When It Comes to Hangovers, South Koreans Follow Their Gut: Haejang Traditions

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A night of heavy drinking can sometimes be the cause of some serious homesickness while abroad. Back in my suburban university town in the States, it’s not uncommon to see the one local Korean restaurant packed on Saturday mornings, full of students trying to put their queasiness to rest with tastes of home.

My Korean friends are undoubtedly the best companions when faced with my worst enemy: the hangover. While the miserable morning-after experience is not one unique to any one country, certain remedies most definitely are — and at the heart of South Korean hangover culture is a heavy, sturdy bowl of haejangguk.

Some sources list South Koreans as the heaviest drinkers in the world — though, to be fair, soju contains only about half the alcohol content of vodka — and they’re always seeking out new ways to deal with the consequences. The word haejang evolved from the Chinese characters hae (to cure) and jeong (hangover), and combined with the Korean word guk (soup), haejangguk refers to any Korean soup being eaten to chase away a hangover.

And though there is almost an unspoken national consensus that rich, high calorie and often spicy soups do the best job, the search for a cure doesn’t quite end there. Haejang comes in a variety of forms, as South Koreans try to fight their hangovers instead of waiting them out. Convenience stores are stocked with bottles reminiscent of energy drinks, filled with products like Morning Care that are said to help ease symptoms. In 2016, they even began selling a new ice cream bar called Gyeondyeobar, or “Hang in there.”

Soondaeguk (soup made with pig intestine sausages), soft tofu soup, kimchi jjigae and instant ramen are some popular haejangguk options. (Sources: Flickr, Wikipedia, pixabay and Flickr)

But strangely enough, it doesn’t quite seem to matter whether any of this actually works. The science behind hangovers remains largely nebulous — but according to Choi Sei-hwan, president of the Korean Medical Society for Intravenous Nutrition Therapy, what we do know is that heavy drinking leads to high levels of acetaldehyde.

“Eating can help you ‘wake up’ from the alcohol,” Choi said. “If you don’t eat all day, it’s likely you’ll stay drunk until the afternoon. Putting something sweet [with glucose] into your body can help.”

Whatever your preferences may be, he recommended foods high in glucose, vitamin B1, iron and zinc to break down the acetaldehydes. The bean sprouts and rice in haejangguk, for instance, contain vitamin B1 and glucose, respectively; others who don’t want Korean food can have something like a burger for the bun’s flour. But Choi said, if possible, it is much more effective to eat “hangover cure” foods before bed, before the alcohol has already begun breaking down and caused that horrible hungover feeling.

At the end of the day, anything from greasy fries to spicy kimchi jjigae have basically the same effect —  or lack thereof — but for many including myself, it comes down to tradition. Whether we do it for real science or simply to sweat it all out with a red, hearty bowl of soup, South Koreans love their haejang. So much so that if we can’t get it here, my friends and I will always track down the nearest Korean restaurant to get it.

Cover image: A bowl of hot, spicy sundubu is one way to try getting rid of a hangover. (Source: bionicgrrrl on Flickr)

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