A Beginner's Guide to Korean Cuisine

By Lucille Bamber

With Korean cuisine becoming more and more popular, restaurants have opened globally and people can enjoy the spicy, flavourful gastronomy they have to offer internationally. Its unique taste and flavours are thanks to the distinctive historical, cultural and geographical situations the Korean Peninsula finds itself in. So, if you have never tried Korean food, or do not know about it, this is a guide of how and why Korean cuisine came to be.

A Little bit of Korean History

Korea has been around for around half a million years, passing through many eras. However, many cooking styles and traditions have been passed on through the generations. For instance, the reason Korea has so many fermented dishes (such as kimchi and gochujang), was because of a serious lack of oil crops. Korea had no way to fry or bake food, therefore they had to find other ways to cook and preserve it, and fermentation was the easiest way. Grains and seeds were preserved, as opposed to milk like in many western countries, as Koreans began to settle and farm before a large majority of nations.

Rice is a big part of their gastronomy, however, it did not originate from Korea and was introduced in the Three Kingdoms period, making it expensive and sparse. In fact, rice was so precious, it was used as tax in Silla. Because of this, rice was often mixed with other grains, to make it last longer. This is still done in some Korean meals such as boribap and kongbap, despite the increase in rice production.

Meat holds stories within itself. Cows in ancient Korea were considered ‘beasts of burden’ and in many cases were considered equal to servants, or even family members. They were kept and brought up with the intention of consumption only in periods of drought. In the 4th century, when Buddhism was introduced, it was strictly forbidden to eat beef. This was not reversed until the 13th century, when the mongols invaded Korea and lifted this ban. Due to its history, beef is not predominant in Korean traditional cuisine.

If you have spoken to a Korean person before, you have probably heard of Korean pork.  Pork has been used in the Korean diet since the creation of Korea. Its importance in Korean cuisine comes from the fact it was the main animal bred in Korea to consume. A national favourite is samgyeopsal, which is grilled pork belly. However, all parts of a pig (including the head!) are used in all sorts of recipes.

Chicken has also played a big role in Korean cuisine, as uses were found for all parts of its body. From meals like dakgangjeong, to soup broth, to medicinal treatments; chicken has always been of use.

Fish and seafood were mostly ‘commoner food,’ as Korea is a peninsula and full of coasts. Since fish and shellfish were easily accessible, they were not worth much, making them unimportant to higher class Koreans.

Understanding Korean Geography

Korean cuisine reflects the geographical position of Korea. As a peninsula, it is surrounded by ocean in the south, east and west; and numerous mountain ranges in the northern border with China. It has many rivers, and mountains inland, as well as rocky ocean fronts. It suffers from both harsh winters and hot summers; and offers calm, rainy autumns and flowery, warm springs. Due to this, the food is extremely varied. From seafood dishes to meat dishes, from hot soups to fresh salads; Korean cuisine has adapted to the weather and geographical differences magnificently. Koreans also had to find out a way to preserve food from these extreme weathers, the best way being fermentation.

Cultural Importance

In Korea, it is not unusual to hear “jal meokkesseumnida” which literally translates to “I will eat well because of your effort.” This is said because good health is very important in Korean culture, and it is believed that an enriched life starts from the stomach and maintained by eating well.

Meals are also important. At the dinner table, everything is shared (with the exception of a bowl of rice and soup). This is because, even if nothing is said, it is a nice moment to share with people.

In conclusion, Korean cuisine has a deep historical, geographical and cultural meaning to it. It is fascinating to see how a lot of the traditional ways have been kept, but there are modern twists have been added too. It definitely adds to the wide variety in Korean dishes. Now that you have a basic knowledge of Korean cuisine, you are ready to explore all the recipes and dishes, and appreciate the ancient richness in every bite!

Written by Lucille Bamber

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