Why do Koreans eat hot food to cool down?

A steaming specialty is chicken soup for the sweltering soul. Both science and culture agree that it works

Topics: Food traditions, International cuisine, Food,

Why do Koreans eat hot food to cool down?

One August, at the tail end of monsoon season, I walked the streets of Seoul in search of a bowl of hot chicken soup. It was 101 degrees. I wanted to be a good Korean and a good foodie, engaging in the tradition of eating samgyetang — a stuffed chicken served in steaming broth — on the hottest days of summer. But as the heat and humidity threatened to overwhelm me, I had to wonder why my ancestors put me up to this.

Koreans revere their traditional foods, ascribing to them medicinal properties (some scientists floated the idea that kimchi could inoculate you from avian flu). Michael Pettid, professor of Premodern Korean Studies at Binghamton University and author of “Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History” explains that the food philosophy is based on the idea of balancing one’s ki, the flow of energy that courses through your body. “In East Asian cosmology, the idea of regulation of one’s ki is vital to overall health. Food is an important means to keep one’s ki properly attuned to the external environment,” he writes.

There is a Korean saying: yi yul chi yul, meaning fight fire with fire. Want to beat the heat? Have some hot broth. “The practice of eating spicy or hot foods on hot days stems from the belief that one’s ki is cool in the summer and to bring that in balance with the external environment spicy/hot foods should be eaten,” said Pettid.

Samgyetang is a perennially popular dish in Korea, even though much of its original significance has become lost over time. Now, much of the conventional thinking centers around the idea of sweating out the heat — consuming hot or spicy foods as a way of stimulating sweat, the body’s natural cooling system.

And it turns out that it’s not just the heat of samgyetang that may be effective. Ginseng and garlic are two key ingredients, but not just for their beloved flavors. Dr. John Thomas Pinto, a professor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, researches garlic’s powers in the body. “Garlic,” Pinto says, “has an anti-platelet effect. It will decrease blood clotting.” Its anti-coagulant effects are bad for people going in for major surgery, but good for those who want to increase blood circulation. And ginseng, he explained, can cause blood vessels to dilate.

Those ingredients, in concert with the heat of the broth, would have an effect on blood flow, which in turn affects one’s body temperature. Dr. Pinto says, “If you affect blood flow, that might also affect heat exchange in the body to allow sweating. Evaporation [of the sweat on skin] causes cooling.”

I have to admit, though, in the thick of summer I more naturally crave the direct cooling of bing soo (Korean shaved ice) than a steaming soup. But on boknal, one of the days on the lunar calendar traditionally regarded as the hottest days of the year, there will be lines at samgyetang shops snaking onto the street.

You Might Also Like

I arrived at my destination, with my shirt clinging like a second skin. Looking for respite, I sat in front of fan, which only served to blow hot air at me. I called my order out to a beaming, bustling aunt-like figure (whom, of course, I addressed as auntie). She brought out a large stone bowl, kept blazing hot in an oven, with the soup at a roiling boil.

As a bead of sweat trickled down my temple, I gingerly lifted the spoon. I blew on the broth, watching the steam curl away from me. Have I mentioned how hot it was? I sipped, burning my tongue just a little, and the taste reminded me of my mother’s cooking, for when I was a child and sick: earthy and soothing. I added a good helping of salt, bringing out the flavors of the ginseng and garlic. Then, suddenly overeager, I tore into the chicken with my hands, quickly dropping the scalding drumstick. I used my chopsticks instead and slipped the meat off the bone.

Sweat lined my forehead as I continued to eat, alternating between broth and meat. The Korean chicken, although smaller, tasted gamier than its American counterpart. Somewhere in the middle of my meal, the heat finally broke.

“It’s refreshing, isn’t it?” asked the auntie. I smiled and nodded as a cool breeze wafted over my face.

Korean summer chicken soup (Samgyetang)
Serves two


  • 2 cornish game hens
  • 1/2 cup of sweet rice (often marked “sweet glutinous rice,” it’s pearly and cooks up sticky, and different from regular short-grained rice)
  • 4 pieces of dried ginseng (if you can find it and afford it, fresh ginseng is highly prized)
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 8 dried jujubes
  • 4 green onions for garnish
  • salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Wash the rice in several changes of water, until the water runs clear and let it soak for about an hour.
  2. Clean the hens, inside and out. If present, remove the innards. Rub salt and pepper on the chicken.
  3. Stuff each chicken with half of the the sweet rice, ginseng, garlic, and dried jujubes, and either sew the cavities shut with twine or use a skewer to close them.
  4. Put the chickens in a pot like a Dutch oven, big enough to fit them comfortably but not so big they are swimming around. Fill it with enough water to cover the birds by an inch and bring it to a boil.
  5. Turn the heat down, and simmer it on low, partially covered, for 2 hours, or until the meat is nearly falling off the bone. Skim any fat or foam that appears as it cooks and add water as needed, keeping the bird covered.
  6. Serve immediately and set out sliced green onions, salt, and pepper for diners to garnish and season according to their taste.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>