Introduction to Korean Cuisine
Korean food is a unique cuisine that grew from the country's culture, environment, geography and climate. Although it shares ingredients and certain aspects with its Chinese and Japanese neighbors, it's a food culture that has its own flavors, spices, ingredients and techniques.
As a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by ocean and having a land rich with mountains, the terrain created microclimates, which produced distinct growing areas that helped lead to all of the regional variations and specialties. The rich plains and valleys, where South Korea's capital Seoul resides, are where rice, vegetables, fruits and beans were cultivated. The mountains were perfect for growing mushrooms, wild ferns and roots. The surrounding seas provided an abundance of fish, seafood, seaweed and sea salts that help balance out the cuisine.
Korean food is all about balance. A meal is created keeping the idea of harmony in mind, with a bit of sweet and salty, spicy and mild, hot and cold, yin and yang. A "traditional" meal is composed of rice, a soup, kimchi and a variety of smaller side dishes, called "banchan." Each diner gets his/her own bowl of rice and soup, while everything else is shared. There are no courses, per se, except during special "royal" meals, which were reserved for kings, queens and members of the court. The only time rice isn't served is when the meal is noodle based.
The cuisine also benefits from historic trade. Food like chile peppers, garlic and sweet potatoes were brought over from the Americas after the 15th century. One can't imagine Korean dishes, especially the famous fermented dish, kimchi, without these essential ingredients. However, Koreans were pickling vegetables long before spicy peppers and pungent garlic reached its shores.
But don't think that Korean food is too spicy. The good thing about the cuisine, is that the individual diner gets to decide how spicy they would like their meal. Accompanying dipping sauces, kimchis and condiments are set aside for you to add and enjoy as you wish.
The beauty of Korean cuisine is in the variety. There are grains, grilled meats, salted seafood, vegetables sautéed in garlic, savory flatcakes, cold noodles, steaming hot pots, porridges, salads, raw fish, sauces, simmered dishes, soups and so much more.
Rice is the staple of a Korean diet. Although not indigenous to the peninsula, Koreans embraced it as the centerpiece of a meal. The word for cooked rice (bap) is synonymous with the word for "meal." Although the grain was originally reserved for royalty, due to its high expense, it became such an important part of the culture, that there are words for it when it's uncooked (ssal), cooked (bap), and even when it's slightly burned (nuleungji). Rice is not only a part of a meal, it's also used to make rice cakes (ddeok), porridges (jook), mixed with other grains, mixed with meats and other vegetables (bibimbap) and even made into wines and other alcohols.
Korean food is a seasonal cuisine made with whatever vegetables are growing nearby, items that are cultivated for the weather and meats and seafoods that can be gathered in the area. Vegetables are seasoned with garlic and sesame oil to make simple, but delicious, side dishes. They are added to batter to make savory flatcakes, which used to be a popular food for feasts (but can now be found sold as street food on carts and stands on sidewalks and street corners).
Vegetables and leafy greens are used to wrap rice, meats and seafoods. You may have noticed curly leaf lettuce (called "ssam" in Korean) served alongside your meat at a BBQ joint. Koreans like to put their meat in the lettuce, season it with a bit of "ssamjang," made from "dwenjang," a fermented soybean paste and "gochujang" seasoned with garlic and other flavors), wrap it up and put the whole thing in their mouths all at once.
Other sauces and condiments found in Korean cooking, include soy sauce, sesame oil (made from toasted sesame seeds), chile powder and a delicious chile paste called "gochujang"—a thick, fermented condiment made from chile powder, glutinous rice and salt or soy sauce.
Legumes, like red beans, soybeans and mung beans (called "nokdu" in Korean), are also an important part of Korean cuisine. Soybeans are not only made into tofu ("dubu"), but it's also eaten steamed, made into soy milk, and used as a base for noodles. Even the soybean sprouts ("kongnamul") are eaten as a side dish, made into soups and mixed with rice. The fermented soybean is made into a paste ("dwenjang"), which is similar to miso, but has a chunkier texture and earthier taste.
Although some of Korea's vegetables—like zucchinis, squashes, eggplants, green onions and peppers—may be somewhat familiar, there are also some vegetables that are unique to Korea, such as perilla leaves ("ggetnip," a.k.a. sesame leaves), Korean chives ("buchu," a.k.a. Korean leeks, that look like bunches of long grass) and fern bracken ("gosari," a brown plant that grows in mountainous regions).
So many different vegetables grow in Korea, but the winters can be harsh and cold as the winds from Siberia make their way south over the land. Kimchi, Korea's fermented vegetable dish, grew out of this need to preserve the autumnal crops so that the people could have vegetables through the winter.
Seafood has been a part of the Korean diet dating back to antiquity. Because Korea is surrounded by ocean on three sides, even the lowest commoners could enjoy clams, oysters, fish, abalone, squid and other delights from the sea. Seafood is enjoyed raw, grilled, boiled, in stews, in soups or even dried.
Meat has been part of the Korean diet for centuries, as well. However, it hasn't played a big role on the daily table until the middle of the last century. Beef, pork or chicken were generally reserved for special occasions or guests.
A great introduction to Korean food is to try it first at a restaurant or make an easy recipe at home. Korean barbecue joints can be found in most major cities in the world and have made their way into smaller towns. It's a great way to venture into the world of Korean cuisine, like dipping your toe to test the waters before going for a full culinary swim.
Whether it's in a restaurant or in your own home, we welcome you to explore the flavors and varieties Korean cuisine has to offer. So, open up your palate to a cuisine that will, hopefully, begin a love affair of a lifetime.