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Modern medical checkups and traditional juk: rice porridge

Show me a street in Seoul these days that doesn’t have a barbecue meat restaurant, a deep fried chicken and beer restaurant, or a Starbucks. The diet in Korea has changed a lot, but there’s one dish that has stood the test of time: juk (rice porridge)

Rice Porridge

Known as juk (죽) in Korea (okayu in Japan), this is the dish to have if you’re feeling under the weather. Because rice porridge (juk) is easier to digest than regular rice.

Rice cookers have a ‘juk’ option which takes about 90 minutes. But for anyone who doesn’t want to cook, there are restaurants that specialise in rice porridge. One well-known chain is Bonjuk. (

juk in drama

juk often makes an appearance in drama too. Lovingly preparing juk could suggest romance is in the air! On the other hand, peasants in historical dramas eat watery juk because they are suffering with little to eat. One cup of rice can make a large batch of porridge.

In the MBC medical drama Heojun (2000) about the most famous doctor in Joseon history (episode 47) an angry patient refuses to be treated by him but eventually agrees to eat oyster rice porridge.

Heojun (1539-1615) lived in a time when the body was still a relative mystery as autopsies and invasive operations were not allowed according to Confucian ideology. Citizens couldn’t even trim their own hair never mind grab a scalpel and start ferreting through other people’s internal organs! No matter how noble the cause.

So medicine relied on acupuncture and concoctions. Herb diggers went up the mountains to collect roots and herbs. It was a world away from the hospital where we went this week in Gangnam for a medical checkup.

But there was one similarity: we ate juk afterwards!

A medical checkup

An annual medical checkup is mandatory for all company employees. So the hospitals are busy now.

After having our temperatures checked and hands sanitised, we waited for our names to appear on the screen in reception. It’s the same drill every day at this time of year for the nurses who are standing with clipboards preparing to navigate patients through a list of tests from dental checks to colonoscopies.

In the changing room an attendant hands out the trouser suits that patients must wear for the checkup. There’s a range of sizes. I am handed an L.


Fits perfectly.

The examination rooms are spread over three floors so there’ll be some commuting in lifts not to mention time spent in communal waiting areas.

And yet I’m feeling pretty stylish in the wrap over top that ties on the left with matching ankle grazer bottoms. Dare I say this outfit is better than the one I wore to get here?

Especially if available in a darker colour. But alas there is no choice of colours. All female patients are in a pastel peach. Male patients in gentle olive. Everyone’s wearing a mask in the waiting lounge. The rubber wristband accessories are for the lockers. White furniture. A large flatscreen TV on the wall fails to entice as most eyes look down at private mobile devices. 

The morning runs smoothly. Only a slight hiccup when a nurse puts a measuring tape around my waist and reads the result out loud in the BMI room. That was uncalled for. (I didn’t even have a chance to breath in first) Happily my weight remains a secret between me and the machine!

Korean hospital food

So after I wake up from what I believe is called a gastroscopy, I know it’s the end of the checkup. It’s taken over 3 hours altogether and it’s time for Cinderella to change back into her ordinary clothes.

On our way out, we were handed lunch vouchers for the hospital canteen. A canteen that looked more like a trendy cafe with soothing jazz and soft lighting.

rice porridge at the hospital

The only dish on offer though was this rice porridge with water radish kimchi. The chef ladled out our porridge from a huge rice cooker.

And so we find this humble dish surviving in a modern world.

It was simple and tasty. Especially as we hadn’t even had a glass of water since the night before.

Rice Porridge Menu 

The last time I was feeling poorly my sister-in-law came round with my favourite octopus and kimchi rice porridge from the chain Bonjuk.

The menu has a choice of meat, seafood, or veg porridge. Traditional dishes include red bean, sesame, pumpkin, and mung bean. There’s porridge for specific purposes too such as ‘Seafood and kimchi hangover porridge.’ 

In summertime when it’s tradition to eat chicken and ginseng chicken soup, there’s a juk version. Samgyejuk has pieces of chicken (rather than a whole chicken) and the herbs of jujube and ginseng. In winter I like oyster and mesengi seaweed juk.

samgyetang chicken and ginseng rice porridge (juk) from Bonjuk

The most expensive dishes on the menu are the special truffle oil and abalone with seaweed porridge as well as the red crab porridge which both cost  23,000 won. I haven’t tried those yet as I am too stingy.

Heojun became a doctor in the court of King Seonjo (1567-1608) when there was famine and plague, not to mention Japanese invasions (r.1592-1598). For us too, 2020 is having its own challenges. But it seems there is one thing that the people of Heojun’s era and modern times have in common: 

When you are feeling poorly or fragile, you eat rice porridge. 

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Related posts:

Director Lee Byung Hoon, Heojun and Medical-Inspired Dramas

What to eat on a rainy day

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