It may not come as a surprise that so-called “hangover cures” are big business in Korea. My friends and I have often marvelled at the businessmen who go out and drink into the early hours of the morning as part of their job (it’s the only way to get to know colleagues and potential business partners well enough to trust them with plans and deals, apparently), and then get on the train at 5am to go back into the office. How do they do it? When I have a hangover, it’s as much as I can do to crawl to the fridge for another bottle of water, and that activity alone has been known to take me up to 6 hours of lying semi-awake with a raging thirst, willing myself to stand up.
Enter the Korean hangover cure market.
Every single convenience store carries a selection of small (usually around 100ml) glass bottles or cans, each promising to make you feel like you’ve never touched a drop of soju in your life. One of them, 모닝 케어 (that name is actually English, and is pronounced ‘Morning Care’!) has commercials that make it look as if you will in fact feel even better after a night’s drinking than you would if you’d stayed in and read a book. None of them have ever worked particularly well for me, but that’s apparently because I’ve been doing it wrong, as I was informed only last weekend. I assumed you were supposed to drink the ‘cures’ the morning after drinking, but I’ve now been informed that you’re supposed to take them either before drinking alcohol, or immediately after, before going to sleep. Gah. Perhaps “hangover prevention” would be a more accurate label.
I must admit, having discovered in a most unpleasant way last weekend that gin is not my friend, I was grateful for the bottle of 컨디션 파워 (‘Condition Power’!) given to me by a bartender friend as I sat there dolefully wishing the world would just end already. I drank it, and felt almost back to my normal self the next morning. (Rest assured, I will never drink gin again) Perhaps there’s something in these things after all.
However, the ultimate Korean hangover cure is not a drink, but a soup. 해장국, pronounced ‘hay-jang-gook’, really does literally mean ‘hangover soup‘. That just sums up Korean life better than I ever could.
The first time I had this miracle soup was shortly after I arrived here back in 2009, when I’d just experienced the first of many compulsory eating and drinking nights with my boss and colleagues.
I’m not kidding about this cultural work-bonding-through-alcohol thing, by the way – you really would cause offence if you refused to go, or refused to drink. If you really can’t take any more, you’re advised to accept the soju and then secretly get rid of it when no one’s looking, like by pouring it into your water cup under the table, or subtly passing it to a less sensible friend. Anyway, thrown into this confusing world of shots and elbow-touching and never-ending food and cries of “one shot!”, I meekly drank when I was told to and poured when I was asked to, and the next morning I woke up with my very first soju hangover. That’s not a lot of fun, let me tell you.
Nor is it fun when your new boss arrives at your door, also hungover, announcing that you are going to go and eat hangover soup together now.
All I can say is this: that stuff works. It is delicious, spicy, tasty, hot, and full of goodness that does something to settle your dodgy stomach and even dispels the nasty headache. There are several different varieties, but the broth is generally prepared by simmering ox bones in water for a long time. Then the other ingredients are added. Look, it tastes so good and works so well that I almost don’t want to tell you what’s in it, OK?
Lots of spices and herbs, of course. Nice beefy broth. Plenty of vegetables, primarily the Nappa cabbage that’s used for everything here. And congealed ox blood, natch. All served bubbling away in an earthenware bowl, whereupon the server cracks a raw egg into it, just for fun.
In Korea, I’ve learned to unhear things like “coagulated ox blood” and focus on the flavour. What’s in this soup?, a friend asked me recently as we slurped it down.
Beef and cabbage, I replied firmly.