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