How to Survive a Super-Hot, Super-Humid Seoul Summer
If you’ve never lived through a Seoul summer, count yourself lucky. In my books, there are few things on earth WORSE. Ok fine. Hyperbole. But if scorching heat, monsoon rains, humidity as high as 100% WITHOUT rain, polluted skies and what seems like an extra 10 million people traveling in the city, isn’t the stuff of nightmares, I’m not sure what is.
I admit that my preferred method of surviving a sticky Seoul summer is to leave the country, ideally to a Mediterranean country with gorgeous beaches and good food. But since summering in Europe isn’t often in the cards, mostly I have to resort to the following well-worn strategies. It’s that, or never leaving the air-conditioned comfort of my house…which unfortunately, isn’t really an option.
Here’s how Seoulites survive the absolute worst 2 weather months of the year.
1. Find the shade.
In the summer months, at intersections, you’ll often see a huge group of people huddled under the tiny patch of shade afforded by a tree. I used to scoff at these people, and march defiantly past them into the sunshine, but I’ve learned my lesson. Oh, have I learned my lesson.
Find the shade wherever you can. A tree. The book you’re holding in your hand. Your purse. Basically anything you can use to create shelter. Because if you don’t, you’ll be dripping sweat in seconds. And no, I’m not exaggerating even a little bit.
2. Eat all the bingsu.
Bingsu, along with naengmyun, are 2 things I just couldn’t wrap my head around until I moved to Korea. Let’s face it. Bingsu looks kinda weird. In it’s classic form – patbingsu – it’s shaved ice, topped with a gooey mess of boiled red beans. And despite having lived here for almost a decade now, I still rarely hop on board the sweetened red bean train. It’s just not my thing.
Fortunately though, bingsu has evolved, and now you can get melon bingsu, strawberry bingsu, coffee bingsu, mango bingsu. You name it, you can probably get it.
My personal favourite though, is injeolmi bingsu from Sulbing – milk ice topped with Korean rice cakes and roasted soybean powder, which admittedly also looks and sounds weird, but in actuality is delicious and completely refreshing, with bonus points for being nutritious too!
3. Combat the heat with an army of cold soups.
Growing up in Calgary, where it sometimes snows in June, and the air is so dry, your skin feels like it’s cracking, my mom’s craving for noodles drenched in cold broth was impossible to understand. But boy do I get it now.
On days where the humidity is through the roof, the only thing that’ll do is mul naengmyeon (물냉면) – thin buckwheat noodles served in an icy broth and topped with slices of daikon radish and cucumber.
I’ve tried various and more expensive versions of mul naengmyeon, but nothing refreshes me from the inside out as much as Yookssam Naengmyun’s (육쌈냉면) cheap and tangy version. Served along with a portion of grilled meat, it runs just 6,000krw.
Don’t worry if 물냉면 isn’t your thing though. There’s a literal army of cold Korean soups to suit your fancy. For a full write-up on ALL the options, check out Hallie’s post on The Soul of Seoul blog.
4. Or fight fire with fire.
The day that I eat a hot, spicy soup on a Korean summer day is the day hell freezes over. But that’s not true of all Koreans. Many believe that the best way to fight the heat is with something equally as hot.
This tactic of “fighting fire with fire,” or iyeol chiyeol ((이열치열) is based on an idea from traditional Korean medicine, believing that in hot weather, body heat or gi, rises to the surface and disperses, leaving the inner organs cold. Lost heat needs to be replenished by eating hot foods, with rejuvenating ingredients like ginseng, jujubes and omija.
Classic iyeol chiyeol foods include samgyetang – a whole young boiled chicken in a nutritious broth, nakji bokkeum – octopus stir-fried in a super spicy sauce, jangeo – bbq eel, and yukgaejang – a spicy beef and vegetable soup.
5. Take a beach break.
The best and perhaps most classic way to survive the heat of summer is to take a break next to the sea. And while Korea doesn’t have the vibrant beach culture of the Mediterranean, a weekend out of the city, lounging around on sandy beaches and dipping into the cool sea when necessary is sure to rejuvenate all that ails you.
Add in some shellfish grilled over charcoal and a spicy pot of hameul-tang (seafood stew) and you’ve got your iyeol chiyeol (이열치열) covered too!
There are beaches on all 3 sides of the country, but for an easy and manageable break out of Seoul, head out to the East Coast, where Korea’s best (arguably) beaches are located. Our favourite is Gyeongpodae – a mere 2.5 hours away by bus.
Is it hot where you live? What are your tried and tested ways of surviving the heat of summer?
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