If you’ve lived in China and in the West, I’m sure you’ve noticed the contrast. Meals in the West tend to come with tall glasses of ice water. Meals in China come with tiny cups of hot water, or tea. Tea, of course, has been a part of China’s culture for millenia, but why the hot water?
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there are a number of answers to this question. Some people report that their parents taught them to drink hot water with meals, because mixing cold liquids with hot meals is bad for the stomach. Others go further into the “science” of it, alleging that cold liquids solidify fats in your stomach, which can cause digestive problems, whereas hot liquids aid in digestion. Still others cite the habit as having stemmed from the traditional need to boil water before drinking it to remove germs (and indeed, even today, you’re probably going to get sick if you don’t boil Chinese tapwater before drinking it). Most people, though, will probably give you the same answer I just got from a friend: “It’s good for your health.”
That may be true, but from a scientific standpoint, it appears that neither the cold water fanatics nor China’s hot water purists have much of a case. According to this article from Snopes.com about the issue, everything you eat and drink matches your internal body temperature fairly quickly once it’s in your stomach, and cold liquids do not “solidify fats” as anything solid is broken by the stomach’s powerful acids.
More interesting is that in the process of researching this, I discovered Chinese people are just as curious about why Westerners would drink cold water as we are about why Chinese traditionally drink hot water. Here are a few theories I discovered on Chinese message boards:
Westerners like to eat “raw” food (this belief comes from the fact that some people like to eat rare steak) so they also prefer their water “raw” (i.e., unheated).
Because it’s annoying to wait for boiled water to cool off before you start drinking (or burn your mouth).
“Because foreigners think hot water is only for coffee and tea.”
Because in foreign countries you can drink water directly from the tap rather than having to boil it.
Because foreigners aren’t used to drinking hot water!
I suspect that the real answers have more to do with history than they do with science anyway. Americans (for example) have been drinking tapwater directly for decades, so there’s no need to boil water. But Chinese tapwater needs to be boiled first. Will these habits change, then, as bottled water becomes more popular in China and as tapwater becomes safer to drink? Who knows!