Korean cuisine: the undiscovered flavor
By Kim Yong-ja
The Korean cooking method is rather simple despite its appearance of being complicated to prepare. The delicious flavors and health benefits of Korean food come from the spices, fermented sauce and paste we use, which are full of vitamin C, antioxidants and protein. Since vegetables are a significant portion of our diet as well, we stay healthy and slim!
Change of taste
As Korea moves further into the global spotlight as a strong economic power, Korean food is gaining momentum as a world cuisine. The globalization of Korean food has been in fast progress amid growing global interest in health. Korean food has taken root, showcasing its taste in eateries and in-flight cuisine services. Makkeolli, Korea’s traditional rice wine, has often been seen of late during banquets for heads of state.
Prosperity and attention to food often coexist. Until about a decade ago, Americans and Europeans alike jumped at the notion of anything spicy. But the global population has become much more open-minded as world travel became more affordable, the Internet spread more widely, and consumers who traditionally shied away from spicy flavors became adventurous and adopted bolder tastes like Korean food. People began to hunger for healthier food and more choices. Finally, the time has come for the world to discover this little-known food.
Korean interest in health and food since ancient times
Since ancient times, food was a very important part of Korean lives. While paintings and fortresses were cherished as important treasures in Europe in the Middle Ages, Koreans immersed themselves in delicious and healthy food that has continued on to the present day. Koreans as a population have one of the longest life spans in the world, along with the Japanese. Bustling restaurants in the cities and extravagant restaurant settings in the Korean countryside confirm how important gastronomy is to Koreans.
Three distinctive styles of preparation
There were three distinctive ways of cooking according to social status in ancient times. The food of the royal court was very opulent and elaborate and at the same time very delicate and refined. Much attention has been paid by the lady cooks in the royal court (called Sanggung) who prepared the customary twelve side dishes as well as rice, soup, grilled meat or braised fish. It is a wonder how they stayed slim! Pavillions like Anapji in Gyeongju or Gyeonghwoeru in Seoul were created over man-made lakes just to set up opulent banquets for the king. A stream (Poseokjeong in Gyeongju) was carved with stone to float the wine cups while the noble scholars recited poems. Provinces delivered their cherished ingredients to the king. Cooks could then create their best dishes with seasonal and non-seasonal ingredients together. The noblemen lived in a different region with their land outside of Seoul, the capital. They developed their own signature dishes with local ingredients which were handed down for generations.
Commoners prepared simple home-cooked food with the crops they produced, which were seasonal and fresh. The flavors were quite often bold and at times crude. Nowadays, this style of food is widely prepared and has also transformed into street food in major cities. The influence of royal cuisine presents itself on special occasions or feast days.
Another kind of cuisine which was very distinctive with its ingredients and method of preparation was the Buddhist temple cuisine. Buddhism reached Korea in 372 from the Qin Dynasty (China). This wholesome religion, the ultimate goal of which is to reach the heavenly state of mind by self-discipline blended well with shamanism (nature worship), was practiced by the population at the time. Even though Buddha himself did not forbid eating meat, Seon Buddhism which was established in Korea discouraged killing animals for eating purposes, and vegetarian food was prepared for the altar.
Royal cuisine had a big influence on temple food. Ladies who devoted their lives to preparing the most delicious meals for the king and his entourage had to leave the palace when they got old. Most of the times, they joined the monkhood and created a fusion of the two, which brought temple cuisine to another level. Vegetables, herbs and other plants growing in the mountain area including a wide array of mushrooms, potatoes, and tofu were used. Pine nuts were added to non-spicy Kimchi, and pine needles to Songpyeon (rice cake with sweet filling) for aroma. Ssam (fresh lettuce or steamed pumpkin leaves wraps) and frying kelp (thick seaweed) originated from the temple cuisine too. Teas were brewed with edible flowers (chrysanthemum) or roasted grains like barley, brown rice and corn. Temple cuisine of various regions developed their own specialties.
Culinary influence of neighboring countries
There were influences of neighboring countries due to Korea’s geographic location, which included invasions. Tofu came to Korea from the Han Dynasty in China approximately 2000 years ago, along with Mandu (dumplings) and noodles. Through the Mongol invasion, grilled meat was introduced to Korea. With its unique seasonings,
Bulgogi and Galbi remain as some of favorite dishes in Korea.
Since Korea is surrounded by the sea on its three sides, we have an abundance of seafood. Dried seafood like whiting, croaker, cuttlefish and whitebait sheets were made to stretch them throughout the winter. Seafood does not mean only fish to Koreans. Seaweed (not the one you see on the shores), kelp (thick seaweed), and other sea plants were consumed. Dried ingredients did not stop with seafood. Cabbages, mountain vegetables like bellflower roots, bracken sprouts, and wild asters were also conserved by drying them. Korean ancestors made a living on agriculture, and were heavily dependant on rice. Though other grains like barley, sorghum, millet and soybeans were cultivated, rice was the symbol of wealth. Nowadays, rice made with multi-grain is widespread to promote better health.
The geographical influence also had a negative impact on the country. During the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, rice and other valuable food items were shipped to Japan and Koreans thereby suffered a widespread shortage of food. It was a harsh survival with only two meals a day during wintertime. For a long time after its independence, Korea could not get out of extreme poverty. In the 1960s, during President Park Chung-hee’s era, Korea started economic growth with a five-year economic plan plus sending construction workers, miners, nurses, and even soldiers to foreign countries. Development of modern farming equipment, fertilizers and increased funds came from Korean workers abroad, and thus food shortage finally eased in the 70s. Bread and noodles became much more popular and meat consumption increased.
Custom and food
There is no other country in the world where food is so closely related to customs. It starts on Jan. 1 by performing a ceremonial bow to parents and grandparents to show respect, and Koreans eat traditional hearty soup (Teokkuk) made with beef broth and sliced rice cakes.
On Full Moon Day on Jan. 15 according to the lunar calendar, Koreans make rice with 5 different grains (Ogokbap) to wish for good health throughout the year.
When a baby is born, seaweed soups are given to the mother to help the flow of milk and the bone structure of the baby. Thus seaweed soups became the traditional birthday soup.
In autumn, we have Chuseok, a feast day equivalent to American Thanksgiving. Elaborate food is prepared with new crops and we have a ceremony for our ancestors to thank them for the abundance of food and then visit their resting places.
During winter solstice _ the shortest day of the year, Koreans start preparing for the New Year. For this day, red bean porridge was made to chase away all bad luck. How convenient it could be if a certain food can chase away bad luck! In modern Korea, few believe such superstition. But it still remains a Korean custom to enjoy the dish during this period.
Simplicity in cooking method
Just by looking at the intricate manner in which Korean food is displayed, one can be very hesitant in the ability to recreate it. But compare to the wide range of ingredients we use from the land and the sea, the Korean cooking method is surprisingly simple. Don’t be intimidated by looking at the thinly sliced ingredients! Most of our vegetables are blanched and then marinated. Or stir-fried before adding the spices. We simply grill or pan-fry the meat with seasoning.
The flavors of Korean food comes from a few spices and already fermented soy sauce and pastes. There is no need to make a concoction of different ingredients to create sauces. Korea's extreme weather, which is arctic cold in winter and steaming hot in summer, contributed to the development of fermented sauce and paste (soybean and chili) which is the base of Korean flavoring. On the top of that, so many different types of pickles and condiments were created by preserving them in those pastes. By combining soy sauce or paste with sesame oil, sesame seeds, sugar and scallion, one can make a wonder with a common ingredients. Since we use this combination for all our food, we can display them together on the table for fish, meat or vegetables alike.
The power of fermented food
Korean food is very healthy not only because of the quantity of the vegetables consumed. While this is a major aspect of it, Korea's fermented soy sauce, soybean (Denjang) and chili paste (Gochujang), which are also staples of Korean cuisine, are large contributors and excellent for health. Fermented food keeps food fresher for a longer period and at the same time, gives very distinctive flavors. Soybeans are a great source of protein, and not only high in nutrients but also provides the digestive tract with living cultures which aids in digestion.
Health benefits of Kimchi
Korea's beloved Kimchi is only a side dish but it can make or break the meal. Though Koreans cannot last more than a few days without it, foreigners cannot expect to like it from the beginning. It is an acquired taste. You need time to get accustomed to Korean flavors. Though it is made with vegetables like radish and cucumber too, it is most often made with cabbage. This vegetable is marinated with salt, chili flakes, scallion, ginger, garlic and small salted shrimp or anchovies. Marinated Kimchi starts to develop a slightly sour taste after more or less two days, which means it is “ripe” and ready to eat. The combination of garlic and this acidity acts as natural preservatives. That is why ripened Kimchi can be stored rather fresh in the refrigerator longer than any other food. Since we eat it as is or can be added to pancakes or stews, the variety of dishes we can create with Kimchi is endless.
How Koreans stay healthy and less obese than Westerners
Besides the benefit of our staple food, Kimchi, it is also the spices and fermented sauce and paste, mentioned above that contribute a great deal to our health. Plus important spice like chili flakes have the highest concentration of vitamin C. Garlic is an antioxidant and is believed to lower cholesterol level. At the same time, it also helps to develop good bacterias like lactobacteria and bifidobacteria which helps digestion. Since we can stay young and slim without much effort we can even indulge ourselves once in a while with a pork belly dish.
Even though we love meat and seafood, we do not consume huge amounts of them alone. It is often part of the dish along with other ingredients. Therefore Koreans eat a balanced diet of these meats and seafood along with vegetables. A wide range of fresh and dried vegetables and roots, some more unusual than others, soy product like tofu and variety of sea product makes Korean food very unique. This variety of ingredients provides not only the balanced nutrition but also necessary fiber. Plants or herbs used for medicinal purposes are also used in daily cooking too. Ginger which is used often to treat colds is widely added for seafood, pork and chicken dishes. Dried bellflower roots are consumed raw or cooked. Ginseng is added to alcohol or chicken soup stuffed with glutinous rice to invigorate our energy. Talking about variety, who could have thought of making an unusual dish out of scary jelly fish!
Any food can be delicious when it is well prepared. Yet there is no other food in the world that has so much depth in flavor and variety of ingredients like Korean food. But it is rather unknown to the rest of the world.
Since the Korean government started promoting Korean food globally, much attention has recently been given to Korean food around the world. It is only a matter of time until Korea's delicious cuisine entices even more people, and the Korean flavors are here to stay!
Who is the writer?
Kim Yong-ja is a gastronomy journalist and has been a cooking instructor since 1993 in New York City and the surrounding region. She has also hosted food shows for cable television networks. In 1995, she wrote a comprehensive guide and cookbook on Western food (Food of the West) in the Korean language. Her columns include “Yongja's cooking class” and “Journey for Taste” for Korea Times, New York and Restaurant Review for Korea Daily (JungAng Ilbo, New York).
In 2009, she wrote “Korean Cuisine” (in English) to share with the world the enticing flavors and health benefits of the food of Korea. This year in April, her third book, “Journey for Taste” on world travel and food, was published in Korean. At present, she is focusing on introducing Korean food to Westerners.