North Koreans prefer dog meat stew to beat the summer heat

This summer has been unusually hot.

Even when I was living in North Korea, I used to complain about the heat but it was pretty rare for it to prevent me from sleeping.

Maybe because I’m so used to living in South Korea, I make a fuss out of the slightest discomfort but when I heard that Pyongyang’s temperature had gone over 35 degrees, I knew that they’re suffering in North Korea as much as I am.

During sambok (three days marking the hottest period of July), it’s easy to feel exhausted and one needs to be careful of heatstroke. Elderly people walking in the scorching sun are at risk of losing their balance or passing out, and this is also true in North Korea.

To beat the summer heat, North Koreans have a habit of eating certain foods for rejuvenation. In the South, people don’t talk about eating health foods as frequently as in the North, where it’s more ingrained in the culture

In the North, there are a lot of foods that are considered to help overcome exhaustion and increase stamina, and they’re not always expensive.

The example most readily available is egg. Egg has plenty of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids and is a high-protein food that is said to enhance memory and physical recovery.

Joson Dynasty’s Dongui Bogam and other traditional medical texts often discuss foods called “cheonma”, which are supposed to cure a lack of appetite and improve stamina. Cheonma have minerals such as gastrodin, ergothioneine, and vanillyl alcohol which act as antioxidants and can help blood vessels to remove harmful toxins.

Also known as the ocean’s milk, oysters are enriched with iron and calcium, and even have taurine, which helps people recover from fatigue. They’re also said to be an aphrodisiac, which can be helpful during summer.

Squid and octopus ink improves stamina in a similar way because it contains taurine. In the North, octopus or its ink is usually given to to newly married couples.

Abalone is said to contain antioxidants, as well as prevent diseases and aid in recovering vitality. Most of the abalone harvested is exported, but recently it’s become available in the domestic markets as well.

For the North Koreans who are mobilized to work in the hot sun to save crops from the heat wave, dangogi (sweet meat, euphemistic reference to dog meat) soup is the most popular health food.

On July 29, the Party-run publication Rodong Sinmun wrote, “From very early times, during the hot days of sambok season, our people have always enjoyed eating dangogi,” later adding, “chogyetang (chicken soup) and red bean porridge are also great for the body.”

North Korea actively promotes dangogi, which it considers a great summer health food that has been developed over a long period of history and reflects the wisdom, talent and taste of industrious Korean people.

If North Koreans hear about the protests that are happening in the South to make eating dog meat illegal, they will find it difficult to comprehend because in the North, it’s widely accepted that the fate of dogs is to end up on the dinner table.

In many historical texts including Koryosa [written in 1451], Dongui Bogam [1610], Eumsikjimibang [circa 1670], and Buyin Pilji [1915] detailed information on dangogi has been recorded, along with its asserted medicinal benefits.

During sambok’s scorching sun, people can lose their appetite and their bodies can become weak due to sweating and the heat hindering them from falling asleep. Koryo medicine (North Korean traditional medicine) states that dangogi provides energy and replenishes vitality.

Moreover, it is believed that “heat cures heat” and eating a bowl of hot dangogi soup during the hot summer is thought to help a weakened body to fight-off all kinds of diseases. During sambok, it’s said that eating well-boiled dangogi soup with green onion and pepper can help with digestion and supplement nutrition.

As rumors of the nutritional effects of dangogi continued to spread, dog meat soup was eventually referred to as “bosintang” (literally meaning “self-preservation soup)”. There is even a saying: “In May and June, even a drop of dangogi soup on your feet is good for you.”

Historical Korean texts chronicling and describing the customs of the Joson Dynasty note that “in the summer, it is the country’s custom to eat boiled or grilled dangogi”, further adding, “Dangogi soup is the best food for sambok season.” Indeed, during every jungbok (the second day of sambok) in North Korea, the Joson Culinary Association’s central committee hosts a dangogi cooking competition.

Dangogi is quite a luxury for most North Korean residents. Although many love the dish, the best ways to beat the summer heat are sufficient hydration and rest, and regular nutritional intake with every meal. I hope that one day the people of North Korea will be able to enjoy dangogi in a more comfortable environment.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee