Slow Food in South Korea
An Introduction to Traditional Korean Cuisine — From Kimchi to Bibimbap
Article and Photos by Anna Maria Espsäter
I must admit my image of Korea was somewhat hazy before my visit. Wedged between its better known neighbors, China and Japan, Korea can sometimes get a bit of a raw deal when it comes to international recognition, but as a nation it’s done very well for itself. To get noticed Korea relies on its 48 million strong population who have turned a poor agricultural backwater ravaged by war into a technological and industrial giant, with brand names known across the globe. Modern as Korea may seem, this is still a society with deep-rooted and age-old traditions, many of which are strongly connected to food, dining and food preparation. My mission was to undertake a journey to sample the many and varied delights of Korean cuisine across the country.
*A quick note of explanation: Korean spelling in English varies somewhat, due to the phonetics used and for simplicity I have here used the most common versions. This feature refers to South Korea only and although culinary traditions are similar across the border to the North, they are unwilling to allow a journalist to roam the country in search of the perfect meal.
Cultural History, Culinary Traditions
Family, dedication, preparation, detail, heritage and time all play a part in Korean food. Many of the dishes are rather time-consuming and hail from a period when food preparation was a real labor of love, usually undertaken by women. The country is quite a contradiction – some 50% of marriages are arranged and there is a strict hierarchy where elders, parents and teachers are still treated with the utmost respect, while at the same time most people live in cities in glass and concrete skyscrapers and divorce rates have soared in recent years. Traditions may have taken a knock, but deep down no matter how modern the surface, Koreans are immensely fond of their heritage and its rituals, a rather quirky mix of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism and Baptism.
In most provinces seafood is abundant along the coastline, whereas in the mountainous interior people eat more meat. The winters are often long and harsh, particularly further north and this has greatly influenced not just the food consumed, but also the storage and pickling/fermentation processes in different regions. Culinary traditions in Korea go far back and the country has a specific imperial cuisine, known as royal palace or royal court cuisine, stemming from the Joseon dynasty, which lasted 1392-1910. In later years this type of cooking has become popular among ordinary Koreans as well and is gaining renown abroad. Furthermore there are numerous dishes that are only made and consumed at certain times of year, during festivities and on special occasions. There are a wide variety of dishes that are tied to specific regions. Before tucking into some these delicacies though, let’s have a look at Korean staple ingredients in a meal.
Basic Korean Ingredients
No meal is complete without a bowl of hot, steamed rice and this is the one dish you must finish if you don’t want to seem rude. Rice is more than just a staple of a great variety of dishes and products; sweets made from different types of rice – pounded short-grain rice, glutinous rice, steamed rice, to name a few – abound, as does rice soups, mixed rice dishes such as bibimbap and of course, rice wine, liqueurs and spirits. Almost all Korean dishes will include at least a couple of the following main seasonings and sauces; hot red chili peppers or hot red chili pepper paste (known as gochujang), soybeans or soybean paste (known as doenjang), soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, ginseng, sea salt, scallions and onion. Meat, seafood, fish, egg yolk, tofu and a wide variety of greens, roots and mushrooms are part of the Korean diet, but the emphasis is firmly on vegetables and grains making this a comparatively healthy nation.
Kimchi – a National Obsession
If there is one thing that defines Korean cuisine or, I hazard to suggest, the Korean national character, it is kimchi. These chili pickled or fermented vegetables are a national obsession. There are over 160 different varieties and there’s even a kimchi museum in Korea. If you don’t learn to like kimchi, I strongly advise you to skip Korea altogether. There is simply no way of spending time here and not having kimchi, sometimes as often as breakfast, lunch and dinner. But what’s not to like? Kimchi is delicious, healthy, tasty and nutritious and the pride and joy of Korean cuisine – the national dish like no other and variations on the kimchi-theme are manifold and mouth-watering. Often described quite simply as pickled cabbage, this is somewhat a misnomer. Although the most common variety of kimchi is certainly made from Chinese cabbage, imported into Korea in the 19th Century, there are numerous other vegetables that are commonly used to make kimchi from radishes and green onions, to cucumbers and leeks. When having their photo taken Koreans don’t say “cheese” to smile, they say “kimchi”. In fact so strong is the love of kimchi that a bride is often known as Miss Kimchi and the groom as Mr. Ginseng. After getting engaged the woman has one year to learn how to make perfect kimchi. If in a year’s time the groom isn’t satisfied with her kimchi-making skills she’s deemed too immature to get married!
|Three different types of Korean kimchi dishes.
The Making and Storing of Kimchi
Making the national dish is an undertaking in and of itself. Despite changing times and a society which is modernizing rapidly, some traditions remain particularly strong. It’s certainly possible to buy ready-made kimchi from the supermarket, but many households still prefer to make their own, particularly in the countryside (although over 80% of Koreans now live in cities). In cities many neighbors get together for a kimchi-making day in the autumn with the whole building making it together. It is an art – a woman needs a whole year to learn it properly, remember? It involves marinating the cabbage – or other vegetables of choice – in salt, seasoning it with brine, garlic, scallions and ground hot red chili peppers, but seasoning can vary widely, and then storing it correctly for it to ferment. Traditionally kimchi would be stored outside, sometimes underground, in large ceramic jars and these can still be seen in backyards and gardens. In cities, to make things simpler, it’s popular to have a special kimchi refrigerator, as the temperature has to be just right to keep the kimchi fresh and crisp tasting, even after the fermentation process.
|Kimchi jars covered with frost in the folk village of Suwon.
Kimchi, although eaten with almost every meal, is actually a banchan, or side dish and Korean cuisine is based around these ubiquitous smaller dishes that make up an average meal. Rice, a soup – often clear – a meat or fish dish and then a variety of smaller banchan and your meal is complete. I started eating my way around the capital, Seoul, where Korean cuisine is at its most varied. Regional dishes, as well as royal palace cuisine and modern day fusion, have all found their way into Seoul’s restaurants and many take banchan to a new level. Koreans use stainless steel or silver chopsticks and, to the relief of many a Western visitor, this is much more of a spoon culture than China and Japan. The side dishes are in no way a random selection of yummy treats, but rather they arrive in such a way as to enhance, complement and balance each other. Korean cuisine is based on principles of balance, with solid and liquid, spicy and mild, hot and cold, working together to form the perfect meal. Certain foods are meant to go together, whereas others should not be consumed during the same meal. Side dishes tend to include various different kimchi and which kimchi is served often depends on the season, e.g. young radishes in summer and a much wider variety in winter. Kimchi was traditionally a winter food staple and many still make kimchi in preparation for winter, dating back from the time when fresh vegetables and greens were not available that time of year, but had to be pickled and stored for the long winter months. However these days, fresh greens and vegetables are popular side dishes and despite its meat-eating, barbeque reputation, Korea is great for vegetarians – and even vegans – as diary products are rare.
|A selection of Korean banchan.
On the Culinary Trail in Korea
Many Koreans take their meals Korean style, i.e., they take their shoes off at the entrance of a restaurant and then sit on a floor cushion in a modified lotus positions, which is hard on the legs, but the quality of the food makes you forget any aches and pains instantly. Seoul has some of the best restaurants in the country and it’s quite tempting never to leave town and just munch your way from place to place. But I was determined to carry on my culinary adventure. Not far from Seoul lies the town of Suwon, home to the Korean Folk Village, an outdoor museum. Apart from giving interesting insights into Korean life in the past, it’s a great introduction to kimchi jars. The Korean Folk Village in Suwon is also the setting for a remarkably popular Korean drama, Dae Jang Geum, set during the Joseon dynasty and filmed on the spot. This drama has meant a resurgence of interest in Korean cooking, particularly royal palace cuisine, across the region and in neighboring countries. In Suwon I was first introduced to the hot clay pot version to the traditional dish bibimbap, known as dolsot bibimbap, but it was only once in Jeonju, the birthplace of this popular rice dish, that I really began to unravel its mystery. However, let’s not jump the gun.
Traditional Barbequed Meats
After a four-hour journey by bus to Korea’s third city in size, Daegu, I found myself in the heart of galbi country. Galbi, or barbequed beef ribs, is traditional cooking at its mouth-watering best and the dish is eaten from a large communal pot set in the middle of the table. Generally speaking all dishes are meant to be shared except your own bowl of rice and soup. Galbi, which literally means ”rib” in Korean, is marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sugar, as well as on occasion, sesame oil, rice wine and hot red chili pepper paste and then cooked on a grill or griddle at the table. The Daegu version arrived in a hot pot type of dish instead and was already cooked in a rather nicely spicy marinade. Another barbequed favorite is bulgogi, meaning “fire meat” and this is perhaps better known than galbi. Also marinated, thin slices of sirloin or prime cut of beef are grilled, often with an assortment of greens and then wrapped into a lettuce, or other green leaf such as sesame leaf, and eaten in one go.
The Home of Bibimbap
Our next stop on the food trail was Jeollabuk-do province and its capital Jeonju, in the western part of Korea. This is the traditional heartland of the country and their regional dish of bibimbap has almost become as synonymous with Korean cooking as kimchi and barbequed meats. So popular is this rice dish that it’s served on the major airlines flying in and out of Seoul and many variations abound throughout the country. In Jeonju, however, they make the original and best. For once I was being made to work for my supper and actually had to try my hand at cooking my own dish.
At the Traditional Cultural Centre in Jeonju there’s a chance to learn Korean drumming, participate in a traditional Korean wedding – I married a Mr. Gay from St. Louis – and then last but not least, have the run of their enormous kitchen. The chef showed us the ropes and then we were on our own. Rice, the main ingredient, is boiled first. The dish includes many different vegetables and although these can vary, my Jeonju version included; cucumber, carrot, courgette, mushroom, spinach, cress, roots, tofu - all fried separately in sesame oil - and marinated minced beef. These were then placed with the colors complementing each other in a bowl on top of the rice. In the middle you add a generous dollop of hot red chili pepper paste and, on top, a raw egg yolk. As decoration, Korean red date, dried, crushed seaweed, ground sesame seeds and gingko nuts are placed around the yolk. By the time the dish is finished it is an amazing mix of color, flavor and texture. Then you are asked to ruin your work of art by stirring it all together. Luckily, the mixed up version tastes absolutely divine, the different flavors blending to create wonderful tastes at once hot and cold, mild and spicy, soft and crunchy.
|Making the Jeonju bibimbap.
Getting Into the Korean Spirit of Things
Jeonju still has a traditional Hanok village in the center, with some 900 old-style Korean buildings. Hanok is based on the human body and endeavors to build in a way that is ideal for promoting health, taking into account a person’s height, eye height, shoulder width, etc. One of these buildings houses the Museum of Traditional Wine and Liquor, a small museum that gives an interesting insight into Korean rice wine, liqueur and spirit-making techniques. There is, of course, also the option — which I found duty-bound to try — of sampling the goods in order to gain as fine an understanding as possible of the process and intricacies of the products.
There are many types of alcoholic beverages in Korea and 86 of them have been declared “cultural properties” by the government. The museum specifically looks at the wine- and soju-making process. Soju, a rice-based spirit, could be considered the national spirit of Korea and it’s distilled from rice wine by-products. Wines often come flavored with fruits, flowers or medicinal herbs and although the former taste delicious, some of the latter are an acquired taste, though they are meant to be good for you.
How to Cook a Quick Bulgogi at Home
Korean food was a revelation, as pleasing to the eye as to the taste buds, and I was determined to try and recreate some of the culinary wonders in my own kitchen at home in England.
Beef sirloin 600g, onions, scallions, mushrooms, 6 tablespoons of soy sauce, garlic, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of crushed sesame salt, 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, 1 tablespoon of ground pepper, 1 tablespoon of molasses, 1.5 tablespoons of rice wine.
Slice the meat thinly against the grain, then marinate in rice wine, molasses and sugar for 30 minutes. Combine the soy sauce with minced garlic, chopped scallions, crushed sesame salt, ground pepper and sesame oil.
Pour the soy sauce mixture over the marinated meat, making sure that it covers it evenly. Pour the meat mixture into a frying pan and cook over high heat. When the meat seems almost fully cooked, add the sliced onions and mushrooms and cook until well done.
Serve with lettuce or sesame leaves for wrapping the meat mixture.
Recipe courtesy of the Korean Tourism Organization.
Places to Eat in Korea:
In Seoul, try places in Myeongdong and Insadong, as well as the 24-hour market of Dongdaemun.
For banchan specialties:
Phildong 2ga, 80-2
If you suddenly fancy a bit of Western fare, Top Cloud has the best views in town:
JongnoTower 33rd Floor,
1-1 Jongno 2-ga
Seoul, 11 Korea
Tel: +82 2 2230 3000
Fax: +82 2 2230 3001
Tosok Icheon Youngyang Dolsot (traditional hotpot meal from Icheon)
Tel: +82 632-7129
Nakyoung steamed beef rib restaurant (galbi-ggim)
Dongin 1ga, 297-1)
Hawshim soondubu (tofu dishes)
Anna Maria Espsäter, a native of Sweden, has lived and worked in Holland, Mexico, and is currently based in London where she works as a freelance food and travel writer. She has a passion for independent
travel, particularly around Latin America and Asia, but there probably isn't a single country in the world she wouldn’t visit given the chance. Having survived an earthquake, tropical disease, armed robbery, and assault while on the road she
still hasn’t given up traveling and has the scars to prove it.