Korea’s 3 Secrets To Good Health

When it comes to good health, Koreans have a head start thanks to three secret weapons. What are their secrets to robust health?

Kimchi

Kimchi Jars

First of all there is Kimchi. Korea boasts a unique and distinctive cuisine which is generally very healthy. The main accompaniment to any meal (including breakfast!) is kimchi, a pungent side dish made from fermented cabbage, radish, red hot pepper, garlic and various other ingredients. Koreans love their kimchi. There is even a kimchi museum in Seoul displaying over 40 varieties. Kimchi was originally developed as a way of preserving vegetables for year-round use. Its nutritional value is scientifically proven. Lactic acid produced in the fermentation process suppresses harmful bacteria and relieves digestive disorders. The salt and vegetable juices help clean the intestines. Kimchi combats hyperacidity resulting from too much meat and other acidic foods. It is said to strengthen the immune system, help cure scars, lower cholesterol, postpone the aging process and prevent cancer. It is indeed a wonder food, rich in minerals, vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and iron. It is credited with protecting Korea against the SARS and flu epidemics which swept through other parts of Asia in recent years.

If you like vegetarian food, a good place in Seoul to sample kimchi is Sanchon restaurant where Korean temple cooking is prepared by a former Buddhist monk. Seated on the heated wooden floor at low tables, you can sample a massive spread of tasty dishes in a beautiful traditional courtyard house setting. When I went with 6 other people we ended up with over 60 small bowls on the table. Pity the poor washer upper! In the evenings a cultural dancing and drumming show adds to the atmosphere.

Flower Bop

Another healthy and unusual eating experience can be enjoyed at Dr. Sangsoo’s Herb Land at Cheongwan –Gun, a couple of hours south of Seoul. ‘HERB could be an acronym for Health, Eating, Refreshing and Beautiful’ explains the brochure and Dr. Sangsoo certainly tries to incorporate all these elements into his signature dish, Flower Bop. This is a surprisingly delicious combination of rice, hot chili paste, herbs, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sesame oil, topped with fresh flowers from herb plants grown in his extensive greenhouses.

On the scenic island of Jeju, an hour’s flight south of Seoul, seafood is the speciality, served with kimchi of course! Elderly women dive without the aid of scuba gear to collect abalone, sea snails, octopus, sea cucumbers and more from the ocean floor. I found one of these women selling her catch on the sandy beach in front of the Lotte hotel. She insisted I try some abalone. Sliced up alive and eaten raw, it was chewy with a bland seawater flavour. This seafood may not be to everyone’s taste but it seems to keep these women healthy. The oldest diver on the island is in her eighties and she can still hold her breath for minutes at a time to dive these often icy waters.

Ginseng

 

The second secret weapon is Ginseng or insam as it is known in Korea. This miracle herb root is grown in a number of countries but the Korean version is known to be the most potent and beneficial. The small town of Geumsan is at the heart of the ginseng growing area and boasts a ginseng shopping street with 1,300 stores and a raw ginseng wholesale market where 8,000 tons of the stuff are traded annually.

     

What are the benefits of ginseng? According to the Geumsan Insam Exhibition Hall, ‘it has been hailed as a natural Viagra among the elderly, it prevents Alzheimer’s disease, it gives youthfulness, it corrects high blood pressure and it has an efficient anti-cancer effect.’ Given these claimed benefits and the fact that a ginseng plant takes 4 to 6 years to mature, it is not surprising that it commands a high price. A 500g packet of prized red insam can cost between USD 100 – USD 300. Ginseng is sold in edible, drinkable or medicinal form. Koreans consume vast quantities and any convenience store or motorway service station will sell bottles of ginseng tonic to revive the weary. Highly nutritional ginseng chicken soup is a popular restaurant dish. Personally I find the taste of ginseng to be bitter and earthy. It needs to be taken with honey or some other powerful disguise to make it palatable. I persevere with it knowing that it is good for me.

Jjimjilbangs (Sweat Rooms)

 

Koreans have enjoyed hot springs and bathhouses for centuries, but the third secret weapon, the Jjimjilbang, has only been around since the late 1990s. Unique to Korea, Jjimjilbangs use thermo-therapy to sweat out waste and toxins, improve metabolism and encourage relaxation. They are extremely popular among stressed-out office employees, housewives and grandmas who enjoy relaxing and chatting while doing their bodies some good. Dating couples meet at these places and parents bring their kids. There are over 1,800 in the country and some sport a huge array of facilities. The curiously named Dong Bang Sak Leports in Daejeon city sprawls over seven floors and comprises various types of steam rooms and saunas, hot and cold dip pools, a swimming pool, gymnasium, rest area, barber, beauty and nail salons, kids play area, PC gaming room, a dance floor, cafeteria, snack bars and free movie screening. But it is the steam rooms themselves which make the jjimjilbang experience novel. In Dong Bang they are a series of large cabins with circular windows (like Fred Flintstone houses) and each has a different interior. There are yellow clay rooms, amethyst rooms with purple crystals encrusted into the ceiling, rooms with jade floors, ginseng steam rooms and so on. Temperatures vary from hot to scorching and each room is supposed to give different health benefits. Customers are given matching T-shirts and shorts to wear and both sexes can mingle in all facilities except the sauna and changing floors which are segregated.

This post is an extract from an article I wrote for Good Living magazine.

Ayurvedic Herbs

I’ve had all sorts of massages in different parts of the world – I’ve been pummelled in Penang, pressed in Phuket, mauled in Manila, stretched in Sarawak and walked upon in Wakayama. However I consider Ayurveda to be the king of massages. This is mainly because Ayurveda is an entire health science concerning life balance and  total well being. In the massage process itself, the main difference is the use of medicinal herbs in the massage oil.

 

The use of roots, bark, leaves and flowers of herbs and plants has been perfected in Ayurvedic medicine as a result of thousands of years of  research.. There are over 1,000 different concoctions in use. Most of the ingredients have unpronounceable names that the majority of us have never heard of but some of the more familiar herbs are:

sacred basil – for fevers, colds and poisonous bites

mimosa pudica – for asthma, allergies

coleus amboinicus – for indigestion, coughs

peppermint – soothes aches, pains and sinusitis

coriandrum sativum – for prickly heat

plumbago rosea – for pimples.

Kerala

Beat Stress At Ayurvedic Jungle Retreat

I needed somewhere to get away from it all. I had just quit my job and moved house. I was suffering from stress and needed time to reflect on what next.

I decided to try Vythiri Resort in the unspoilt Wayanad district of northern Kerala. I was told this was a place where time slows down, where I could rejuvenate mind and body, and be close to nature. The resort offers  Ayurvedic treatment and spa facilities in a pristine rainforest location, 2,600 feet above sea level . 

The rustic feel of the 150 acre resort and the sounds of  insects, birds and running water immediately forced me to relax. The rooms were mostly individual cottages sited on the sides of a narrow valley so my private balcony was elevated and put me in the thick of the flora and fauna.

 Monkeys and giant squirrels could be observed at close range. Unlike some places, the monkeys at Vythiri remained wary of humans and did not beg for food . However they did like to clamber on the roof of my cottage which was noisy at 5:30am. 

There was good trekking from the resort.  Manicured tea plantations carpeted the hillsides. Women could be seen  clipping the top leaves from the tea bushes. Apart from tea, the tracks were lined with coffee, clove, cardamom, pepper and nutmeg trees. I purchased a bag containing a dozen whole nutmegs for just Rs10.  Considering England and Holland used to fight wars with each other to gain control of the nutmeg trade, this seemed a ridiculously cheap price to pay. Vanilla however is a higher priced crop here, fetching Rs3,000 per kilo, and the trees yielding the precious pods were protected by electric fences. I found the trekking to be excellent for relieving stress. The high altitude and frequent rain meant that the air was clean and unpolluted and there was virtually no traffic. I usually wore walking boots outside the resort but one morning I popped out for a quick stroll wearing open sandals. Big mistake! When I returned to the lobby after just 20 minutes or so, I noticed two small leeches attached to my ankles. On closer inspection I found a third leech burrowing between my toes. The front office manager was obviously used to this hazard and promptly produced a bottle of antiseptic liquid which he pored over the leeches. The leeches dropped off  but blood flowed freely from the wounds. There was a newspaper cutting on the notice board in the lobby which  described  the medical benefits of leech therapy and how it can cure arthritis among other things. The article claimed that the saliva of these blood sucking creatures contains an analgesic and anaesthetic as well as an anti-blood clotting agent. There are said to be no ‘significant side effects  and the use of leeches is both safe and effective’. I hoped they were right! I wonder what they meant by ‘significant’? 

That’s the trouble with being close to nature – there are times when you wish nature would keep its distance! In my bathroom large black ants emerged every evening and seemed to find the toilet bowl quite attractive. The notice in the room summed up the resort management’s charming philosophy towards nature: ‘ Dear Guest, Vythiri is a resort where nature is a part of the pleasure and it is we who are guests in nature. We want to happily co-exist with all the creatures of nature and that includes insects. However, even if we have a high tolerance, sometimes it becomes a bit burdensome when our “hosts” take advantage of us and disturb us a bit too much in their eagerness to show affection. We therefore have a couple of ways to deter their approach should you wish to be left alone in your room. THE MILD DETERRENT SOLUTION: Burning of frankincense at sunset or before retiring. Deters insects and leaves a pleasant perfume. Or, THE NO KIDDING SOLUTION: we will use bug spray.’ 

This was not a 5 star resort, probably around 3 star if it had a rating. There were only 16 cottages, 2 honeymoon suites, 6 paadi rooms and 8 tribal huts so the resort had a small and friendly atmosphere. The rooms were fairly basic – no TV, no radio, no air conditioning (temperatures are comfortable all year round) and no room service, apart from  having ‘bed tea/coffee’ delivered to your room before breakfast. The bed was rather hard but the sheets, towels and floors were clean. All meals, which were included in the room rate, were buffet style Indian food and mostly vegetarian. I found the quality of food to be excellent although, as a westerner, I am unaccustomed to eating curry for breakfast. Most of the hotel guests seemed to be Indian professionals and their families enjoying a break away from the bustle of Bangalore and other Indian cities. 

There were limited recreational facilities in the resort. There was a pleasant swimming pool. The water appeared to be a radioactive green colour but this was more a reflection of the colour of the tiles used in the pool rather than an indication of water quality. Indeed the water quality must have been good because some mornings  monkeys could be seen drinking from the pool. The main attractions of the resort however , apart from its beautiful setting, have to be the Ayurvedic Centre and the Spa. 

Ayurvedic Centre 

Two types of programmes were available, Rejuvenation and Therapeutic. Not suffering from any particular ailments, I opted for the 3 day rejuvenation  package which was intended to “add years to your life and life to your years”. The main treatment was Abhayangam in which the therapist massaged the whole body with medicated oil to “provide relaxation to the body and mind, improve blood circulation, vitality and texture of the skin”. After undressing, I was asked to wrap myself in a langoti to protect my modesty. A langoti is a sort of nappy-like Kerala loin cloth. The oil, which is made up of 16 herbs and medications, was heated and applied with both hands working together in long pressing motions which got the veins flowing and the nerves stimulated. The oil had a powerful and distinctive odour which lasted through several showers but the effect was magical. Stresses and worries melted away while my body felt unusually relaxed and fit. 

A second session of my rejuvenation package was called Shirodhara. This was the continuous application of medicated herbal oil over the forehead. It is said to be effective in treating diseases of the head, insomnia and lack of memory. A wooden bowl was hung above my head. The bowl had a hole in the bottom and a few strands of  string  dangled from it like a wick. The therapists continually poured warmed oil into the bowl and this ran down the wick and onto my forehead. The bowl was swung slowly from side to side so that the flow of oil moved back and fro gently across my forehead for about 40 minutes. The delicious effect was wonderfully  soothing and I was told that it would relieve stress and help improve any sleep disorders. 

A range of other treatments were available. The centre’s Therapeutic programmes are supposed to be able to treat anything from rheumatism to obesity. More and more people are turning to Ayurvedic treatments as an alternative to conventional medicine. However you should ensure that you obtain expert advice from a qualified practitioner. 

Spa 

In contrast to the somewhat Spartan surroundings of the Ayurvedic Centre, Vythiri Resort’s Spa provided all the pampering expected of a luxury spa facility. This included exclusive use of a private courtyard with an outdoor shower and plunge pool and a herbal steam room. Treatments included aromatherapy massage, herbal body scrubs, facials and skin fitness, honey sesame body glow and use of hot stones anointed with aromatic oil. For the many romantics or honeymooners who were staying at the resort, the Adam & Eve serenity massage could be experienced, where couples are massaged simultaneously by two therapists accompanied by soothing music and sandalwood incense. 

Apart from the Vythiri Resort itself, an alternative and unusual place to stay within hiking distance was The Green Magic Treehouse Resort . The star attraction of this hotel was a tree-house room perched in branches 30 meters above the ground. Complete with plumbing and a lift operated by a running water pulley system, the room provided a 360 degree view of the rainforest and its wildlife inhabitants such as monkeys, woodpeckers, herons, malabar giant squirrels and the odd snake.  

Nearby Attractions 

Edakkul Caves, 45 minutes drive from the resort, were worth a visit. Two giant slabs of mountain leaning up against each other form a cave-like hollow in which pre-historic tribes once lived. These tribes left their drawings and inscriptions on the walls of the caves which lay undiscovered until the 19th century. The summit of the steep mountain above the caves provided a magnificent view over 3 states, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. 

Other nearby beauty spots include Pookot Lake and Soochippari Waterfall. 

The closest city  to Vythiri is Calicut, or Kozhikode as it is now known and guide books find little of interest to say about it. This is surprising for a city of close to a million people and the first place in India to be visited by Europeans. Vasco da Gama and 170 of his shipmates came ashore in 1498. That must have been the last time so many Europeans visited Calicut. In my one week stay in this part of Kerala I only saw 2 other Europeans.  

How to Get There

The resort is 65 km from Calicut airport which is only a 3 hour daily flight away from Dubai on Air India. I arranged for the Vythiri Resort’s car and driver to meet me at Calicut airport, which incidentally had some of the friendliest and most welcoming officials I have found anywhere. The car-ride took  two hours. I had forgotten how bad the roads and driving were in India. My driver, like everyone else, seemed to have an amazing ability to see around hairpin bends and to have supreme confidence that a gap among the crowds, cyclists, trucks and buses would miraculously open up simply by sounding the horn, which is the most heavily used part of any vehicle’s equipment in India.

 

Finally 

This is not a place to come if you need your home luxuries or are squeamish about bugs. If however you are keen to reduce your stress levels in a jungle setting and enjoy some Ayurvedic treatment or spa pampering then this could be for you. You can visit the website: www.vythiriresort.com  .