South Korea has a reputation for being a country that’s very welcoming of foreigners who wish to explore the nuanced beauty that the country can offer. One of Korea’s charms that have attracted many tourists is their traditional cuisine. After all, there is a reason why mukbang, a live online broadcast of someone eating large amounts of food, was originated from Korea. Like many others, Koreans take their food seriously. Foods can be emotionally-charged elements. Apart from being able to give you a serotonin high, the things you eat are also imbued with nostalgia. Food is an important facet in history. Learn more of Korea’s history via these 4 popular foods.
- Fermented Vegetables [김치 (Kimchi)]
If we’re talking about Korean food, kimchi is always the first one on the list. This must-try dish is prepared with seasoned fermented veggies, with cabbages and radishes being the main star ingredients.
The origin of kimchi dates back to 37 BC. This was during a time wherein Koreans, or formally known as Goguryeo back then, were highly skilled in making fermented foods such as fermented fish and wine. Such skills made the preservation of foods possible, especially when there were no refrigerators to help prolong their lifespan. When Buddhism travelled down to Korea during the Silla dynasty, the pickling of vegetables became even more popular as the nation adopted a vegetarian lifestyle.
Initially, the dish wasn’t meant to be spicy. Only when the Portuguese traders had introduced chilli peppers from the Americas, did they implement spiciness into their meals. Chilli peppers were only added into kimchi recipes 200 years later. Thus, don’t be surprised when you do come across kimchi that doesn’t resemble the common 배추김치 (baechu-kimchi). There are 180 recognised varieties, including the 백김치 (baek-kimchi) – a non-spicy white kimchi dish, and the 깍두기 (kkakdugi) – a spicy kimchi dish featuring cubed radish and fermented shrimp.
You will get a kimchi side dish as one of your 반찬 [banchan (side dish)] when you have Korean cuisine. Since it’s such a staple Korean food, your meal is not complete without it.
- Korean’s Norimaki [김밥 (Gimbab)]
Another food staple in Korea, gimbab is made from cooked rice and other ingredients such as spicy tuna and kimchi, which is then rolled in dried sheets of seaweed. Gimbab became a popular dish due to its convenience and flexibility. You can play around with the ingredients and make a different gimbab every day to bring to school or work.
The origins of gimbab are as debatable as it is complex. Some sources state that it was derived from the Japanese sushi variant, norimaki, when it was first introduced during the Japanese occupation in Korea. Other theories suggest that it was the other way around and Koreans were the ones to introduce the concept to their neighbour during the Baekjae period. Others say that it was a natural development from the local tradition of rolling rice and side dishes in dried sheets of seaweed.
This dish also has a cultural significance. Selling gimbab on the streets is seen as the final dignified act an able-bodied individual can do to get out of poverty. This dish is preferred over dishes like kimchi, as it is cost-effective, less time-consuming and less labor-intensive. By selling it as an entire log, vendors can also prolong their shelf life.
Like kimchi, gimbab also comes in a wide variety. For instance, you’d realise that there’s only rice as its filler ingredient when you order 충무김밥 (chungmu-gimbab). They are, however, served with a spicy squid salad dish and radish kimchi.
- Ginseng Chicken Soup [삼계탕 (Samgyetang)]
If you’re craving for a dish with a broth to warm your body, Korea’s samgyetang is the dish for you. This dish consists of a whole chicken that is stuffed with sticky rice, ginseng, garlic and red dates. Funnily enough, this dish is popular in the summer when the humidity is at its highest.
The popularity resides in its health benefits. According to traditional medicinal theory, blood will circulate near the skin to cool the body during hot summer days. This means poor blood circulation in the internal organs, making them cold – or having too much ‘yin’ energy. Cold internal organs are believed to be one of the causes of poor appetite and exhaustion. By eating ‘heaty’ foods that are abundant in ‘yang’ energy, the body can now absorb and retain heat. Thus, the ‘heaty’ ingredients such as the ginseng, garlic and red dates will strengthen the digestive system, improve blood circulation and reduce any signs of exhaustion. Balancing out the heaty ingredients is the only ‘cool’ ingredient: glutinous rice. As the theory goes, the warm and cooling nature of these ingredients will balance the body’s yin and yang. All in all, this dish is great for your health.
Korea has had a fair share of long periods of food scarcity. Cows and pigs were prioritised as animals that can help out on the farms, rather than a food source. Thus, Koreans sought smaller animals such as ducks and dogs for protein and calories. Since smaller animals are packed with less nutrition compared to cows and pigs, medicinal herbs were cooked together with the meats. One of the dishes that helped with the food scarcity problem was none other than samgyetang. It has garnered so much popularity that till today, samgyetang is presented as a welcoming gift from mother-in-laws to their son-in-laws.
- Three-Layer Pork Belly [삼겹살 (Samgyeopsal)]
Korean barbeque (KBBQ) has taken over the globe and what is KBBQ without samgyeopsal? They are thick, fatty slices of pork belly that are grilled on a metal grill. You can get the meat as they are, or have them marinated with flavours such as ginseng, wine and herbs. You can eat samgyeopsal plain or eat them as the locals do: place the meat on the leaves of vegetables and add your 삼 (ssam) vegetables – usually lettuce, pickled radish and perilla leaves – and dipping sauce. Roll it up and eat the ssam (wrap) in one mouthful! Experience the beautiful symphony of different flavours and textures that somehow balance each other out.
In the 1990s, the pork belly was considered as the cheapest and tastiest cut of the meat. Before that, its popularity had not picked up due to the lack of refrigerating methods. This was held true until the 1960s, when there was an abundant of samgyeopsal leftover from exports to Japan. Since then, it has become so popular that the third day of March is coined as Samgyeopsal Day.
These are only a few of the popular Korean cuisines. Food is one of the more interesting avenues to learn about a country’s history. If you are interested in more, get direct access to such intriguing facts by reading recipes and history excerpts. However, the downside to that is that the majority of them are in Korean. But don’t let this fact deter you! Learn basic Korean with Sejong Korean Language School – our native Korean teachers are a great resource if you want to learn more about Korea’s food and history. Our structured yet fun Korean lessons will ensure that you won’t get bored when picking up a new language, so hurry and join us today!