An Introduction to Korean Cuisine

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Noa Noh, Editor-in-Chief

As Korean culture is becoming increasingly well known, the most important aspect of the culture is, of course, the food. Korean cuisine is known to have a flavorful kick and colorful taste of each dish, and it has evolved through many centuries of social and political changes. Originating from ancient agricultural traditions in Korea, Korean cuisine has changed through a complex interaction of the environment and different cultural trends. It is largely based on grained rice, vegetables, and meats.

If you step into a Korean household or any Korean traditional restaurant, the first thing that might catch your eye is the number of 반찬 (banchan) or side dishes that accompany the main courses and steam cooked rice. Banchan are not appetizers, they represent a category of themselves and they are very necessary. They are not typically listed on the menu and if counted, there are probably over a million kinds of banchan that you may encounter in any restaurant. 

An essential and THE most important part of all Korean meals is kimchi. Since Kimchi is both tasty and functional, it is served at every meal, typically with steamed rice. There are so many benefits that make it a health food, and it is considered a vegetable probiotic food. It is made by fermenting vegetables. Many types of bacteria are involved in the fermentation of kimchi, but probiotic lactic acid bacteria become dominant during the salting of baechu cabbage and the fermentation. The major ingredients of kimchi are vegetables, and other healthy foods such as garlic, ginger, red pepper powder, green onions, carrots, and others as sub-ingredients. According to J Med Food, “the health functionality of kimchi, include anticancer, anti-obesity, anti-constipation, colorectal health promotion, probiotic properties, cholesterol reduction, fibrinolytic effect, antioxidative and anti-aging properties, brain health promotion, immune promotion, and skin health promotion.” 

 Legumes such as soybeans are a staple in Korean food. They are made into tofu (dubu 두부), while soybean sprouts are sauteed as a vegetable (kongnamul 콩나물), and whole soybeans are seasoned as a side dish. Soybeans are also a primary ingredient in the production of fermented condiments referred to as “jang” such as soybean pastes which go in the Korean soybean paste stew (된장찌개 doenjang jjigae), soy sauce, chili pepper paste (gochujang), and others. 

The essential condiments are categorized into fermented and nonfermented. Fermented condiments include ganjang, doenjang, gochujang, and vinegars. Nonfermented condiments or spices include red pepper, black pepper, mustard, garlic, onion, cordifoldia, ginger, leek, and scallion. 

Gochujang or fermented bean paste that has red pepper powder, soybean powder, and rice flour into a spicy paste and is added to most dishes. It can be used as a seasoning and sometimes as a dipping sauce. Gochujang was used to revitalize people who were sick with colds or exhaustion from the Chosun Period. It is a common seasoning for foods like Korean barbecue and bibimbap. Another popular dish including gochujang is tteokbokki or spicy rice cakes. 

Korean cuisine uses a wide variety of vegetables in almost every single dish which can be served uncooked in salads or pickled, cooked in stews, stir-fried dishes, and other dishes. Common vegetables used include Korean radish, cucumber, peppers, seaweed, mushrooms, zucchini, lotus root, scallions, garlic, chili, spinach, bean sprouts, sweet potato, perilla leaves, and others. 

Fish and shellfish have been a major part of Korean cuisine because of the oceans bordering the peninsula. Both fresh and saltwater fish are popular and are served raw, grilled, broiled, dried, or served in soups and stews. Common grilled fish include croaker, mackerel, hairtail, and pacific herring. Smaller fish such as anchovies, shrimp, squid, and countless others can be salted and fermented or stored as banchan. 

Meats such as Pork, Beef, and chicken are the most prized of Korean cuisine. Most commonly known: Korean BBQ. The majority of meats at kbbq joints are pork belly, thinly sliced beef, and pork in different marinades. Korean fried chicken has also been a very popular dish and it is radically different from the regular fried chicken as it uses an Asian frying technique. 

Soups are a common part of Korean meals. Unlike other cultures, soup is served as part of the main course accompanied with rice and banchan. Guk or soups are made with meats, shellfish, and vegetables. Some popular types of soup are gomtang and malgeunguk. Stews are referred to as jjigae and are often a side dish. The most common stew is doenjang jjigae which is a stew with soybean paste and veggies like tofu, onions, mushroom, and scallions. 

Essentially, I can go on with all the specific Korean dishes, but the article would be neverending. It is well known that food is the one thing that brings people together, and this is exactly what Korean cuisine does. Sitting around a big table, sharing food, and being surrounded by delicious food is the Korean way of doing it and is an opportunity to share the tradition. This family-style way of eating is something I appreciate from my culture and eating becomes a centerpiece for a conversation with your friends and family. When I look back, most of the experiences and memories I have cherished are the ones I have made with family and friends over the dining table while eating.