Oh, Boy! Here Comes Boyak!

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Oh, Boy! Here Comes Boyak!

Have you detected a mysterious, bitter and pungent aroma in the air lately whenever you leave the windows open to enjoy an evening breeze? The arrival of cooler weather is a signal for Koreans to drink boyak, or "fortifying medicine," a dark, thick brew of assorted leaves, berries, roots and what-have-you. At this time of year, neighborhoods become enveloped by the smell of a home-brewed tonic that supposedly guarantees a family's health for the rest of the year.

For many Koreans, the distinctive fragrance evokes memories of childhood - of mothers watching over a special teapot with a piece of rice paper on top that serves as a lid, making sure that the contents does not boil over. After hours of brewing, the resulting liquid is filtered through a piece of rough linen, and every last trace of the liquid is squeezed out by twisting the linen with two small wooden sticks on either end. A child often cringed as her mother pushed a bowl of the tonic toward her mouth, gently coaxing him with a piece of candy or a lump of sugar as a treat afterward. Typically, the child pinched her nose tightly and after a quick gulp, realized that this stuff was not too bad after all. In fact, she soon secretly savored the complex taste that tingles on her tongue.

Although the age-old practice of brewing the tonic in the traditional teapot has largely been replaced by specially designed slow cookers and the modern convenience of pre-brewed potions that come in microwavable, vacuum-packed plastic pouches, most Koreans cannot imagine foregoing the annual rite of drinking tonic.

"I think prevention is better than a cure so I have the whole family drink boyak in the autumn," said Kim Su-ja, a 50-year-old housewife. A few years ago, she went to the neighborhood "health center," a shop specializing in brewing oriental medicine, and fell in love with it. "It has made taking the tonic drinks a lot easier. My husband does not have to miss a drink because he can bring the plastic pouch to his office and reheat it in the microwave," she said. A typical boyak prescription is for one je, or 20 packets of medicine, which, taken three times a day, requires 10 days to finish.

"I definitely feel energized and rejuvenated after taking the tonic drink," said Mary Kim, 34, general manager at a multinational consumer goods company. A mother of two young boys, Ms. Kim often feels herself drained at the end of a long day. "My mother takes me to an oriental medicine doctor every fall and I get the medicine pre-brewed and delivered to my home," she said. "My husband, who is a Western medical doctor, does not believe in the stuff and so we argue about it, but I can definitely feel the tonic working. I need all the help I can get to stay on top of things both at the office and at home."

From an oriental medicine perspective, autumn is an important in-between season when the body, fatigued after a long summer, must be fortified to prepare for the coming winter. Because the tonic's aim to reinforce specific parts of the body, an oriental medicine doctor should first examine the patient, before prescribing a particular remedy for the constitution.

Tonics generally fall under four broad categories: Those that aim to boost the qi, blood, yin or yang. When one feels tired and lethargic, it is due to a lack of qi. Symptoms include fatigue, and heavy perspiration. Anemia is frequently associated with this condition. For these complaints, ginseng and Astragali radix (also called Astragalus root) are often prescribed.

If a patient's face, nails and lips are pale, it is often due to a lack of blood, a condition explained as weakening of the functions controlled by the circulation of blood. People who have had operations may complain of dizziness, insomnia, and frequent cramps as well as decreased menstrual flow. To correct these problems, oriental medicine resorts to the dried roots of Rehmannia glutinosa, also known as Chinese Foxglove.

Yin in the body refers to things that are visible to the eyes, such as the muscles and secretions from the body. Lack of yin is accompanied by weight loss, dry mouth and dry skin. Occasionally, patients may complain of fever in the upper body or frequent coughs. Snake's beard, also known as Lyriope platyphylla, is the main active plant that is used to remedy this condition.

Temperature and general circulation is referred to as yang in oriental medicine. People who lack yang frequently feel cold, have cold hands and feet and suffer from indigestion. Diarrhea is another common complaint as well as pain in the back and knee joints, and menstrual cramps. Dried antlers and Eucommia ulmoides (also called the Hardy Rubber Tree) are commonly prescribed for these conditions.

Practitioners of oriental medicine warn against the reckless use of tonics without getting a proper examination. "Using the wrong medicine can worsen a patient's condition. For example, if people with weak qi or yang are given a prescription to boost the blood or yin, they can suffer diarrhea or become obese," cautioned Shin So-hwan, oriental medicine doctor at Chunchon Oriental Medicine Hospital, in Gangwon province.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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