Korean Cuisine

Healthy, Low-Fat and Delicious
An Ancient Cuisine — And the World’s Leading Spirit
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“Korean food is a nearly perfect answer to our modern quest for a healthy, low-fat, delicious diet.” —  Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall [1]

Korea is one of the world’s ancient civilizations, with one of the great cuisines.  And it is home to the world’s top-selling alcoholic drink!

Korean food is known for its combination of robust and delicate flavors and for its use of Garlic, Green Onions, and Hot Red Peppers, as well as extensive use of pickling.

Gourd-Shaped Ewer, Koryo Dynasty

The classical Korean cuisine was based on the cooking served to the Royal Family of Korea, as provided by high-class Yangban official families closely related to the Royal Family.

There are many different styles of cooking in the different provinces of the country, and also as practiced by different old families, which handed down their recipes, iften in secret.

The main dishes in a traditional Korean meal are steamed Rice, Soup, Kimchi and Sauces.

Stews or preserved dishes would typically be added, and the number of dishes served in a meal would be in odd numbers — three, five seven and so on.

Meals consisting of seven or nine dishes were typical of upper-class families, while only the Royal Family was said to have enjoyed a spread of twelve dishes.

Pan Chan Small Dishes Served at a Traditional Koean Meal

Pan Chan Small Dishes Served at a Traditional Korean Meal

A distinctive feature of traditional Korean meal service is the presence of Pan Chan, an array of small appetizer-like dishes typically laid out in addition to the main featured dishes.

Exception to the Rule of Twelve: A professor at Yonsei University has published a menu for an elaborate meal — which might be served at a restaurant or kisaeng house — with 24 dishes. So the traditional limitation on number of dishes was not always followed.

Types of Dishes:Korean recipes are traditionally divided into —

  • Main Dishes
  • Side Dishes
  • Desserts and
  • Beverages

Kimchi, Rice and sometimes stews are considered main dishes.

Traditionally, Rice has always been so important that its purity and careful cooking have been fundamental to meal preparation, as shown by the quote from an older cookbook, that rice should be well washed, up to five times.

“Pick over the rice carefully and wash 5 times.” — Harriet Morris [3]

The principal cereal food is Rice, followed by Barley. These are the main crops grown in Korea. [4]

Secondary foods include —

  • Potatoes
  • Wheat
  • Millet
  • Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Daikon Radish
  • Red Peppers

Various beans — Soy Beans, Kidney, Black Beans — are all popular and important food sources.

In a third group of crops are Sorghum and vegetables like

  • Cucumbers
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Pumpkins
  • Onions
  • Spinach

Of less importance are Corn (Maize), Buckwheat, Turnips and Carrots as well as Fruits.

In recent years, cultivation of high-quality fruits has become a major export industry.  Citrus fruits, Apples and in particular a new hybrid pear, commonly called Asian Pear, are profitable export crops.

Korea has well-developed fishery and seafood industries and also enjoys a good export trade in man y marine products, especially Cod Roe or Pollack Roe and edible Laver or Seaweed.

Korean Edible Laver

National Dish: Kimchi is the national Dish of Korea.  Kimchi is a pickle made from raw vegetables, with sometimes bits of meat or seafood added to impart additional flavor. Fresh Cabbage Kimchi is a good example of this huge class. According to some recent research, the fermentation bacteria associated with Kimchi may help in protecting from cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease.  A classic fermented Kimchi is Fresh Cabbage Kimchi with Oysters.

Among Beverages: Although Koreans do drink tea, the country is not a heavy tea-drinking country.  Instead, a variety of infusions, commonly called “teas,” are popular. Koreans drink a variety of teas made with Ginger, or a variety of other plans. One favorite is a tea made from the plan called Job’s Tears.

Alcoholic Beverages: Korean beer is is famous worldwide.  One brand of Soju, a kind of vodka-like spirit similar to Japanese Shochu, is the world’s most widely sold distilled spirit.

Major cooking techniques include boiling, slow-simmering, and braising.  Also —

  • Pan-frying or saute
  • Deep frying
  • Steaming

Grilling, especially over charcoal, is a popular method of cooking meats.

Important seasonings, besides Red Peppers and Soy Sauce, are a dipping mixture made with Soy Sauce and Vinegar and a seasoning powder made with Sesame Seeds and Salt.  Korean cooks like to use a clear white vinegar often, and a German variety of white vinegar has become a cooks’ favorite.

Some Dishes: One of the most famous Korean dishes is Bulkogi, a grilled meat specialty.  With Kimchi, plain White  Rice, and maybe a soup, this makes  a complete simple meal. The secret lies in the marination and grilling the meat perfectly, preferably over charcoal. In Korean-infuenced Fusion cuisine, we find dishes like Bulkogi Style Carne Asada. Various types of Meat Balls,such as Pork Meat Balls.

Another popular dish is Kalbi, or stewed meat on the bone. Other barbecue dishes include Broiled Beef Heart.

Grasshopper Salad: Korean cuisine uses many unusual ingredients, from a Tea made with the Job’s Tear plant to unusual Seaweeds to things like Grasshopper Salad.

Bean Curd/Dubu: Koreans began making Soybean Curd, called Dubu in Korean, during the Koryo Dynasty, which lasted from 918 to 1392. In the ten years after the Korean War, which ended in 1953, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, and Bean Curd was a major protein source.

Fairy’s Brazier: Another famous dish in Korea is Shinsullo, food cooked in a chafing dish — originally of Chinese origin — also called “Fairy’s Brazier” in English. A stew cooked in this utensil might consist of one or more kinds of meat, fish or shellfish, with some vegetables and in some versions a pasta similar to macaroni might be added to the broth.

Noodles and Dumpling dishes are also popular. Cold Noodles or Naengmyon is one of the most famous.

Korean dumplings, too, are justly famous.  Martha Stewart has published a recipe for Pork Dumplings that makes 90 pieces, which can be a convenience for parties and picnics. We can see some contemporary versions of Dumplings or Mandu in places like Bukchon Son Mandu on Cafe Street in the Hapjeong district of Seoul.

Vegetarian cuisine — Although Korea is known for its broiled and stewed meat dishes — Bulkogi, Kalbi and various meat balls and dumplings — many Koreans are pure vegetarian. A whole school of vegetarian cuisine has grown up. Hangawi, located in the Korean Canyon in midtown Manhattan, is a good place in North America to try this.

Korean Nouvelle and Fusion: Recent years have seen Korean chefs move in new and adventurous ways, using Dairy foods and other innovative ingredients and techniques, sometimes adapting and adopting unfamiliar and new techniques from other cuisines and at others using new ingredients and flavorings. Some examples: Bulkogi Style Carne Asada, and also the new Fell + Cole line of artisanal ice creamery.

Contemporary upscale Korean cuisine might pair Grasshopper Salad with a dish of Rice, Anchovy and Turnip and a Ginseng Macaroon.

Health and Nutrition: With its emphasis on cereals, vegetables, food, and simple, lean meats, simply prepared, Korean food is low-fat and nutritious. On average very low amounts of fats and oils are used. The high amounts of Red Pepper used appear to have many health benefits. Together with other cuisines of the Rim, Korean cuisine has its own version of Rice Porridge or Gruel, called Juk, as in Mushroom Congee

Jar with Abstract Foliage, Joseon Dynasty

For Further Information:

[1] Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen: A Cookbook (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 20010
[2] Cornelius Osgood, The Koreans and Their Culture (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1951, 1969).
[3] Harriet Marris, The Art of Korean Cooking (Tokyo:Tuttle, 1959)
[4] Tae Hung Ha, Customs and Family Life (Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1968).
[5] Recipe Sources:
[6] Hangawi Vegetarian Restaurant —  http://www.hangawirestaurant.com
[7] Fell + Cole artisanal ice creamery – 310-11 Sangsu-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, fellncole.com.
[8] Bukchon Son Mandu – 414-16 Hapjeong Dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, mandoo.so.
[9] Nicholas Lander, “In sesrch of a grasshopper salad; The streets of Seoul are a maize,” Financial Times, October 17, 2010. He reports that Jung Sik Dang was memorable for a fried grasshopper salad, a dish of rice, anchovy and turnip; pork belly with pickled mushrooms and ginseng macaroons.”

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Korea - 60 Won stamp - ewer

8 thoughts on “Korean Cuisine

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