The Kitchn’s Guide to Drinking with Spicy Foods

published Aug 26, 2016
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(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

“Beat the heat” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to alleviating the burn of spicy food. The myriad heat-inducing ingredients and their varying intensity can make matching cuisines with liquid counterparts seem like a constant battle.

But the cultures that developed irresistibly spicy foods also developed ways to relieve scorched palates. From creamy Mexican horchata to light lagers, complements exist that tame even the most tongue-searing dishes.

Across the spice spectrum, cold, low-alcohol beverages always work, but a little strategy can go a long way and keep you reaching for the next chile-laden bite. Read on for the complete guide to pairing your favorite beverages with all things spicy.

But First: A Chemistry Lesson (or Why You Shouldn’t Drink Water)

To choose the right beverage, it helps to understand how certain foods spark fire on the palate, and it comes down to chemistry. Most spicy peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin, which is responsible for that burning sensation.

When capsaicin molecules hit the tongue, the nervous system sends a message to the brain screaming “Help! It’s hot in here!” which cues sweating, crying, and reaching for a glass of anything cold.

But whatever you do, don’t reach for water.

Capsaicin binds to proteins (like those in milk), but isn’t water-soluble. That’s why chugging water won’t relieve the sensation. Like dousing a gas fire in H20, water fans the flames across your mouth instead of eliminating them.

So, What Should You Drink with Your Favorite Spicy Food?

Whether you’re eating Sriracha-covered noodles, Gochujang-infused Korean BBQ, or Hatch green chiles, the key to pairing success is to find beverages that combat the fire factor while still elevating and highlighting the cuisine being served.

For example, that Thai curry is full of fiery chiles so it needs a very refreshing and cold liquid match. Indian curry, on the other hand, is often dominated by spices that add lots of complexity — like garam masala, cardamom, and clove — without turning your tongue into a fire pit. In this case, beverages should offer some relief, but they can primarily accent the flavors instead of playing firefighter.

Whatever your beverage preference, here is our guide to finding the right drinking mate for your spicy food of choice.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Sweet or off-dry white wines, like Riesling, Moscato, and Chenin Blanc, are the natural complement to hot and spicy dishes. They have an unctuous, honeyed mouthfeel that cools the burn of chile-infused sauces, and their refreshing acidity makes hot dishes feel lighter. Not a fan of sugar? Try a dry white, like Vinho Verde, or a light, low-alcohol red, like a Beaujoulais.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Carbonation and low alcohol make beer a great pairing for all manner of spicy dishes, and a good guiding principle is to match like with like. A light and limey Thai salad with fresh chilies? Try a light lager. A rich chicken mole, on the other hand, will stand up to a something bigger and bolder.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Sugary, tropical drinks are the way to go since sugar tempers both the spiciness and the high alcohol content of cocktails. If you want to go for something dry and classic, like a martini, pair it with something with clean, simple flavors and not too much heat.

(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Milk is, for scientific reasons (see above), the best mate for heat. But if the thought of pairing your Chinese takeout with a glass of milk doesn’t strike your fancy, don’t worry — there are plenty of grown-up (and also dairy-free) options out there.