South Korea’s consumption of dog meat is well-known, and was recently in the spotlight again as athletes from around the world descended on the country for the Winter Olympics. What’s less frequently discussed is the connection between dog meat and the country’s long tradition of gendered foods—specifically “masculine” foods.
Many foods in Korea, such as dog meat stew (bosintang), are deemed to be “good for men.” From everyday foods, such as garlic or chives, to eel soup and gaebul—“penis fish,” a species of marine worm that resembles the male appendage—these ingredients are recommended for their ability to enhance male sexual performance. Bbeolddok-ju, or “erection wine,” is a rice-based wine that’s made with fruits, and comes with a phallus-shaped cap bearing a smiley face.
But these traditions are changing rapidly in a Korea where the younger generations are pushing back against long-established patriarchal norms, meaning the desire for gendered foods is increasingly the hallmark of a man of a certain age.
In Korean, the term jongryuk, or stamina, is used interchangeably to refer to one’s daily energy as well as one’s sexual endurance, though it’s more often used to mean the latter. Influenced by concepts from traditional Chinese medicine and ideas of yin and yang (“hot” and “cooling”), these foods come with their own folklore celebrating male virility. Dog meat, for example, is said to be particularly good for the body in the summer months.
One legend associated with bokbunja, a raspberry-based wine consumed mostly by older Korean men, tells of a man in ancient times who urinated with such force that he overturned his chamber pot. The name of the wine itself is a homonym for “person who flips over their chamber pot.”
“It is popular to talk about stamina foods,” said Jung Seo-young, a chef and founder of Bburi Kitchen, a traditional Korean cooking school. “[Korean] society is very conservative, and talking about one’s sex life is taboo,” so talking about “stamina” is a subtle way to broach the subject.
Besides associations with traditional concepts of healing, male-oriented foods are often touted for their anthropomorphic qualities, said Jung. “For example, an octopus’s [phallus-shaped] tentacles moves vigorously. In [texts] from the Chosun dynasty [1392–1910], they advised people to eat it for stamina.”
Jenna Park, a 26-year-old recent graduate in Seoul, said that her ex-boyfriend would tell her not to eat all of the eel when they went out for dinner together. “He said the tails, which are said to be the most powerful part of the eel, were better to be eaten by men like him.”
Female sexuality, however, remains a major taboo, and foods in Korea that are catered to women usually focus on beauty or motherhood.
“Miyeok-guk (seaweed soup) is good for women who are lactating and restoring their bodies after childbirth,” said Jennifer Flinn at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, an expert in food anthropology. “But there’s no (food) to make women last longer at sex.”
It isn’t only food that is gendered in Korea. The spaces in which they are consumed are too.
A visitor to any of Korea’s vast array of meat-oriented restaurants specializing in dishes like kogi jib (barbecue), gamjatang (spicy pork bone stew), and galbitang (beef bone stew) might notice how many of these establishments are dominated by male customers across the age spectrum. In many of the more traditional meat restaurants, posters advertise the fiery liquor soju featuring sexy actresses in suggestive poses.
In terms of food-related gatherings, the culture is still very much gender segregated in Korea, said Cho Hae-lim, a gender and development studies professor at Ehwa Womans University in Seoul. “I think it’s part of our patriarchal culture where men [are perceived to] talk about politics or work, and women are more interested in child-rearing or hagwon (tutoring schools).”
The first time she ventured to try dog meat stew in Seoul almost 20 years ago, Flinn, the food anthropologist, said her male classmates tried to dissuade her from coming along. “’It’s OK for you to try this once, but you already have too much power [as a Western] woman,'” Flinn recalled them telling her. “‘Bosintang will make you too powerful.'” Eating “male” dishes is often considered a male bonding activity, Flinn added, and usually involves “getting blitzed on soju at a barbecue restaurant.”
But interest in dog meat, along with other kinds of “masculine” foods and the culture that surrounds it, is dying. Young Korean men are just not that interested in the idea of stamina, said Yoon Won-jin, a 34-year-old entrepreneur in Seoul. “Our generation, we know what stamina food is but we usually don’t care about it and don’t want to eat it.”
In a 2016 poll by research firm Gallup, only 20% of South Korean men in their 20s said they ate dog meat that year, compared with over 50% of men in their 50s and 60s.
Furthermore, stamina food is about power and self-esteem, and embedded in that is the goal of growing one’s family—something that is no longer a priority these days, said Ehwa Womans University’s Cho, as both marriage and fertility rates in Korea hit historic lows and more people embrace individualistic lifestyles. “In my father’s generation, they used to think that having more children was a virtue. If you eat stamina food, you’ll have more sons equivalent to a labor force. But now it’s changing.”
Even the #MeToo movement—which has exploded in Korea—is possibly having an impact. In the current environment of heightened awareness of gender equality, discussions of male sexual prowess and virility are increasingly inappropriate. Men getting together to bond over stamina foods and drinks, Cho said, is a “dying culture.”
The second image in this article was taken by Rystheguy and shared under the Creative Commons license on Wikicommons.