Malbok: The Final 10 Days of Summer Posted by on Aug 16, 2016 in Culture

The beginning of the end for any summer in Korea starts with malbok (말복), the first of the final 10 hot days as defined by Korean tradition and the lunar calendar. And this summer in Korea, which has been a sweltering, record-breaking one, makes malbok that much more special. Across South Korea, that moment will be celebrated in restaurants as millions today eat samgyetang (삼계탕), a Korean specialty that can be best described as a ginseng chicken soup.

Samgyetang has been discussed in much more detail here before. Beyond the medicinal benefits cooked ginseng and chicken are supposed to have, and the re-energizing effects it can give in order to combat the heat, the idea of eating this sort of soup is perhaps rooted in eastern philosophy. The Korean (and Eastern) idea is that one should eat foods that balance the internal (body) and external (weather) elements.

According to this philosophy, there are five elements or phases: wood (목), fire (화), earth (토), metal (금) and water (수). These elements correspond with colors: green, red, yellow, white and black. Samgyetang fits this mold well (if you want to be creative in comparison). However, it is easy to question this balance when you think about the fact that you are eating a steaming bowl of ginseng chicken in, say, 35C (95F) heat. However, the soup may feel like you are neutralizing, or canceling out, the heat; or, simply put, it is a method to ‘fight fire with fire’ (이열 치열), which is the Korean mentality on malbok.

Malbok, and the series of hot days, is not solely a Korean or Eastern invesntion. It is essentially the 40 “dog days of summer” which date back to Egyptian and Greek calendars. Malbok is the last ten days in a set of summer periods, called sambok 삼복, the “Three Submissions”, which add up to 40 days. These are: chobok 초복 (the first 10 hot days), joongbok 중복 (the hottest, lasting for 20 days), and malbok (the fine 10 hot days)–the first two having taken place in mid and late July in 2016.

Today, millions of Koreans will head to restaurants to eat samgyetang. In the past, some Koreans would head for the hills, called Bokdarim (복달임), to eat. However, now the term bokdarim generally refers to going with friends and family to the mountains or beach or a samgyetang restaurant to cool off on malbok.

Should you have the time, and be brave enough, to take on an important Korean culinary tradition, you can try a recipe here. (It really isn’t that daunting. But the authentic taste is hard to pull off.)

To learn more about this, please check-out the video from Arirang, the Korean International Broadcasting Foundation’s English network, which gives you an insight into these unique days in Korean culture.

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About the Author: Tony Kitchen

Tony is a seasoned traveler who lived in Busan, South Korea from 2008-2012. While living in South Korea, he traveled extensively around Asia. After leaving, he spent 100 days traveling from Russia to Germany and many places in between. Currently, he lives and works in Budapest, Hungary, focusing on South Korean and East Asian business. Tony has an M.A. in International Relations with a specific focus on South Korean-U.S. relations and North Korea.