For a couple of days this week I was feeling ill. I was shivery and couldn’t get out of bed. And I had no appetite.You’ve probably noticed that anytime someone is sick in a Korean drama, the invalid will be presented with juk – rice porridge. This is the traditional food to have when you’re feeling unwell because it’s nourishing and gentle on the tummy. And since it’s such a popular dish, there’s a large chain of restaurants that specialise in juk where customers can eat in, take out, or get their order delivered.
So if we were in a scene from a romantic Korean drama, at this point we should see the hero, Mr Kim, rushing through the door with his brow moist with sweat (from having run all the way from somewhere) with a bagful of ingredients ready to look after his loved one – me – by of course making juk (from scratch)….
But this is real life and Mr Kim was away on a business trip (and has never made juk in his life, anyway) and I was miserably wrapped up in a blanket feeling jolly sorry for myself. I was considering staggering into the kitchen to make a hot drink (and to refill the hot water bottle -blimey this story is getting more pathetic by the second) when I got a message from my sister-in-law. She said that she had popped over to our flat and left some juk at the front door. She didn’t want to disturb me so she hadn’t even rung the bell…
I opened the front door to find a bag filled with 4 portions of porridge, a tub of sliced kiwi and strawberries, and some Korean medicine. I was very touched. And pleased. Bless her.
My sister-in-law brought two different juk. One was nakchi kimchi juk (octopus and kimchi) which is my favourite as it’s still quite spicy thanks to the kimchi, and the chewy pieces of octopus add texture. The other was mesengigul chuk – mesengi and oyster. mesengi is a kind of seaweed which is only available in winter and it’s usually made into a hot soup. If you see it in the supermarket it looks like a clump of fine wet grass. I really like this juk too and mesengi is so healthy.
The biggest chain of juk shops is Bonjuk 본죽 and the menu has a large range of savoury and a few sweet rice porridge dishes for just under 10,000 won a portion. Ingredients can include pork, beef, chicken, or seafood – crab, prawn, oysters, octopus, etc. with the most expensive dish of premium abalone porridge coming in at a whopping 20,000 won. (I haven’t tried that one. I’m too stingy.)
Many of the dishes come in combos: – beef and miok seaweed, bulgogi and octopus, pork and mushroom, mushroom and oyster, tuna and veg, and fusion vegetable and cheese. (I’m not sure about that one though) And then there are some interesting ones – there’s ‘hangover juk,’ pine nut juk, black sesame juk, and sweet pumpkin juk.
As well as the restaurant’s standard menu, some seasonal dishes are added throughout the year. Mesengigul juk is on the menu in winter along with red bean porridge which is eaten on winter solstice (the Naver dictionary calls this dish ‘red bean gruel’ but the word ‘gruel’ to me sounds a bit too Oliver Twist)
The juk is topped with fine seaweed, sesame seeds, and pepper. And it comes with separate pots of sliced beef and kimchi, and a pot of radish water kimchi which is very sour and delicious.
In Britain when someone is under-the-weather the go to meal would probably be chicken soup. So I never craved octopus and kimchi rice porridge. But that’s what I do now! Yes, after having spent 10 years in Korea, I have learnt to embrace the soothing quality of juk. Compared to other Korean food, some juk could be described as a bit bland. But it is supposed to be healthy so that’s probably why it’s not overly salty or full of fiery garlic and chilli.
I’m feeling better already and grateful to my sister-in-law.