any impact and are simply due to hearsay. For example : In India people avoid eating food during solar Eclipse, pause for a while when cat crosses the road ahead,does not go to temple without wasing head ( in case one has not taken a bath that day.

    January 6, 2011
  37. Madeline Beach, pa #

    Its always interesting how we (Americans, USA! USA!) still believe food inherently always has germs. The irradiation the chicken goes through kills the salmonella. I have never met a person who got sick from undercooked chicken, but people in our country die from eating beef with contaminated with e.coli because of stomach infections caused by not being able to properly digest their diets of corn and ground up animal bits.

    January 6, 2011
  38. stmemory #

    Thanks everyone for your comments. It’s fascinating to hear of other examples from around the world. And yes, I think sometimes its hard to find the line between what is a superstition and what is actually a wise piece of advice passed down from earlier generations. I had no idea this topic would generate such interest (at least for this little blog), but thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.

    And thanks to WordPress for including me in Freshly Pressed! Amazing.

    January 6, 2011
  39. Hey,
    Interesting post! I study medical anthropology and was aware of this, but it’s cool how you give real-life examples. It’s very enlightening how different cultures perceive health and wellbeing. I think that you’re right to say that it’s arrogant to presume that all of your ideas are necessarily right or that other beliefs are silly – these perceptions arise out of something!

    Also, in the West, we do have a lot of evidence that suggests that if you go between hot and cold environments (e.g. if you get drenched in rain and go inside in front of a fireplace without changing your clothes, or even if you constantly go between the cold outside and heated environments) that can actually increase your likelihood of getting a cold! It’s not so crazy at all!

    January 7, 2011
  40. When I visited India, which is in South Asia, a couple of years back, I found that these beliefs are true there as well.
    Indians love pickles, and they also love curd. When I stopped at a local restaurant and asked for pickle, and a couple of minutes after for curd, everyone stared at me like I was mad. The waitress seemed to be quite used to this, and explained that in India, curd is supposed to cool the body, while pickle is supposed to heat it up. It wouldn’t be a good idea to take them both together, because they would clash and I would probably fall sick.
    Well, I guess I would agree with you on the fact that our modern day theories are going to take some time to spread to all the people.

    January 7, 2011
  41. Tracy López #

    Sometimes I wonder if how much you BELIEVE these things is what gives them weight. I don’t believe the hot/cold theory so it doesn’t affect me — Likewise, my Suegra (from El Salvador), doesn’t believe uncooked meat can contaminate things and doesn’t get food poisoning even though she cooks recklessly, (in my eyes), like your housekeeper.

    As much as I love and respect other cultures, some of the things my Suegra does I scoff at – (the hot/cold thing being at the top of the list), but you’re right, some of the things we do/believe are equally strange to those who are not from here.

    Excellent post. Really enjoyed it since I’ve personally witnessed this phenomenon! 😉

    January 7, 2011
  42. Well done for beingFreshly Pressed! Was an awesome read. Must admit, never heard of the cold body, hot food thing…. but i grew up in a home that was very supersticious. I laugh it all off. In fact, a few days ago i bought an umbrella for my little girl….she was so excited about it (liek all littel girls are), that as soon as she got to her gran she wanted it open and she wanted to parade it through the house. My mother’s first words were: “Dont take that in the house it is bad luck!” Well, i giggled and said she was crazy. My little girl (who is 4 years old) now wants to know what is bad luck???

    January 7, 2011
  43. Prakash Kalsaria #

    Well done for beingFreshly Pressed!

    January 7, 2011
  44. Maureen #

    The four humors idea came to South America from Spain, by way of Greek and medieval medicine. (It was still standard European medical theory until well into the 1700-1800’s.) The idea is found all along the Silk Road from China through Europe; Ayurvedic and other traditional medicines are all part of the same medical meme system.

    January 7, 2011
  45. Although I laugh it off as charming and endearing, who knows what those molecules are really doing? It is a tad more sensible than the way my mother throws a pinch of salt over her shoulder when she’s baking, perhaps there is method to the madness.

    January 7, 2011
  46. Chris & Dani #

    Congrats on being freshly pressed! It’s crazy cool isn’t it? It’s interesting that the hot/cold and hot/cold foods thing seems to be somewhat universal, reading through the comments and thinking about our own experience here.

    In China, as in Nicaragua, mangos are a “hot” food that shouldn’t be eaten to excess. Drinking cold water is thought to make people sick. The other day, one of our FSNs went to the hospital with a horrible stomach illness and the consensus was that it was all because she ate a cold dish on too cold of a day.,, never mind the hygiene standards of the food stalls around us 🙂

    From an anthropological and medical perspective, it would be interesting to find out why these beliefs are so universal.

    January 8, 2011
    • stmemory #

      Thanks Dani! Yes, being Freshly Pressed was quite strange and fun. Great story about the FSN. Hopefully she tells you which stall she went to – although that might not seem like relevant information for her!

      January 9, 2011
  47. Interesting! I can see why some food would be “hot” or “cold”, but I never would have considered changing temperature quickly a bad thing…guess that’s what comes with being American. 😉 Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, and for sharing this glimpse of culture!

    January 10, 2011
  48. Maybe it’s the whole “if you put the hot, steaming coffee pot in cold water, it will break” theory. Perhaps I should use this excuse when applying for jobs: “I’m sorry, I can’t be in a nerve-wracking, heart pounding interview right now…I’ve just been outside in 15 degree weather, and I need to warm up.” I think that’s acceptable, don’t you?

    Kudos on being FP, Short Term!

    January 11, 2011
  49. You always have such great posts. I really enjoy your blog!

    It is time for the Weekly State Department Blog Round Up and you are on it!

    It is found here:

    If you would like the links to your site removed (or corrections are needed) please contact me. Thanks!

    January 14, 2011

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