The popularity of bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi, and other Korean food is on the rise, owing in part to the increased recognition of the health benefits of Korean dishes, most of which are low in calories and full of vegetables.
To truly appreciate and understand Korean cuisine, it is important to first understand the traditional belief that the mind and body are one. The mind and body are so interconnected that a sick body can harm the mind and a strong mind can make the body healthy. For this reason, Oriental doctors not only address the physical symptoms of each patient before treatment, but also assess the patient’s mental condition.
Mind & Body as One – good food is the best medicine
Korean food, which has evolved over the course of thousands of years, is characterized by the belief that good food is the best medicine. For the ancient Korean people, food was more than just a meal or simply a means of nourishment; it was seen as medicine that had power to prevent or cure illness.
It is thanks to this overarching philosophy that you will often find wild vegetables and medicinal herbs in Korean cuisine. The health benefits of certain foods and what to eat for which illness is a common topic of conversation among Koreans regardless of gender or occupation. It is also a uniquely ‘Korean phenomenon’ that a buying frenzy breaks out each time a food is praised in the media for its health benefits.
To fully appreciate Korean cuisine another important concept you need to understand is the philosophy of Eumyangohaeng, the theory of yin and yang and the five elements that make up the universe. According to this belief, a person’s body is healthy only when the yin-yang and the five elements are in balance. For this reason, a traditional Korean table includes dishes or garnishes of five colors, (green, red, yellow, white, and black). This rainbow of food colors is not just visually appealing; the colors represent the five elements and the wisdom of nutritional balance. Interestingly enough, this ancient philosophy is in line with today’s international ‘5 A DAY’ campaign, which encourages the daily consumption of five servings of fruits and vegetables (preferably of a variety of colors) to prevent geriatric diseases and cancer.
Order food in a Korean restaurant and you’ll soon find your table filled with dishes. The dishes that come in a Korean meal are so numerous and varied that people often say that 'they will break the table legs.' Recently, some restaurants have been serving dishes in succession (like in a Western-style course meal), but in a traditional Korean meal there is no concept of an appetizer, soup, or main dish.
The basics of Korean cuisine are bap (rice), guk (soup), and kimchi. In the Joseon Era (1392-1910), table settings were sometimes referred to as ‘samcheop’ (three side dishes), ‘ochep’ (five side dishes), ‘chilcheop’ (seven side dishes), or ‘gucheop bansang’ (nine side dishes) depending on the number of side dishes accompanying the basics. The table of the king was called ‘sibicheop bansang’ (twelve side dishes).
Korean people's love for bap, or rice, is unique. However varied or delicious the side dishes may be, a Korean meal is almost always centered around rice. On special occasions, rice is replaced with porridge, noodles, or tteokguk. These days, more and more people eat bread, sandwiches, or noodles for breakfast or lunch, resulting in a reduced consumption of rice, but rice continues to be the most important staple food for Korean people.
Korean cuisine is also characterized by a variety of soup dishes and cooking techniques. Dishes that come with a broth are largely categorized as ‘guk’ (soup with a clear broth with some solid ingredients), ‘jjigae’ (stew with more solid ingredients and less broth with rich seasonings; eaten like a side dish), or ‘jeongol’ (stew or casserole with more solid ingredients).
Cooking techniques used for making side dishes are also varied and include grilling, boiling, pan-frying, and steaming. Chicken, for example, can be cooked as ‘samgyetang’ (ginseng chicken soup), ‘dakbokkeum’ (stir-fried chicken), ‘jjimdak’ (seasoned and simmered chicken), ‘dakjuk’ (chicken porridge), ‘dakbaeksuk’ (steamed chicken), fried chicken, or skewered chicken.
☞ How to make side dishes
☞ Kinds of Korean Food: The general kinds of Korea Food
Korea has a unique ‘ssam’ culture for eating meat dishes. ‘Ssam’ refers to broad-leaved veggies like lettuce or sesame leaf on which a piece of meat is placed and wrapped up in a neat little package for your mouth. Ssam is eaten with grilled meat but also used for wrapping rice (ssambap) or boiled pork meat (bossam). Ssam is not really complete without the addition of some kind of sauce/paste, green pepper, or garlic.
When eating ssam, take one leaf in your hand and add rice, meat, and seasonings on top. The resulting ssam should be small enough that you can still place the whole thing in your mouth. The Ssam culture of Korea is as old as the country’s kimchi or doenjang (soybean paste) culinary traditions.
The custom of wrapping rice or meat in a vegetable leaf has evolved over time and now ssam is even eaten using seaweed, kelp, and laver, as well as small pancakes and bossam kimchi. One popular dish is ‘Gujeolpan,’ an elaborate Korean dish made up of small pancake ssam and eight types of vegetables or meat. ‘Bossam kimchi,’ on the other hand, refers to Chinese cabbage leaves which are slightly salted and used to wrap various ingredients such as radish, pear, and oyster.
Bibimbap, a harmonious blend of ingredients
Bibimbap is one of the most well-known Korean dishes worldwide, becoming internationally recognized after pop star Michael Jackson enjoyed the dish after his first concert in Korea. Just as beautiful as it is tasty, bibimbap always comes out of the kitchen with a rainbow of garnishes. When it’s mixed, the ingredients combine for a unique and savory flavorful that you can’t get by eating each ingredient alone.
From simple to more intricate dishes, Korean cuisine often uses soy sauce, green onions, garlic, sesame seeds, sesame oil, ground pepper, and red pepper flakes. The natural flavors of the ingredients are still the main focus and are only enhanced with the use of the seasonings.
There are several different versions of the origin of bibimbap. Some scholars say that bibimbap originated from the practice of ancestral rituals. Rituals were typically performed out in the countryside away from home and it with too cumbersome to bring all the different foods back in separate containers, so they were all mixed together in one big bowl. Other say that bibimbap gets its roots from when farmers would mixed together nutritious ingredients in one big bowl to eat a quick and healthy meal while working out in the fields.
In Korea, there is a saying that people 'eat from the same cauldron.' This refers to families or very close friends sharing rice cooked in the same cauldron. The time-honored tradition of sharing food and eating from one big bowl, which fosters a sense of unity and solidarity, is still common in modern-day Korea.
☞ How to make bibimbap
Varying Regional Dishes
The different regions of Korea each has its own climate, topography, and soil. Consequently, each has its own special foods and cooking methods, giving even common dishes a slightly different taste from city to city. In the northern regions where the temperature is low, food is simpler and less salty, while the southern regions with higher temperature have spicier and saltier foods. The mountainous Gangwon-do Province is known for foods made of potatoes, corn, or wild vegetables, while food in Jeolla-do Province is remarkably varied thanks to the abundance of grains and seafood from its fertile land and ocean waters. The food of Jeolla-do Province is known as some of the most delicious food in all of Korea. More side dishes are served in Jeolla-do than in any other regions, which is a major draw for tourists of all nationalities.
☞ Related column
Table settings for Korean Food
Korean Table Etiquette