An expanding taste treat in KoreaThe duck is a familiar bird to all of us, as in the tale of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen, or the Korean adage “sticking out a duck foot after eating chicken,” which means professing innocence in the face of dubious evidence.
The only place where the bird is not so familiar is on the dining room table. Koreans have traditionally shunned eating duck because of its aroma, and its high fat content. But the growing popularity of sulfur-fed duck, with its alleged heath benefits, may be changing that situation.
According to Donguibogam, a respected oriental medicine book written by Heo Jun during the Joseon Dynasty, eating sulfur-fed duck meat helps eliminate impurities from one’s body, thereby protecting health and even helping to combat illnesses. It specifically mentions that the meat is good for preventing and treating strokes.
Noh Wan-seob, a professor of food science and technology at Dongguk University, said, “Sulfur-fed duck meat cleanses the stomach and intestines, makes the body’s chemistry more alkaline, prevents high blood pressure, helps blood circulation and purifies the blood.”
In Asian astrology, sulfur symbolizes fire and a duck represents water, producing a balance of yin and yang. As a result, people believed that sulfur-fed duck meat could improve stamina due to the harmony it creates.
Sulfur, a highly inflammable yellow non-metallic element, is also highly toxic. However, people believed that it could be a miraculous medicine if its toxicity could be eliminated.
“Sulfur is known to warm up one’s body, strengthen the bones and muscles and improve stamina, but because of toxins its use as a medicine was limited,” said Kim Mi-eun, an assistant manager at Nolboo Co., a restaurant franchise company.
But small amounts of sulfur can be consumed indirectly, such as in duck meat.
Ducks are said to have the physiological ability to digest and neutralize toxic ingredients. When ducks are fed sulfur, for example, they can neutralize the toxins while retaining the medicinal qualities. The ducks produce anti-toxins, making the meat more therapeutic.
The amount of sulfur ducks can handle, however, is quite limited. “If ducks ingest too much sulfur, they can die,” said Kim Eun-young, an assistant menu developer at Nolboo Co., some of whose restaurants serve sulfur-fed duck dishes.
“Ducks are fed sulfur beginning a few days after they hatch,” she added.
Usually, the sulfur is mixed in with animal feed. The amount is quite small in the beginning, but increases to as much as 4 percent (by weight) of the total feed. The ducks are fed sulfur for around 45 days before being slaughtered.
While duck meat has been less popular in Korea than beef, pork or chicken, that is changing, as interest in sulfur-fed duck meat has increased within the past year.
The popular TV drama “Daejanggeum,” about a woman who rises from a royal cook to become court doctor during the Joseon Dynasty, contained an episode in which the royal family ate sulfur-fed duck meat. That broadcast heightened public awareness of the food and contributed to making it a popular dish in Korea.
Additional media exposure led many people to believe in the healing effects of sulfur-fed duck meat.
“I heard a story that if you eat sulfur-fed duck meat, you won’t have a stroke,” said Lee Ji-eun, a middle-aged woman in a Nolboo restaurant that specializes in serving the food. “Besides that, there is no cholesterol.”
“People say if you eat meat dishes, do not eat anything but duck meat,” said Shin Hae-young, another female patron of the restaurant.
This group of middle-aged women seems to frequent duck meat restaurants. “When we are going to eat meat, we try to eat duck meat,” Ms. Lee said.
“I heard that duck meat can prevent diseases that have a high rate of occurrence in middle-aged or older people,” Chung Hee-kyung, another female customer, added.
Some scientists have tried to verify these theories. Choi Gui-hun and Kim Chang-han, researchers at the veterinarian research center at Konkuk University, discovered that sulfur-fed duck extracts could inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
Ducks live on a mixed diet like humans and usually have a significant amount of bacteria in their bodies, but the sulfur is said to eliminate bacteria, which also makes the meat safer to eat.
Aside from the reputed health benefits, another reason many people consume sulfur-fed duck meat is that they find it tastes better than normal duck meat. “Sulfur alters the meat’s texture and improves the taste,” Mr. Noh, the Dongguk University professor, said.
Ms. Kim said the menu developers at Nolboo conducted a blind taste test comparing normal duck meat and sulfur-fed duck meat, and most people preferred the latter.
by Limb Jae-un