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South Korea's Heatwave 2023: Understanding Boknal to Beat the Heat

Updated: Aug 24, 2023


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Boknal in Korea is a longstanding tradition, and its deep ties to the country's history and culture make it special. "Boknal" means "dog days", which is another way of saying the hottest days of summer. Three days in the season stand out: Chobok, Jungbok, and Malbok, all playing an important role during Korea's sweltering summer months.


Chobok, the first Boknal day, ushers in the hot summer season. This is when people begin to use traditional ways and special foods to counter the rising temperatures. Jungbok, the second Boknal day, showcases the changing face of Boknal traditions over the years. This day is about keeping cool and staying healthy in the summer heat, observing certain customs and ceremonies. Malbok wraps up the Boknal season, underscoring the need to withstand the summer at its hottest. To help cope, specific rituals are performed, and dishes are made that are known to help beat the heat.



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When is Boknal in 2023?


In 2023, Boknal in Korea will be marked on the following dates:


Chobok (초복): The start of the Boknal season, Chobok, lands on July 11, 2023. This day marks the beginning of summer traditions and the enjoyment of certain foods, designed to prepare for the heat to come.


Jungbok (중복): Jungbok, the middle day of Boknal, will be on July 21, 2023. This day, falling around the height of summer, is when people observe special customs and partake in activities to help stay cool.


Malbok (말복): Finally, Malbok, the last day of Boknal, is scheduled for August 10, 2023. This day concludes the Boknal season and is all about surviving the peak of summer heat. Special dishes are prepared and rituals are conducted to help weather the final stretch of summer.


Throughout these Boknal days, Koreans will practice traditional customs and enjoy certain foods known to help cope with the heat. It's a time to reflect on the season, celebrate shared cultural heritage, and appreciate the wisdom of staying cool by using heat - a concept known as Iyeolchigyeol (이열치열) in Korean.


What is 이열치열?


iyeolchiyeol definition

Iyeolchigyeol (이열치열) is a crucial concept in Korean Boknal Culture, and it plays a big part in the days of Chobok, Jungbok, and Malbok. It translates as "fighting fire with fire" and signifies the idea that consuming hot or spicy foods can help battle the heat of summer. Although it might seem odd, the thought behind it is that eating hot foods increases your body's temperature, which makes you sweat and eventually cools you down through the body's natural mechanisms.


This principle has been handed down from generation to generation. It involves knowledge about the qualities of certain foods and how they can influence the body during hot summer days. Foods such as chili peppers, ginger, garlic, and other spices are thought to have "heat" that can counterbalance the heat from the environment. You can find these ingredients in many Boknal dishes, like spicy stews, kimchi, and other spicy meals enjoyed during Chobok, Jungbok, and Malbok.


The idea of Iyeolchigyeol shows that Koreans understand the close relationship between the body's needs and the natural environment. This traditional insight is not just a practical way to survive the intense summer heat, but it also demonstrates the balance between cultural customs and the elements. Therefore, it's a vital and interesting part of Boknal Culture.



Chobok (초복) - Starting Boknal


Chobok, the first day of Boknal, has deep historical importance in Korean culture, tracing back to ancient farming practices. The extreme summer heat was a significant challenge for farming communities, and people believed eating specific foods on Chobok could restore energy and help maintain good health throughout the season. Chobok also brought families and communities together, strengthening social connections and resilience.


Traditional Habits and Customs


On Chobok, traditional habits revolve around eating particular "boknal dishes." Samgyetang, a chicken soup infused with ginseng, is known for its nourishing characteristics and its ability to fight off heat exhaustion. Mul-naengmyeon, a chilled buckwheat noodle soup, is another favorite dish that offers a cooling break from the hot weather. Families may also remember their ancestors and seek their guidance during this tough period.


Understanding Samgyetang (삼계탕)

samgyetang korean chicken soup
Korean Ginseng Chicken Soup "Samgyetang", a Boknal staple

Samgyetang is a traditional Korean dish known as "ginseng chicken soup." Even though it's a hot soup, it's widely eaten on hot days. The dish is made by slow-cooking a whole young chicken with sticky rice, ginseng, garlic, jujubes, and other medicinal herbs, resulting in a flavorful soup. Samgyetang is believed to provide energy and vitality, making it an excellent dish for fighting the summer heat. It represents a valued part of culinary tradition that feeds both body and soul during the hot summer days.



Jungbok (중복) - The Second Day of Boknal


Jungbok, the second Boknal day, typically falls around late July. It marks the height of the summer season. The practices and traditions of Jungbok are geared towards finding relief from the soaring temperatures. For example, people use a "suyu," a wet handkerchief or towel placed on the body, to stay cool. Special foods associated with Jungbok include hoe (raw fish) and yeolmu naengmyeon (cold noodle soup with young radish leaves). Though it shares some commonalities with Chobok in terms of cooling foods, Jungbok emphasizes specific cooling rituals and practices.


cold buckwheat noodles mulnaengmyeon
Spicy Cold Buckwheat Noodles "Mulnaengmyeon"

Malbok (말복) - The Final Day of Boknal


Malbok, the last Boknal day observed around early to mid-August, signals the end of the summer's hottest days and the Boknal period. This day is a celebration, marking the collective endurance throughout this challenging period. Koreans gather to give thanks for their strength and unity, enjoying unique foods like spicy dishes and participating in the "bokbulbok" tradition. Malbok reminds Koreans of their ability to endure hardships and reinforces the values of determination and resilience.


Preserving Boknal's Heritage


There have been numerous efforts to preserve and promote the traditions of Boknal. Government programs, cultural organizations, and grassroots movements have been raising awareness about the importance of Boknal traditions to Korean identity. The goal of these preservation efforts is to ensure future generations can continue to celebrate Boknal, even in our rapidly changing world.


Changes and Challenges


As Korea modernizes and becomes more global, some parts of Boknal have become less prominent, particularly in cities. Still, the values and spirit of Boknal persist, remaining important to Koreans. At the same time, Boknal's traditions have come under scrutiny. Some criticize the bygone practice of eating dog meat during Jungbok, citing animal rights and ethical concerns. This has sparked debates about balancing cultural preservation with evolving societal values.


spicy kimchi jiggae
Spicy Kimchi Jjigae

Conclusion


Korea's Boknal Culture, with its three significant days, Chobok, Jungbok, and Malbok, is a unique blend of tradition, resilience, and community. These traditions, deeply rooted in Korea's history, have played a significant role in society. Chobok starts the hot summer season, with practices and nourishing foods that bring people together.


Boknal Culture is more than just a celebration of Korean identity; it's a testament to the enduring wisdom of 이열치열 – the concept of combating heat with heat. As we appreciate the richness of our past, let's be inspired by Boknal's enduring spirit. Let's cherish our traditions while facing future challenges with courage, unity, and a deep respect for our cultural heritage.



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