Have a pounding hangover in South Korea? The answer might be in a steaming bowl of bloody, beefy soup. And with the country's drinking culture thriving more than ever, it looks like more and more Koreans will be turning to hangover cures.
South Korea is the world's hardest-drinking country. South Koreans drink twice as much as vodka-loving Russia, averaging 14 shots of liquor every week. In the US, the weekly average is a mere three shots. And South Korea's liquor of choice is soju—cheap rice liquor that often leaves drinkers with a nasty hangover.
One reason South Korea is drinking so much is because of hweshik, South Korea's booze-soaked company dinners where it's impolite, if not nearly impossible, to turn down alcohol. Major business decisions and even promotions are made over hweshik.
But suit-sanctioned drinking isn't the only reason behind South Korea's collective hangover. "There's a recent trend of honsul—solo drinking—among the younger generation of those in their twenties and thirties," says Su Yun Kim, an assistant professor of Korean Studies at the University of Hong Kong. "They choose to drink by themselves without their bosses pressing them."
Kim says that the cheap price of soju also fuels Korea's drinking culture—it's capped by the government at a low price, "and it's cheaper than coffee," she says.
And meanwhile, the food industry is capitalising off of Korea's collective hangover with its own remedies, including an ice cream that purportedly eases the pain following a night of hard drinking. Pills and cosmetics for hangovers reign, too—adding to a collective $125 million hangover industry.
But Koreans have a more traditional hangover cure that can be found at just about any cheap Korean restaurant: It's called "hangover soup," or haejungguk. It's hot, spicy soup that can involve all sorts of different ingredients meant to sooth the stomach and soul. Earlier this month, I had a bowl of hangover soup on Jeju Island—a southern retreat well known to Korean honeymooners—made with loads of red chili, bits of minced pork, and soft tofu.
But only one recipe for haejungguk is traditionally Korean—and it's served at a well-known restaurant called Cheongjinok. With my hangover in tow from a night of soju bombs—dropping shots of soju into mugs of beer and chugging it down—I head to Cheongjinok in search of South Korea's best and most authentic hangover cure.
Cheongjinok is tucked away on the ground floor of a small, low-rise mall just near Seoul's City Hall, in a busy business district. It doesn't look like its square, glass surroundings: The façade is all wood and harkens back to an aesthetic from decades ago. And, as it turns out, Cheongjinok has been serving its famous traditional hangover soup since 1937—it's been run by the same family ever since.
The restaurant is open 24 hours every day to help chase away Seoul's biting hangovers. Cheongjinok is apparently so crowded all of the time that when I ask to speak to the chef, I'm told that he's too busy to come out from the kitchen because he needs to prepare for the rest of the day.
I take a seat upstairs at a wooden bench—it's a full house at 2 PM on a Tuesday, after the traditional lunch rush. I notice that on both of the restaurant's two floors, all of the diners are men. The restaurant smells strongly of beef and cabbage—and also, ironically, soju. I open the menu to find that the first option is haejungguk.
The waitress—an older woman in a red bandana—tells me that to make the hangover soup, beef bones are simmered in broth for a whole day. The chef then mixes in a soybean paste to make it smell less strongly of beef, and then add thick chunks of beef blood, beef tripe, and bean sprouts. When she serves me the piping-hot haejungguk just minutes later, she adds a heap of green onions from a steel bowl to the top and leaves more on the table.
The first spoonful—a mix of broth, blood, and tripe tangled in a mess of bean sprouts—makes me sweat. The taste is metallic, like blood, and spicy. The tripe is as heavy as it is chewy, and the chunks of blood are incredibly filling. By the third bite, my stomach is expanding to its limits and I'm covered in sweat.
"This is just a food, it's not a medicine," says Eric Huang Fu, who runs a traditional Korean medicine clinic in Hong Kong called Smile. "It's like coffee after drinking too much alcohol. It's the same thing."
I want to put the hangover-curing properties of haejungguk to the test hard and fast—so I order a bottle of soju, which is an alcohol that, frankly, I have difficulty keeping down. The waitress tells me that I'm meant to take one shot and then chase it with a spoonful of the haejungguk broth. I shoot the soju and quickly stick the soup spoon in my mouth. The first thing I notice is that it immediately takes the taste of the soju away along with the burn it usually causes in my stomach.
But as for my head from last night: it's just the same as before I set out for hangover soup, and still pounding hard, even after I stomach the entire beefy bowl of haejungguk.
"I'm not sure that hangover soup really works for hangovers," says Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones, who works for a Korean-owned nursery school. She's been in Seoul for more than two years and has been to her share of hweshik.
"But the good thing about hangover soup is that helps here," she says, putting her hand over her heart. "If you have a company dinner on a Tuesday, and you have some warm hangover soup on Wednesday, then you know you can make it to Friday."