Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hot and Cold Foods

Back in the States the "Five a Day" campaign is strong. The concept behind "Five a Day" is for people to eat a healthier, balanced diet by incorporating five food colors in their meals: red, yellow, green, white and black. Each color represents an aspect of health. Red is good for circulation, yellow for digestion, green for metabolism, white for cardiopulmonary function, and black for growth and reproduction.

Hot and Cold Foods
In Korea food colors always seem to fall under the "red" category, namely due to the ubiquitous red pepper paste, red pepper powder and now red pepper oil added to the vast majority of foods and side dishes. Eating the color range is therefore obviously not a value of Korean society; however, Koreans have another unique system of classifying their foods, as either "hot" or "cold", with "hot" referring to the temp and not the spiciness of the food. The source of these temp-related food beliefs originates from two contrasting Chinese proverbs: 이열치열(以熱治熱) which translates loosely into English as "fight fire with fire", "beat the heat with heat" or as one of my students more accurately put it "stoke the furnace within you to burn the heat out of you" ... and the opposing proverb, 이하치하, which equates to "fight cold with cold".

Cultural eating traditions on 이열치열 are most apparent on a hot summer day when Koreans line up to eat samgyetang, a piping hot soup bowl concoction of a whole chicken stuffed with rice, jujubes, ginseng, ginger and garlic (all heat-promoting foods) and served bubbling in a stone bowl. Also, the three "dog days" or the hottest days of summer as faithfully recorded on the lunar calendar (초복, 증복, 말복) are for Korean men to go and eat dog to maintain their virile manly stamina in the exhausting heat which drains the power from the body.

이하치하 is not a current spoken concept in South Korea although traces of it exist. One example is the eating of naengmyon, cold buckwheat noodles in iced broth, in the winter to rid the body of excessive coldness caused by the outside chill. Even a decade ago, naegnmyon wasn't readily available in the summer but surprisingly to the westerner, the cold noodle bowl appeared on the winter menu posted on the wall. Even more ironic to the westerner, eating cold to eliminate cold was much more prevalent in the northern part of the Korean peninsula than in the southern, and the noodles and how they are served are named after regions of present-day North Korea: Pyoungyang naengmyon [pictured left], which has a more watery broth over the noodle and Hamheung naenmgmyon [pictured right] which has a spicy red pepper sauce. On Sakhalin Island, Russia, which has strong Asian influences, ice cream kiosks thrived in the winter time and rather frequently close their shutters in the summer. Perhaps too, in Michigan long ago, the eating of real snow cones made from the snow had some origins in "fight cold with cold" and wasn't strictly related to the availability of snow only in the winter.

In just the past 5-6 years, I've noticed the excessive usage of ice by westerners has made inroads in the Korean culture as, before when I went to a restaurant even in the summer, I was served warm or lukewarm water. At that time, Koreans were still shaking their heads at the concept of cooling the body too fast with ice-water and so shied from using ice cubes believed to upset the body balance. Nowadays, summer or winter, when I go to a restaurant and take a seat at a table, the little metal cup of lukewarm or hot water filled from an oversized tea kettle always kept on a giant heater or stove has been replaced by a chilled water bottle from an oversized fridge accompanied by the little metal cup ... now, not only does the customer no longer get body-harmonizing warmth but he or she must serve him- or herself.

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