Beating Boknal 2 (복날) Summer Foods
What do you eat when the memi are screaming and sweat is dribbling down your back and sides? There are numerous seasonal specials (보양식) which fall into the categories of either ‘hot’ or ‘cold.’ The ‘cold’ approach is probably the most popular with westerners and drinking cold drinks, eating ice cream and salads are the methods we are most likely to adopt to remain comfortable. Koreans however, stand this notion on its head when they consume ‘hot’ food to consume body heat hence fighting fire with fire. The ‘hot’ food is generally ‘hot’ in terms of temperature rather than chillies and would be similar to stuffing your face on the hottest English afternoon with a hearty casserole and dumplings; something we’d generally eat only in the depths of winter. In Korea, it isn’t a case of one or the other and most Koreans will mix the two extremes in an attempt to beat the heat. Bo-yang-shik (height of summer foods – 보양식) are seen as beneficial in either improving ones toleration of hot, muggy weather, or in cooling one down.
Boknal (복날) is a period of around twenty days which are based on the lunar calendar and this year began on July 19th (ch’obok -초복). There are three days (sambok – 삼복) which Korean perceive as the hottest and they are ten days apart. This year, 2010, sambok are respectively, July 19th (ch’obok – 초복), July 29th (Jungbok – 중복), and August 8th (malbok – 말복). I hate the heat and especially dislike humidity but unfortunately I live in Daegu, the hottest part of Korea in the summer and the warmest in winter. This week the temperature has been as high as 37 and so the memi are particularly noisy.
Through Boknal, and on each of the consecutive sambok day it is a tradition to eat some form of special food, usually one of the ‘hot’ types such as sam-kye-tang (삼게탕 – chicken ginseng soup), or dog stew (po-shin-tang – 보신탕), but cold meals, buckwheat noodle soup (냉면 – naengmyon), or soya bean milk noodles (콩국수 – kongkuksu), are also popular.
For some, mostly older men, dog stew is a favourite and in addition to the belief it fortifies one against hot weather, it is also one of the numerous foods which are supposed to enhance male sexual stamina. I recently spoke to a friend who is quite adamant that dog stew and dodok (더덕 – codonopsis lanceolata) give him a harder erection. I eat dodok everyday and haven’t noticed anything but then I’m 54 and he’s 25. As for the dog stew, I’ll pass. I ate it for the first time with the aforementioned friend and his father, in 2000. I wasn’t enamored to it. First, I couldn’t get the image of little dogs out of my head and then there was the ‘starter,’ small bits of dog skin wrapped on a bone so that when barbecued they whirled around it. Trying to make a pouch on a platter look pretty seemed to make it more difficult to eat. I have no problem with eating any kind of animal yet have a dormant ethical problem with eating animals – per se! I would imagine many people share this weak-willed position. To be honest, I have to snigger at those waygukins who condemn Koreans for eating dog and yet raise no criticism of their own culture where eating rabbit is accepted. Koreans usually find the idea of eating rabbits distasteful. Tell Koreans you’ve eaten rabbit and quite a few will insist, ‘it’s a pet!’ As Herodotus said, ‘nomos is King of all!’ The dog issue tends to inflame passions but what should be remembered is that it is not the eating of dog that should be the offense, but the alleged manner in which they are slaughtered. And though some may argue dogs have a special relationship to humans, this is a culturally specific relationship and not one of universal, eternal properties. Personally, I’d rather have a pig for a pet than a dog. In 2001, my one room had no air conditioning and the dog stew did nothing noticeable to fortify my constituency against heat and humidity and certainly never stirred my passions.
Sam-kye-tang is one of my favourites though I prefer eating it in the winter. At lunch time that small chicken, the wadge of gluttonous rice and a gallon of broth, simply bloat my belly and start me sweating profusely. But it is delicious in the Korean sense of the word. I occasionally make sam-kye-tang if I feel tired or have a cold.
And I would find kong-kuk-su (콩국수) mightily refreshing if not packed with noodles. I enjoy the icy soya milk broth, with its slightly salty tang but those noodles don’t do me any good. I don’t know why it is but kong-kuk-su always seems to be served in large portions while naengmyon (냉면), for example, is often served in a smaller portion.
Mul-naeng-myon (물냉면) is my boknal baby! I can eat this on a hot lunch time and then walk on into work without breaking into an excessive sweat. I love the tangy combination of vinegar, salt and sugar and have a hard job keeping the broth in my freezer if I have made a batch. I can remember the first time I ate naengmyon; it was on a hot Sunday afternoon, in early August, after a mountain hike in Song-So. I quite disliked it! What a freaking horrid combination; watery broth with a clump of sticky buckwheat noodles that are impervious to mastication and almost impossible to eat without sucking the whole clump up. And then there’s the slice of pear, and the ice cubes and as for the lonely, wafer thin slide of beef, you’d think it had fallen in the bowl from another meal – it’s appearance a mistake! Naengmyon is sweet, and salty, and tangy – is it a dessert or a savoury meal? And as for the vinegar and mustard which are added to it… Since then, mul-naeng-myon, and particularly Pyongyang mul-naeng-myon, have grown on me. If you have never eaten it, it must sound quite gross but when the weather is scorching hot and your covered in sweat, it is one of the most delicious and refreshing meals. Even the sound of the ice cubes tinkling and jingling against the sides of the stainless steel bowl in which it is traditionally served, are refreshing.
I suppose naengmyon is the sort of food you eat at a heightened sense of reality, especially if you’ve just come down from a mountain – a feat which always seems harder than going up, and at a point when you’re body and mind feel good, it’s scorching hot and humid and you’re sweating profusely. Enjoying naengmyon at this point is an integral part of the summer experience and so I never enjoy it, or feel a need to eat it, in the middle of winter. To truly enjoy naengmyon it has to be hot, boknal hot, horribly humid, you have to be sweating and you have to be tired. Naengmyon shares a lot in common with Pimms No 1, that British summer drink, only ever drunk outside under the sun, and accompanied by ice, slices of cucumber, summer fruits and mint. One should never drink Pimm’s indoors or in winter and though this might be deemed snobbery, Pimm’s only really seems to ‘work’ when this is observed.
Finally, and wonderfully refreshing, is patpingsu (받빙수). This is rice cake, sweetened tinned fruits, red beans, and condensed milk on a bed of flaked ice which is often topped with spray cream. There are many variations of this refreshing ‘dessert.’
Other means of beating boknal
silver summer trousers
handkerchiefs and towels
ice rooms and cold pools
© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.