Traditional Korean Medicine in Korean Culture #2: Boyangsik and Boyak

Feeling below par? Get some energy food. Sena Lee explains why.

Ask a Korean about Korean food and one of the things she’ll be sure to say is: “it’s very healthy”. Behind these words is a wealth of traditional knowledge about the health-giving properties of certain foods and combinations of ingredients. Two of the key concepts are boyangsik and boyak.

  • Boyangsik (보양식) can be translated as “energy food” to boost one’s energy to maintain an active life.
  • Boyak (보약) is a restorative herbal medicine which increases one’s vitality in order to prevent disease and treat weakness. It can be prescribed by traditional Korean medicine doctors (KMDs) for individual needs.

When Koreans feel tired, the first thing they do is turn to these kinds of foods, or medicines, which give them energy. The summer is a period when much more boyangsik and boyak is consumed, because the oppressive temperature and humidity drains one’s energy. In fact most years in July or August you’ll see the Korean newspapers talking about how it’s time to have some chicken ginseng stew (samgyetang).

Gomguk (곰국, thick beef soup) – boyangsik for non-vegetarians
Gomguk (곰국, thick beef soup) -– boyangsik for non-vegetarians

This phenomenon is based on the concept of traditional Korean medicine (TKM). Even though Korean, Chinese and Japanese Kampo medicines (traditional Asian medicine) share some of the core concepts, it seems that in Korea the culture of boyangsik and boyak is particularly entrenched. In TKM, elevating vitality is considered to be more important, in the prevention and treatment of disease, than removing pathological factors. Indeed, boyangsik and boyak helps accumulating vital energy. Also, the simple absence of any particular disease is not enough: staying healthy and energetic is more desirable. Being tired easily is considered a state that needs to be addressed with great urgency. So, when Koreans feel below par, they actively look for boyangsik or see their KMDs to get treatments such as boyak or even acupuncture.

Jangeo Gui (장어 구이: grilled eel)
Jangeo-gui (장어구이, grilled eel) – more boyangsik for non-vegetarians

Another important concept in traditional Asian medicine, and particularly in TKM, is yaksikdongwon (약식동원), which perceives medicine and food not as separate things, but rather that food, to a certain degree, can prevent and treat diseases just like medicine. Consequently, if one is unconscious of what one is eating, this may damage one’s health. Therefore, we should be aware of the functional aspects of the food just as much as, or even more than, the taste.

Yeonipbab (연잎밥, rice wrapped in a lotus leaf) – boyangsik for vegetarians
Yeonipbab (연잎밥, rice wrapped in a lotus leaf) – boyangsik for vegetarians

These are a few examples of Korean boyangsik:

  • Samgyetang (삼계탕, soup of whole chicken stuffed with sticky rice and ginseng)
  • Gomguk (곰국, thick beef soup)
  • Yukgaejang (육개장, spicy beef and vegetable soup)
  • Jangeo-gui (장어구이, grilled eel)
  • Chueotang (추어탕, muddy-loach soup)
  • Jeonbokjuk (전복죽, abalone porridge)
  • Deodeok-gui (더덕구이, grilled bellflower root – Codonopsis lanceolata)
  • Jatjuk (잣죽, pine nut porridge)
  • Yeonjajuk (연자죽, lotus seed porridge)
  • Yeonipbab (연잎밥, rice wrapped in a lotus leaf)
  • Kongguksu (콩국수, noodles in soybean soup)
  • Deulkkaebeosuttang (들깨버섯탕, perilla seeds and shiitake soup)

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