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The Growing Appeal of Korean Cuisine

 
 
The world is catching on to Korean food. But for those already aware of its delicious appeal, this should come as little surprise. Rich in diversity (every region has its very own signature dishes), enormously healthy (prevalent ingredients such as soy and red pepper paste aid in the prevention of numerous diseases) and wonderfully unique, Korea’s culinary offerings not only taste remarkably good, but carry with it a deeply rooted history that stems back thousands of years. Indeed, what makes Korean food so unique can largely be attributed to the integrity of its preparation and well preserved traditions. As one journeys from province to province here on the peninsula, the palate is treated to a world of difference with every sample. Whether it’s Gyeonggi-do’s hearty seolleongtang (ox-bone soup), Jeolla-do’s renowned Jeonju bibimbap, Jeju-do’s awesome galchi hobakguk (traditional pumpkin and hairtail fish soup), Gyeongsang-do’s Andong jjimdak (braised chicken stew) or Gangwon-do’s refreshing memil makguksu (buckwheat noodle soup), there is never any shortage of options. In fact, one article in itself cannot possibly contain the lengthy list of dishes.
Unquestionably, food is largely considered to be the heart of Korean culture, and to fully grasp its significance, one needs to discover its many secrets. Yet with all this selection, it makes it nearly impossible to sample it all in simply one visit. In fact, as unearthing every meal, drink, and spirit would take a remarkably long time, even for the many already living in Korea it remains an ongoing process. But given the adventurous nature of such a challenge, with a little effort and some proper guidance, it will make for lasting impressions.
 
 
Before exploring the finished result one must understand what goes in to preserving the ingredients.
One of the more noticeable trademarks, especially when driving through the Korean countryside are the sizable earthenware jars prevalent outside of homes. Known as onggi, these large clay pots are essential in the preservation of condiments – giving foods their distinctively pure taste – as they maintain stable temperatures throughout the year as fluctuating temperatures can be detrimental. Thanks to the preserving properties of onggi, both seasonings and sauces can last up to several years without spoilage.
But perhaps the leading benefit is that these clay structures absorb toxins together with any impurities that may prove harmful when consumed. The placing of onggi in well ventilated areas with plenty of sunlight allows for air and moisture to seep through entirely, enhancing the flavor of the food and making it safe to eat.
Gochujang (red pepper paste), one of Korea’s more popular sauces, is made annually and preserved in somewhat medium-sized onggi. Equally popular, doenjang (soybean paste) is incredibly healthy and prepared in larger batches and often left to dry in the summer sun with the lid open to prevent molding. Given the larger sized jars for making doenjang, the sauce can be preserved for many years. Both sauces – gochujang and doenjang – compliment many dishes and are even used in soups and stews.
It is said that the wider the jar – onggi – the better it will retain ideal temperatures inside throughout the year. Ganjang (soy sauce) jars in particular are very wide in the center which is conducive for much longer periods of fermentation.
Interestingly, kimchi – arguably Korea’s number one staple food – is stored in hangari (smaller jars) and matured in accordance with the four seasons. That being, most types of kimchi are marinated in salt for a day. However, when making geotjeori for instance, it is only matured for several hours. Ssaldok, literally translated into “rice jars”, are much larger and used to store rice and/or grain, protecting both from decay and insects.
Onggi are critical in the conservation of ingredients. Storing the aroma and flavor of Korean food, they also play a significant role in purifying condiments, brining a host of healthy attributes to the dining table.
 
 
No meal is complete without kimchi. The slightly sweet and spicy red pepper soaked cabbage is not only the perfect companion to a host of dishes – namely bulgogi (marinated beef), samggyeongsal (thick strips of pork) and jeon (traditional Korean pancake) – it’s also loaded with health benefits (it is reported that kimchi aids in digestion and prevents some forms of cancer). You won’t find any restaurant, or household for that matter, without at least one of the many forms of kimchi close at hand.
Preparing this heralded ingredient doesn’t go without a great deal of effort and skill. In the beginning stages, kimchi is first preserved in salt for up to ten hours. Freshly ground, sun dried red pepper, together with ginger and garlic is then added, giving it its signature taste. Kimchi is then stored in larger shaped onggi. During the summer months, the vats are stored in brooks, and buried in the ground during the harsh winter months to prevent freezing.
A round-up of the top three more common and incredibly tasty forms of kimchi are: tongbaechu, oisobagi and kkakdugi.
The former is the most common form of kimchi in Korea. Made from Chinese cabbage kimchi it is usually made during the winter months and served with just about every Korean meal imaginable. The latter is diced radish kimchi. These bite-sized white radish cubes compliment soups and hearty stews wonderfully, in particular seolleungtang, the aforementioned ox-bone soup.
A personal favorite, oisobagi (stuffed cucumber kimchi) is a nice mix of cold and hot – the cold broth it is served in mixes well with the signature spicy kick kimchi gives off.
It is a very rare treat to have a food taste so delicious and yet be supremely healthy at the same time. Kimchi grants one that luxury and blends well with just about every dish the country has to offer.
 
 
As Koreans are under the belief that both the taste and quality or food is contingent on its spices and sauces – rather in line with Italian and French cuisine for that matter – a great deal of stress is measured on the quality of such additions. Doenjang (soybean paste), soy sauce, gochujang (red pepper paste) and kimchi are all essential ingredients and are the backbone to almost every meal. Therefore, given their importance, they merit a great of recognition.
All three sauces, doenjang, gochujang and ganjang are prepared using only the freshest ingredients. Minced and mixed with onions, garlic, scallions, ginger, sesame oil, crushed sesame salt and powdered red pepper, they are among the most widely used additions to Korean cuisine. As for the medicinal properties inherent in all three sauces, gochujang is said to relieve pain and help in breaking down fat, making it an ideal dietary food.
Remarkably rich in protein, soybean – the main ingredient in doenjang – is also high in enzymes (preventive cancer agent) and vitamin E, which is a key component in reducing cholesterol levels. Alternatively, soybeans can be cooked with rice or ground into tofu.
 
 
Of the country’s handful of provinces, each boasts a unique style of cuisine that uses local ingredients and the inherent culture from where they originate.
The mountainous region of Gangwon-do on Korea’s beautiful east coast isn’t as conducive as, say, hillsides of Jeollanam-do in the south, and therefore relies on seafood as its staple food. The inland areas are able to grow potatoes, corn, buckwheat, herbs and a variety of grains, yet many of the prevalent dishes from this area are relatively simple. Still, signature tofu dishes together with duk mandu guk – a hearty soup consisting of minced pork dumplings and various vegetable are equally delicious.
Jeollanam-do is widely known for its highly developed food culture in Korea, and plays host to the hugely popular Jeonju Food Festival held every year in October. Cuisine here combines seafood and locally grown grains. Arguably the most popular dish is Jeonju bibimbap. Combining steamed rice with fresh bean sprouts, garden grown vegetables, seasonal herbs, a fried egg, ground beef, red pepper paste and a splash of sesame oil – this is a favorite for many.
Those with an adventurous spirit will enjoy daenamu tongbab, or rice steamed in bamboo. Not only is the taste memorable, but the preparation is something unique to Korea. Cooked inside a hollow canister, the bamboo infused rice comes served with gingko nuts ad chestnuts.
 

Tour Operators

Jeonju Tour: http://tourist.jeonju.go.kr/open_content/english/tour/food/hanokmaeul.jsp
Jeollabuk-do Tour: http://www.gojb.net:8080/eng2008/index.jsp
Jeollanam-do Tour: http://www.namdokorea.com/en/main.jsp

 

Korean Food Festivals

Jeonju Food Festival (October)
http://www.koreafoodfestival.or.kr:8080/html/sub2/index.jsp (Korean)
http://english.visitkoreayear.com/english/infor/infor_01_11_01.asp (English)

Namdo Food Festival
http://www.namdofood.or.kr/www/page/ (Korean)
http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_2_1.jsp?cid=293215 (English)

 

Food Background

Jeollanam-do Food Information: https://jbfood.go.kr/language_english/index.html

 
Date 07.22.2010

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