Fight Fire with Fire: Korea’s Love Affair with Spicy Cuisine

Koreans have an expression called: “이열치열” which translates as “fight fire with fire.” This expression is most often used regarding Korean cuisine, and especially in the summer months. Foods that are both temperature hot (삼계탕, ginseng chicken soup) or spicy hot (take your pick of nearly any Korean dish)

Tonight I had some spicy jjimdalk with my neighbors (also expats). We had two types. Regular and spicy. Normally, regular is fine with me but on occasion I will have the spicy variety to assess where my tolerance currently sits with spicy Korean food.

See, when I arrived in Korea 4.5 years ago, I remember being rather confused about spice. At the time, it seemed to me that Korean food was relatively bland in taste (think veggie-based dishes) and that they used spice to “shock” flavor into a dish~ to give it at least something for the taste buds to respond to.

However, in the past 4.5 years, I’ve watched as my tolerance for spicy food has steadily grown, getting to the point of being able to stomach spicy 쭈꾸미 (baby octopus) as well as the aforementioned 찜닭.

I think part of the appeal to eating spicy food here is that it forces one to savor the full taste of whatever sweet counterpart has equipped the dish. In the video above, you’ll notice the couple sipping on sweet peach juice, a necessity when taking down spicy tteokpokki. I think that the juice is more appreciated, more revered, when acting as a sweetening and cooling agent against the strong, ripping spice of the main course. Perhaps it’s something about balance, or maybe it just serves as justification for having a sweet dessert after the meal. After all, the juice can be sipped during the meal and these restaurants often offer complimentary bingsu (빙수), or Korean shaved ice, as a proper dessert.

이열치열 can be a blessing to some or a death sentence to others. What’s your favorite kind of Korean spicy dish? How was your tolerance when you first tried it? Leave a comment and thanks for reading!

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