SOME LIKE IT HOT

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SOME LIKE IT HOT

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Easier said than done in most instances. How would you like, for example, to follow the Korean practice of beating heat with heat, or iyeolchiyeol, as it is known in Korean?

"Aah, this is cool," says Park Jeong-ja, a 55-year-old housewife, sitting inside a sauna at Daejungtang, a public bath in Hongeun-dong, Seoul, on a recent morning. The needle on the thermometer hanging on the sauna wall is resting at 30 degrees centigrade. Who is Ms. Park kidding?

Ms. Park does not think that turning on the air-conditioner full blast is the way to stay cool through the dog days of summer. If you can't beat them, join them, she believes. And what better way to get all heated up than to sit in a sauna? Saunas in Korea, by the way, are not for the faint-hearted, and commonly reach temperatures around 40 degrees.

At Cheonjiyeon Sauna in Seocho-dong, the fire dome is a favorite even at the height of summer, when the outside temperature often soars to 35 degrees. Heated by burning pinewood in a furnace within, the temperature inside hottest parts of the fire dome can reach up to 95 degrees centigrade. "Even during the summer months when business does slow down a bit, we get about 150 people a day," said Sohn Kwang-seok, marketing director at Cheonjiyeon Sauna.

"Of course, I feel hot sitting in here," Ms. Park says, "But it's different from the kind of heat outside." She has been sweating it out for 15 minutes without a break. A sauna devotee who meets her friends in the sauna at least twice a week, she can easily lie there for half an hour before succumbing to exhaustion. "I feel very refreshed and cool when I step outside after having perspired so much," she says.

While people who have not tried it for themselves may scoff at the idea of cooling off by sitting in a sauna, there is an argument for fighting heat with heat. When the external temperature rises, the human body maintains its core temperature by raising the skin surface temperature and perspiring. So while the temperature on the skin has risen, the temperature inside the body is comparatively cooler. The boiled eggs that are eaten at traditional fire domes are cooked on the spot using the heat inside the fire dome, but to this date, no one has come out hard-boiled, thanks to the cooling effect of perspiration.

The same logic is used to explain eating a hot bowl of samgyetang in the summer. A chicken soup made with a whole young chicken stuffed with ginseng, samgyetang, served hot, is a "heaty" dish in the eyes of oriental medicine. The perspiration from eating hot samgyetang has a cooling effect on the outside while the "heat" of the food is considered to boost sagging energy.

"The combination of chicken, rich in essential amino acids, and gi-boosting ginseng makes samgyetang the most ideal dish for the summer when perspiration drains people of energy," said Shin Jun-shik, a doctor of Oriental Medicine at the Hospital of Jaseng Oriental Medicine in Sinsa-dong, Seoul.

For the gastronomically adventurous, an exotic dish to be tried in the summer months is chueotang. Made with mudfish either whole or, for the squeamish, ground-up, this soup, seasoned with enough chili paste to numb the palate, is believed to boost energy and improve stamina. If you have been around Korea long enough, you know that Korean men will eat practically anything that promises increased stamina, and you may want to put chueotang to the test.

Of course, one can only take so much heat, even if in the name of beating heat. When the mercury rises, many Koreans immediately turn to an ice-cold bowl of naengmyeon. The buckwheat noodle dish, served in cold beef broth with slices of beef, pear, cucumber and hard-boiled egg, is favored by Koreans who prefer not to perspire through their meals. As strange as it may seem, this dish which has now become synonymous with summer was traditionally eaten in cold winter. Fighting cold with cold, perhaps?

While soda may temporarily quench your thirst, locals believe that nothing beats a bowl of cold misutgaru for providing relief from the heat. Glutinous rice or barley is steamed, dried, and roasted to make this powdered grain drink. Cold water is added to the powder and stirred vigorously to dissolve the grain. Better-tasting when thick, this summertime drink can leave you feeling quite full.

If you have been to shops that sell Korean handicrafts, you have probably wondered what that long hollow cylinder bamboo product was. Called jukbuin, meaning bamboo wife, it was used in the old days to keep upper-class gentlemen cool in the humid summer evenings. Held between the arms and the legs like a body pillow, the cool touch of the bamboo bolster guarantees that you fall asleep without too much tossing and turning. The strict class system no longer exists and anyone can now try this great invention.

Sleeping with the air-conditioner on is considered a health taboo in Korea and people often resort to traditional ways of staying cool to ensure a good night's rest. Overstuffed feather pillows are stored away for the season in favor of pillows stuffed with buckwheat husks. Although you need to adjust to the hardness of the pillow, it definitely keeps your head cooler.

For short naps in the summer, you may even try small pillows of woven bamboo. The coolness of the bamboo and the continued circulation of air through the loose weaving make the bamboo pillow perfect for afternoon siestas.

While on the subject of bedding, you may want to try using fine hemp cloth instead of the regular wrinkle-free fitted sheets. Sleeping under a sheet of closely woven ramie is the ultimate summer luxury. The cool touch of hemp ramie ensures that you stay comfortable through the night.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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