Korean cuisine in general exhibits a lot of influence from her neighbors – China and Japan. Korean cuisine, like Chinese cuisine, practices food/nutrition therapy. In addition to the awareness that every food ingredient is either yin (cold) or yang (heat), each food ingredient in composition with other food ingredients also exudes positive and negative impacts on the wellbeing of the human body. This awareness is based on the belief of the natural powers of yin and yang, and the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The five elements are represented by food ingredients of five different natural colors – green, red, yellow, white and black. An example of a common dish that reflects the application of the five elements is the Biminpap or mixed rice; rice topped with meat and vegetables of different colors.
Korean cuisine is also typically more extravagant with a large number of dishes served and is definitely more heavily seasoned. The seasonings commonly used are similar to those used in Chinese cuisine and includes garlic, ginger, green onions, sesame, soy sauce and red and black peppers. Compared to Japanese cuisine, Korean cuisine uses more vegetables and dishes are usually prepared in larger quantities.
Korea’s abundant coastline contributes to a cuisine that is rich in seafood. The inner parts of Korea are made up of rugged mountains and narrow valleys that provide fertile ground for a large variety of vegetables, fruits and grains.
Typical Korean Meal
While modern Korean homes now have a more western kitchen/dining room with high tables and chairs, meals are often still served at a low table with dinners sitting on cushions on the floor. A typical Korean meal is usually served family style. Dishes are shared as opposed to individual plates of a complete meal. It usually comprises of a starch dish as a base and an impressive assortment of small pickled and fresh vegetables, seafood and meat dishes.
Starches are usually rice or noodles. The assortment of side dishes, also known as the Ban Chan, are usually prepared and presented in a certain order according to temperature, taste, texture or color to harmonize the entire meal experience. They are arranged around the main dish called the Changkuksang.
A traditional extravagant Korean meal is like a display of a cooks culinary skills and usually consists rice, a soup, kimchi, a seasoned vegetable dish (namuru), a stewed dish (chige), a steamed dish (chimu), a grilled dish (kui), a fried dish (pokkumum, a boiled dish (chorimu), a seared dish (chon), a sashimi or raw fish dish (fe), a salty dish (chokkaru) and more.
Like Chinese and Japanese cuisine, in Korean cuisine, soups are served as part of the main course rather than at the beginning or at the end of the meal. It can also be served as the main course itself, known as tang.
The format of presentation is called sancharimu and dates back to the Choson dynasty. It is based on the number of dishes to be served, which can range from anywhere between 3 and 12. The number of dishes served reflects the social status of a household; the more dishes served, the higher the social status.
Korean Cuisine Highlights
There are 4 basic sauces that make Korean cuisine taste Korean. They are soy sauce, bean paste, barley paste and red pepper paste. Soy sauce and bean paste are made with cured soy bean malts. The barely paste is made with barley malts. The red pepper paste is made with red pepper powder and malts made of glutinous rice, bean and rice.
Besides the kimchi, another signature element of Korean cuisine is the rice cakes, made of rice, beans and other grains. Normally associated with ceremonies, rice cakes are also quite commonly eaten at normal meal times. There are many variations of rice cakes in terms of flavor but they are generally classified into 3 categories based on their cooking methods – steamed, hand-pounded or fried.
And of course, kimchi comes to mind when one talks about Korean food. Kimchi is a fermented vegetable dish that can come in hundreds of different variations in terms of flavor and choice of vegetable. They can be served straight up (which is usually the case) or be used in the preparation of other dishes. Kimchi is considered a healthy food because fermented food contains a high quantity of lactobacilli, a beneficial probiotic strain that aids digestion. The fermentation process is also said to boost the amount of vitamins and minerals naturally present in the vegetables.
The geographical terrain definitely influenced the preparation of kimchi overtime. In ancient times, kimchi was mainly cabbage pickled with only salt or salt with alcohol mixture. Because of Korea’s abundant coastline, salt and seafood are 2 ingredients that are amply available, making salted fish organs a large part of Korean cuisine. The inclusion of salted fish organs overtime, added variety to kimchi. The amino acids which break down the proteins in salted fish organs help bring out the variety of flavors in pickled vegetables.
As different types of seasonings including chili are introduced to Korea, the kimchi took on more and more different flavor profiles. The use of spicy red peppers as seasoning became another distinctive characteristic of Korean cuisine. Capsaicin, a component in the red pepper that makes it spicy acts as a food preservative when used to make kimchi. Garlic is another common seasoning used in kimchi and many other Korean dishes. Garlic not only lends a subtle flavor to kimchi, the Alicin component found in garlic acts as a natural preservative.
The climatic differences in the different regions in the country also influence the taste of the kimchi from that region. In warmer places, in order to better preserve the kimchi, chili and fish or shellfish paste (also called the Chotkal) is used. In colder areas, on the other hand, the kimchi is less salty and pungent. Today, the kimchi most people are familiar with is the spicy kind with a pungent kick, made with spicy red pepper paste (kochujan).