Korean Cuisine is not thought of much since we usually associate Asian food with Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or Americanized Asian dishes. Korean cuisine has not always been in our radar of food, and there is a reason for it.
Not many people are familiar with Korean Cuisine and culture except Koreans. Their food culture has been around for years central in Korea’s agricultural history. Korean’s previous lifestyle has influenced their diet and cooking techniques that continues to this day.
Even though Korean cuisine is becoming more recognized, there are limitations of what we know. Korean dishes are more than Korean BBQ and Kimchi, although they are authentic dishes and cooking techniques to Korea. Their food is rooted in their history and culture centered around family and community.
Before experiencing Korean cuisine, lets learn more about their food history to understand their food culture.
Korean Food History
Korea has a long history of agriculture that continued for over 1000 years influencing their diet and cooking methods. A key factor going hand in hand with their agricultural history is their climate. Koreans’ development of food technology comes from the desire to preserve their food sources from the hot summer and harsh winter.
How? Through the fermentation process which Koreans have been perfecting their methods for years to preserve their food. Korean cuisine thrives on the process of fermentation that has allowed them to develop “cultural legacies for their food”. Their fermentation techniques to preserve their food adds the enriching flavors to their Korean dishes.
Aside from their food technology, their agricultural history has played a role in the balance of their diet. Korean cuisine has a high intake of vegetable consumption balancing their intake of protein. Due to their agricultural history and industry, Korean cuisine uses fresh seasonal ingredients year round with their distinct seasons.
Koreans’ agricultural history is rooted in most aspects of all their culture and food is vastly influenced by their agriculture. Cooked with natural ingredients, it has shaped the Koreans’ group culture rooted in family and community. In Korea, Koreans believe meals is a representation of the mother’s love that is cooked by them. How many cultures can say that?
Another influential factor contributing to Korean food are their neighboring countries and economic and political history. China has inspired Korean dishes with noodles that are not common in traditional Korean cuisine. Noodles that have not been part of Korea’s natural food sources can replace rice dishes. We can’t forget chili peppers introduced by the Portuguese during the 16th century trading. An ingredient stapling the flavors of Korean dishes.
Korean cuisine has a long history rooted in their agricultural history and geographical location. Factors that make Korean food distinct from other Asian and western food cultures.
Characteristics of Korean Cuisine
What makes Korean cuisine distinct?
Their cooking methods, ingredients, values, and culture surrounding their food. Korean dishes have distinct characteristics that define Korean cuisine from other cuisines. More so that Korean food has ranked 9 in the Global Wellness Index, indicating South Korean food is ahead of other Western food cultures.
Some of the characteristics we can identify in Korean food are:
- Use of raw materials and ingredients home to and used in Korea.
- Usage of unrefined, baked, and fermented salts.
- Use of sesame and perilla oil to cook meals.
- Use of medicinal herbs.
- Usage of fermented foods.
- Having dishes with a high intake of vegetables.
- Having meals based on seasonal produce, allows for the use of various, fresh produce each season.
- Korean dishes based on regional areas, Korea has local cuisine based on the regions of Korea.
- Less deep-fried food, since before Koreans had a limit of oil use they pan fry or stir-fry their food.
- Prominent dietary energy is rice, the backbone to Korean dishes.
- Home cooked meals are a staple to Korean cuisine.
These characteristics are essential to making Korean dishes and their food culture. Koreans have various methods of cooking their food that has made it distinct from others and is enriching flavors. What makes Korean food flavors enriching is their use of common ingredients in their dishes.
Common Korean Ingredients
Korea has essential ingredients that add the intense flavors and spice to their food. Since they have perfected their fermentation process to preserve their food sources, Koreans use those fermented foods to create the flavors we taste with every bite.
The kind of ingredients we can expect to find in Korean dishes are:
- Sesame oil
- Chili pepper paste
- Chili pepper flakes
- Soybean paste
- Soy sauce
Green onions and red peppers can also be used to add flavor and for the health benefits. Koreans are very mindful of the ingredients they use and how they cook it much like how they are with their beauty care.
Korean based ingredients and cooking methods make up the traditional Korean dish but, also, the food culture Koreans have at their table.
Traditional Setting of Korean Cuisine
We have all heard about having table manners, whether from our parents or we experienced it in another home. As much as sitting at the table goes for Western culture, we are custom to having family dinners together. However, Koreans’ traditional table setting goes beyond having a meal together.
Korean Table Etiquette
Aforementioned agricultural history has played a vital role in developing their group culture rooted in dedicating, communicating, and consideration for the family. A Korean meal serves as a way to educate and teach common etiquette and courtesy when eating. Koreans meals are a place of respect as in most aspects of their culture.
An important rule of thumb we need to consider when having a Korean meal is to pay attention to the ranking. Ranking in terms of age and social ranking with the eldest and higher rank sitting first and the lower or youngest rank seated closest to the door. Not to mention serving the eldest their drink and allowing them to eat first before we dive in. Just as we serve our elders, we must let someone serve us as it is a custom in Korean table manners.
Korean Dish Placement
Besides having and showing respect towards our eating companions, we need to understand how Korean food is placed before us. Korean dishes are made with the four elements that make Korea’s traditional meal. Each element focuses on one function that relies on one another for flavor, enjoyment, and nutrients. The four elements are bap (cooked rice), kuk (soup), banchan (side dishes), and jang (sauces).
All four elements make the traditional Korean meal served together at the same time. Koreans do not have course meals as Western cultures but place everything at the same time. They have a main dish with two to twelve side dishes they can eat from a low table where guests sit on the floor and eat. Even though now there are high tables and chairs, there are some restaurants where they serve their food traditionally.
Traditional Food Customs
Depending on the occasion of the meal, the foods are never the same. There are appropriate meals for each occasion and utensil usage as well. Traditionally Koreans eat with stainless steel chopsticks and a long stainless steel spoon for rice or soup. They do not use the utensils at the same time to avoid any spillage. Mindfulness is critical and rooted in Korean culture for the past centuries.
Korean food culture and dishes are heavily rooted in their agricultural history and their communal values. Their agricultural lifestyle has contributed to their cooking techniques and diet. Having a balanced meal in Korea has been a staple in their Korean dishes. From eating less meat and more vegetables, it has been their way of cultivating dishes that are both nutritious and flavor intensive.
Korean cuisine has a history dating back centuries that continues into present day South Korea. Foods that are spicy and flavor intensive that we want to keep trying more foods each season.
Korean food has common ingredients found in their dishes, what ingredient is common for you when you cook? Tell us in the comments below.