In the Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sang “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”. I think a very good place to start is to first define Korean cuisine. What is Korean cuisine?
The most common associations with Korean food include kimchi, bulgogi and dog meat. Otherwise, the other most common question asked is, is Korean food anything like Chinese or Japanese food?
Given their close geographic proximity, there may be a certain cross-influence of cuisine between the Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine. In fact, Korea adopted the famous jajamyung or black spaghetti from China. But Korean cuisine is quite distinct. It does have rice as a staple in their diet, but there are also many noodles dishes (chapchae) or noodle soups in Korean cuisine as well. Chinese cuisine is known for its wide array of regional diversity. Korea too has many regional specialties, reflective of the different climates and geographic characteristics of a particular region.
But at the heart of Korean cuisine and found in all Korean kitchens, are garlic, hot pepper and soysauce. Hot pepper is found in different forms in Korean food: as a paste – gojuchang, in flakes, gojukaru, or whole. The famous kimchi is made of pickled cabbage and lots of finely ground pepper flakes. The pepper paste is used in cooking but can also be served as a dipping sauce of kind (e.g. to eat with fresh cucumbers). However, it does not mean that Korean food consist only of spicy food! On the contrary: there are many dishes, including the famous bulgogi, that are tasty without the heat of hot peppers. The versatility of Korean food extends to the types of dishes. Korean dishes include meat dishes (beef, pork, chicken), fish and seafood ones, as well as plenty of vegetarian ones. Perhaps it’s here that I should pause to explain the dog meat. Dog meat is considered to be a delicacy in Korea. However, this does not mean that Fido will be served at dinner. Dog meat is sourced from dogs bred for this specific purpose. The consumption of dog meat is a controversial topic, especially given the concerns about animal rights. Dog meat is sometimes eaten as a broth during the summertime. The belief is that dog meat contains certain nutrients which help reestablish the body’s temperature when it’s hot outside. This segues nicely into the notion of seasonal foods. Certain dishes are season specific. Like many countries with four distinct seasons, Korean food is also seasonal. In France, the baeckeoffe or the choucroute of Germany may be a welcoming hearty dish during colder weather. In Korea, naengmyun is a refreshing noodle soup eaten cold, and typically only served during the summer time for that reason. Part of the reasoning behind this, is the belief that certain food have distinct health benefits. The Korean ginseng is an example of this. It is described as a tonic, and to have properties to help good health overall. A quick Google search reveals various websites touting Korean ginseng as a treatment for diabetes, brain efficiency to cancer and male erectile dysfunction. A truly versatile ingredient!
There are special dishes for special occasions, like New Year and birthday, and our next post will talk about food prepared and eaten at (lunar) New Year. While traditional Korean sweets for celebrations may not include a typical cake, there are plenty of other delicious desserts. Tteok is probably the most common one. It is a kind of cake, made from rice flour. In that way it is similar to a mochi. But there are so many variety of tteoks, including flavours (sesame, strawberry, red bean, etc) and colours, and means to cook them (steamed, pounded or fried).
Next post will be about special dishes for New Year’s! So bring your appetite. Until then, what is your favourite Korean dish?
Links to some references