Korean culture is comprised of a multitude of societal changes that have amounted and transformed throughout the years. Beginning five thousand years ago Korea has slowly evolved into a cultural haven. Music, dance, painting, food, fashion, arts, games, karate, family life, theater, religion and beliefs are just a few components that make up modern day Korean culture. Korean cuisine is one of the most unifying of all of these cultural factors. The food in Korea is one of the defining elements of Koreans culture because of its historical background, environmental affinities, long lasting creative techniques and recipes, and use in traditional ceremonies and festivals. Modern day cuisine in Korea is quite progressed from what it once started as, but many of the same traditional dishes still play a major role in Korean diets. As Korea has evolved and gone through intense alterations, so has the food in this country. Major political changes have affected the eating palates of Koreans by changing both the amount of food available and the type of food that is consumed, yet traditional Korean cuisine has managed to survive into the modern day. The origin of Korean cuisine can be traced back to early myths and legends that have been passed down, generation to generation, throughout the years. Looking at the historical nature of Korea can also be helpful in showing the foundation of Korean food. The Three Kingdoms Period in Korea lasted from 57 BCE to 668 CE. The first kingdom was Goguryeo, which is located in the northern part of the Korean peninsula, known today as Manchuria. The second kingdom, Baekje, was located in the southwestern part of the peninsula and the third kingdom, Silla, was located in the southeast corner of the peninsula. Each of the three kingdoms had unique cuisines that were specific to the area they were in because of the varying climates of each region. During the Three Kingdoms Period, fermented food began to be seen and played a huge role in Korean’s everyday lives.
During this period there are no actual records of the food that was prepared or cooked and therefore no writings of seasonings or ingredients that were used to prepare their meals. The only record of any Korean food during this period was the mention of Kimchi, the national Korean traditional dish. Following the Three Kingdoms Period was the Unified Silla period, which began in 668CE and continued until 935CE. Silla unified most of the southern region of Korea, while migrants from Goguryeo unified the north, eventually renaming the area Balhae. Korea was ultimately nified under the Goryeo dynasty. During this time of unification is when the spread of the Korea peninsula to the Western World began. In the 13th century, after the Goryeo Dynasty was out of power, the Joseon Period commenced. Around 1429, under King Sejong, the publication of books on agriculture and farming techniques began. Because of these early informative novels, the second half of the Joseon period proved to be quite different from the first half. Silhak scholars were more inclined to place importance on the agricultural industry, which was the first time this was seen in Korea. Because of this, government began to play a major role in coming up with new agricultural systems and techniques to help improve farming as well as other aspects of life. The first step that the government took in trying to help the peasantry was reduced taxation, which in turn prompted the opportunity to come up with complex irrigation systems leading to eventual increased trade with China, Japan, Europe, and the Philippines.
New crops began to show up in Korea because of the government’s aid to commoner’s agricultural needs. Some of these crops included corn, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and squash. One of the most important items introduced to Korea during this time period was Chinese cabbage, also known as brassica. Chinese cabbage was important because it would become the main ingredient in kimchi. As the Joseon period ended, the country was showing signs of massive improvement as well as signs of continuing trade with the Western World, China, Japan, the United States, Britain, and France. The exchange of food boded well for all countries involved. New cultural foods were being shown to Korea that they had never before seen. Not only did trade with other countries introduce a variety of new foods to Korea, Western missionaries traveling through Korea also proved to be a huge component in cultural cuisine exchange. After the fall of Joseon Dynasty, there was a thirty-six year period of colonization by the government of Japan. With Japan in power, the adoption of many Japanese cultural ways, including agricultural techniques and systems, was inevitable. Some of these new techniques involved combining smaller farms into large-scale farms to help yield a larger amount of crops, which would be exported to Japan. The problem was that although crop production, especially rice production, was increasing most of these crops were being shipped out of the country. To make up for this loss, Koreans also began to increase the production of grains such as millet and barley for Korean use only. Under Japanese control, the way meals were eaten and served also changed Korean’s lives. Koreans began to eat only two meals a day during cold season and three a day during warm seasons.
The meals became very repetitive with little variation on a day-to-day basis. The lower levels of society would share a single bowl of white rice and the rest of their meals were composed of lower quality grains. After Japan was defeated in World War II the colonial period in Korea ended as well. After the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Cold War and the Korean War eventually separated Korea into North and South Korea. Because of this separation food became even scarcer than it previously had been during the Japanese period. Under President Park Chung Hee, industrialization was brought to Korea. Agricultural techniques completely changed with the advent of new machinery and other industrial concepts. Agriculture production was increased through the use of new equipment and commercialized fertilizers and nutrients. Thus in turn, the overall quality of all Korean food increased, including meats, dairy products, and vegetables. Korean meals are comprised of rice, their staple ingredient, soup, and a variety of side dishes. Usually included in these side dishes is the use of vegetables, pork, poultry, and, more often than not, seafood. Being that Korea is a peninsula and surrounded by water, seafood is easily obtained to use in culinary dishes. The total coastline of Korea, including islands, is 17,270km. The coastline of Korea is filled with fishing villages that make a living by selling seafood. The East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, is full of migrating schools of fish whereas the inlets and bays are mostly packed with oyster beds.
The west coast of the Korean peninsula has extremely shallow water and therefore fishing is done with traps. Often caught in these traps are mullet, shad, and corvenia. Fishermen in Korea even go as far as the South Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, searching for salmon, tuna, sometimes whales, ray, eel, croaker and various other types of fish and seafood. Seafood is not only used in Korean meals but it can also be a tasty snack throughout the day. Ojingo is dried squid jerky and one of Korean’s favorite snacks. Some examples of fish are hoe, which is sliced raw fish and meet and Chotkal, salted fish, which brings about the salty side of dishes. Fish, clam, fish eggs, or internal organs of fish can all become chotkal simply by being salted and preserved until they are fermented. As aforementioned, rice is the main staple of Korean diets and is an essential part of every meal. A simple meal in Korea is comprised of a bowl of rice, pap, and a few side dishes, panchan. Some side dishes include soup, kimchi, cooked vegetables, and fish along with sauces such as soybean paste, doenjang, and red pepper paste, kochujang. The only variety shown in Korea is within the side dishes served.
The number of side dishes varies depending on social status. A lower class family will normally have approximately three side dishes but royal families could have about twelve. In ancient times rice was equivalent to wealth and was a way for farmers to estimate their own worth. Tapok rice is rice that grows in lowland paddies and is usually sticky when served. Upland rice is usually dried and milled for flour and most prominently used for beer brewing. The second most important part of Korean meals is the soup, kuk or t’ang. Soup must be included in every meal. It is the only liquid that is given and it is placed to the left of the rice bowl. Soups have a wide range going from mild vegetable soups to powerful, spicy stews. The primary ingredients of soup are meats, fish, and vegetables. Some examples of soups in Korea are kalbi-tang, a rich beef soup, mandu-guk, meat dumpling soup similar to Chinese wonton soup, miyok-kuk, seaweed soup often eaten for breakfast, tubu chige, a fiery stew made of tofu and red pepper paste, and mae’unt’ang, a fish soup containing white fish, scallions, vegetables, tubu, kochujang, and egg. Kimchi is the national dish of Korea and has been around for centuries.
Kimchi has survived throughout the years because Koreans are particularly passionate in regards to this dish. Some Koreans even go as far to say that kimchi nourishes the soul as much as it nourishes the body. The name kimchi has evolved throughout time, originating from the word shimchae, meaning salting of vegetable. There are little to no historical records of kimchis origin and development. It was first born around the seventh century, but at that time it was just thought of as purely a salted vegetable. Only during the twelfth century did a new type of kimchi appearance, which began to include various spices and seasonings that are seen in present day kimchi. One of the most important spices in modern day kimchi is red pepper, which only arrived around the eighteenth century. One of the main reasons why kimchi was even invented was because of the popularity of vegetables. Agriculture was a main industry in Korea and vegetables were readily available. Also readily available to Korea was Chinese cabbage, one of the staple ingredients of kimchi. Another reason was that Korea had remarkable technology to slate fish. This technology was used frequently in the making of kimchi. Kimchi is usually made from cabbage, cucumbers, or turnips, which are sliced into small pieces and marinated in red pepper paste. Other ingredients include garlic, ginger, salt, red chili pepper, and vegetables.
In Korea, the making of kimchi is part of the tradition and appeal of the dish itself. Every November there is the ritual of making kimchi during the national festival called kimjang. During this season, the cabbage is sweet and tender and is in the best state to make kimchi. At kimjang, food markets receive an abundance of truckloads of Chinese cabbage as well as all the accompanying ingredients needed to make kimchi. To make kimchi, the cabbage must be cut up, salted and seasoned with chili, pepper, and garlic and then packed into large stone jars to ferment. Fermentation time depends on the season in which kimchi is made. Something that is extremely unique to kimchi is the way in which it is stored. The storage process of kimchi was developed during the cold winters. Large pots were placed below the ground in order to allow kimchi to ferment during these times of cold temperatures.
After this fermentation time period, the kimchi will then be ready to eat. There are three types of kimchi. The first one is called whole cabbage kimchi or jeotgukji. The second is diced radish kimchi or kkakdugi and the third is water kimchi. Water kimchi is made with just radish and water. The radishes should be washed and slated for a full day before being buried in a jar under ground to ferment. There are both hot and cold variations of the dish. In the present day, there are over two hundred variations of kimchi depending on the season, region, and personal preference. Modern day kimchi has become increasingly easier to get worldwide. There are now many pre-packaged, ready to sell kimchi in grocery stores around the world. Recently kimchi has also been proven to be extremely nutritious and in the future may even become a recommended food by many nutritionists. The difference between ancient and present day kimchi is that most Koreans do not have the time to make kimchi. Nowadays even some Koreans are buying kimchi from supermarkets. Another important component of Korean culinary is beans. They serve as an excellent source of protein.
Mung beans are cooked whole or ground into a flour substance to make a popular Korean snack called pindaetook. Pindaetook are crunchy fried pancakes that are seasoned. Soybeans are also cooked whole or used to make bean curd. An important usage of soybeans is in the making of doenjang. Doenjang is a traditional Korean food that has been carried through the generations and is now seen in many other countries. Doenjang is made from soybeans, rice, barley, wheat, or fattened soybeans. These ingredients are then mixed with salt and go through a fermenting and maturing process. Some beneficial elements of doenjang are that it keeps its own unique taste even when combined with a variety of other ingredients and seasonings, it does not decay for long periods of time, it removes fish and oily flavors, and it neutralizes spicy tastes. In modern day, doenjang has been proven to have linoleic acid and a few other substances that can suppress about ninety percent of the production of the cancer-causing substances. Doenjang also has roughly one hundred billion enzymes in about one hundred grams that are proven to soften the skin and aid the digestive tract. Noodles are another part of the Korean diet. They are usually made from buckwheat or just plain wheat flour. The most popular noodles are the brown colored buckwheat noodles that are served in soups. Some examples of noodle dishes are mokkuksu, which is the simplest noodle dish cooked with either beef or chicken stock and served with kimchi, kalguksu, a hot and filling noodle dish made from buckwheat and potato flour seasoned with a hot pepper taste, mullaengmyon, a cold noodle soup, and chapch’ae, a noodle dish mixed with vegetables. Meat is another important element of Korean cuisine. Meats can be ground, sliced, roasted, fried or broiled depending on the dish.
Frequently the appropriate seasonings are added to meat to enhance the flavor and taste of the dish. Pulgogi is a traditional meat Korean dish. Pulgogi is broiled beef strips and ribs of beef that are cooked on a hot iron plate at the table. The meat is marinated well in advance in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, pepper, chili, toasted sesame seeds, and green onions. Another well-known Korean meat dish is Kalbi Kui, which is quite similar to pulgogi in that it is cooked in the same way. Instead of using beef slices, short ribs are used which are first marinated in sugar, green onions, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Some other popular Korean dishes are pibimpap, a bowl of rice served with a variety of cooked and raw vegetables, kujol-p’an, a dish of pancakes that have fillings such as black mushrooms, carrots, radishes, green onions, eggs, kimchi, beef, and toasted sesame seeds, and sinsullo, a pot of meats, vegetables, and nuts simmered together and served with a vinegar and soy sauce dip. Desserts in Korea are not the same as desserts in the United States. They usually do have dessert after a meal is finished. Rather they eat sweets, such as pastries, in bakeries or tearooms. After the meal, they usually have something intended to cleanse the palate. Sungyung is a broth made from water boiled in the bottom of the rice pot, which can be served with seasonal fruit or rice cakes, ttok. Rice cakes are made in a rice cake steamer by steaming rice flour.
P’at is a red bean that is present in many desserts in Korea as well. When invited over to home for a traditional Korean meal, there is usually a low table set up in which people will sit on cushions to enjoy the meal. The whole meal is served at one time, which is different from many other countries cultural traditions. The rice and soup sit beside the individual plates and the side dishes are spread out in the middle of table for people at the table to help themselves to. The first person to eat is the most elderly person and everyone else must wait until he or she begins. It is very impolite to not do so. Unlike the United States, meals are not a time for conversation to happen. Korean meals are often eaten in silence, unless they have guests from other countries visiting. Koreans do not use knives or forks. They mostly use chopsticks but soup is to be eaten with a spoon. During the meal, you are not allowed to place your spoon and chopsticks on the table unless you are done eating, in which you place them beside your plate to signify that you are done with your meal. Rather, you must put your spoon and chopsticks on top of your bowl if you are taking a break from eating. You cannot leave the table until the eldest person is finished leaving and they must leave the table first. Korean hospitality is very gracious.
Most Koreans do not feel that they ever have enough food for their guests and that even the biggest of feasts and meals is not enough. Hostesses will continue to ask you if you want more to eat even after you have placed your utensils beside your plate. They will say “Mogo! Mogo! ” which means, “Eat! Eat! ” The hostess will ask a total of three times before they realize that are completely finished eating. After the third time, they will not ask again if you want more food. Another difference between the United States and Korea is that you don’t usually give praise to the cook after the meal. Rather you simply state that the food was good. There needs to be no other compliments given. Two things that are never to be done when eating a Korean meal are to never eat with your fingers and to never blow your nose at the table. Both of these shows sign of huge disrespect to the household you are invited into. Korean cuisine has more than evolved throughout the years, but many of the same traditional dishes can still be seen in present day Korea. The cultural tradition of Korean food is the main reason why so many foreigners are intrigued by the tastes, smells, flavors, and overall appearance of their culinary dishes. Korean traditional dishes, such as kimchi and the use of doenjang, will continue to play a vital role in the households of Korea well into the future. Korean culture has already made its way to the Western world, and because of the ingenuity and innovativeness of their culinary expertise, it will continue to do so many years to come!
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