The signs are all there: sweat, the buzz of cicadas, and the inexorable sun. Yes, it`s that time of year again. Summer has arrived.
The hot and tired can stave off the blistering heat with ice cream, frosted mugs of beer and long dips in the pool or they can turn to the timeless dishes that epitomize Korean summers.
They can turn to "boyang" cuisine.
In Korean, "boyang" means to replenish and nourish one`s depleted yin and yang, chi and meridians. Hence, boyang food energizes. It reinforces one`s stamina and helps maintain one`s health.
For decades, Koreans have dined on boyang dishes during the traditional three hottest days of summer, collectively called "sambok" and referred to separately as "chobok," "jungbok," and "malbok."
According to Institute of Traditional Korean Food president Yoon Sook-ja, sambok fall between June and July on the lunar calendar and come at 10-day intervals. This year, Yoon says, chobok, jungbok and malbok fall on July 14, July 24 and August 13, respectively.
"From the perspective of Eastern medicine, the surface of the body grows hot and the internal organs grow cold when the weather heats up in the summer," Yoon, who co-authored the book "Amusing Story For Korean Traditional Festival Foods" (Jilsiru, 15,000 won), elaborated in an e-mail interview with The Korea Herald. "By making `boshin (the act of replenishing nutrients with food)` cuisine hot and spicy, one sweats profusely, boosting stamina dampened by the heat and recovering damaged yang."
"Hence, on `bok` days, which are exceptionally hot, one eats `boyang` food, to invigorate one`s body without fail."
Yoon cited "samgyetang" (ginseng chicken soup), "yukgaejang" (spicy beef soup), and "kongguksu" (noodles in cold soybean milk soup) as some of the dishes that were eaten on sambok in the past.
Judging from the long lines that stretch out of establishments serving up these "boyang" dishes during the summer, it seems that the tradition is still alive and well.
Here is a look at the medicinal benefits of samgyetang, yukgaejang and kongguksu and where to go to get a taste of these healthy dishes.
"Around 900 to 1,000 chickens are sold on a `bok` day," says Hanbang Jungtong Samgyetang president Kim Won-soo.
The chickens Kim is referring to aren`t just regular birds. They are 35- to 41-day old spring chickens from South Jeolla Province, stuffed with sticky rice and a hefty chunk of three- to five-year old Geumsan ginseng.
Served up in a bubbling hot broth, customers can choose a pure, unadulterated stew laced with garlic and garnished with a jujube or two, one chock full of over 30 medicinal ingredients that have been brewed for almost 10 hours, one filled with fresh ginseng, slices of deer antler and licorice root, or one with all of the above.
Paired with a shot of homemade ginseng liquor and a tasty side dish of their signature garlic stems seasoned with chili paste, chili powder and a little bit of something resembling glutinous rice jelly, one bowl of Kim`s samgyetang is a veritable summer tonic.
Kim, who has been running the 10-plus year old establishment for four years, maintains a humble stance towards his place. But the tender chew of chicken, the clean and fragrant broth and the eye-watering bite of his spicy garlic stems attest to the long-standing popularity of this joint.
A hearty and ambrosial meal isn`t all that one gets when one drops by Hanbang Jungtong Samgyetang. According to Yoon, the chicken and ginseng in a bowl of "samgyetang" possess warm properties, preventing the chi or energy within the abdomen from getting cold.
Yoon lists some of the benefits of samgyetang as a strengthening of the immune system and recovered physical strength.
"It is also good `boyang` food for those with weak digestive systems and those who sweat and get worn out during the summer," Yoon added.
In regards to the origins of samgyetang, Yoon pointed to a historical text from 1795 that documents a dish where chicken was boiled in water called "jingye-baeksook."
Vegans can also reap the benefits of "boyang" food during the hot summer by slurping away at a bowl of noodles in chilled soybean milk.
Kongnamu Soop, a restaurant located in Seocho-dong that specializes in tofu dishes, whips up an even healthier version of the classic dish, substituting the usual white soybeans with "suritae" - a black soybean with a black skin and blue innards that is harvested around October after the first frost. Buckwheat noodles replace wheat, and diners can season the milky soup to suit their preferences with a small dish of salt that comes on the side.
"We buy the beans, soak them, boil them and grind them," said Kongnamu Soop president Jang Ji-ran, who adds peanuts and black sesame seeds to the broth, giving it that extra nutty richness.
The dish is garnished with julienned cucumber and a half a boiled egg, but vegans can take their noodle soup without the egg.
According to Yoon, while the exact origins of kongguksu remain unknown, a cookbook from the late 1800s describes a dish of wheat noodles in a soup made of soybeans that were soaked, boiled, strained through a fine sieve and seasoned with salt.
Wheat reduces excessive heat in the body while beans are rich in vegetable proteins, states Yoon, making kongguksu a "nutritionally excellent dish."
According to Yoon, yukgaejang - a spicy soup loaded with shredded beef and vegetables - served as a boyang dish for those who preferred beef over dog meat soup; hence the prefix "yuk," which means beef, to the dish name "gaejang," which means "dog meat soup."
"Yukgaejang is a leading dish of `bokjung (midsummer)` that one eats, while sweating, in the hot summer season," Yoon explained.
"Yukgaejang is originally a native dish of Seoul," Yoon continued. "But Daegu, which is hotter than other regions, fights fire with fire in the summer by feasting on this dish. In Daegu, the local version of yukgaejang is called `Daegu tang.` Heaps of green onions, Korean leeks, garlic and stimulating vegetables are put into the dish and boiled. The perfect balance of sweet and spicy flavors is its distinguishing characteristic."
The key then, to a good bowl of yukgaejang lies in the harmonious combination of beef, vegetables and spices. Hanok, which specializes in "hanwoo" (Korean native cattle) beef, serves up a hearty and savory version of the stew.
Brimming with luscious shreds of hanwoo beef and organic vegetables, "gosari" (fernbrake), daikon radish and translucent noodles, Hanok`s yukgaejang merges sweat-inducing heat and spices with the sweet juiciness of beef and the varied textures of vegetables.
Continuous refills of their delectable "banchan" (side dishes) and a cup of refreshing "sikhye" (rice punch) rounds out a perfect summer meal.
Opening hours are from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sundays. Samgyetang prices range from 6,000 won to 13,000 won. To get there go to Samsung Subway Station Line 2. Go to the first floor of the Korea City Air Terminal in Samsung-dong. Cross the street. Walk two blocks and turn right. The restaurant will be on the left. For more information call (02) 556-2616, -2617.
Opening hours are from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Sundays. Kongguksu costs 7,000 won and is only available till Chuseok. Other dishes include tofu ice cream and pizza made with tofu. To get there go to Kangnam Subway Station Line 2, Exit 3. Walk 200 meters. The restaurant is located on the basement floor of the Daewoo Dossier Vit II building. For more information call (02) 582-5466 or visit www.kongnamus.com
Opening hours are from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Yukgaejang costs 7,000 won. Hanok is located in Cheongdam-dong, near the Cheongdam Elementary School. For more information call (02) 3445-7857 or visit www.ihanok.co.kr
By Jean Oh