Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Origin of Red Chili Pepper in Korea

It is commonly believed that the red chili pepper came to Korea from Portugal by way of Japanese traders, but in 2009, Korean researchers found that this was not the case. According to Dr. Dae-Young Kwon of the Korea Food Research Institute, he and his team along with another team from the Academy of Korean Studies uncovered that the aji pepper discovered by Columbus in Central America and spread by Portuguese traders could not be the original pepper grown in Korea biologically or through cultivation (Joong-Ang Daily). There are references to the use of red pepper paste in Korean cuisine that go back as early as 1433, the 15th year of King Sejong's reign, in the 향약집성방(鄕藥集成方)*, a Korean medicine reference, demonstrating its introduction to Korean cuisine well before the Imjin War (1592-1598), the period mistakenly believed to be when the fruit was introduced to Korea (Joong-Ang Daily), and certainly before "when the Japanese occupied Korea". In the 향약집성방 and previously, red pepper paste (고추장) was referred to as '초장(椒醬)' ('cho-jahng'). Pepper existed in China by 850 at the latest according to a reference to red pepper paste in the 食醫心鑑 (식의심감 in Korean), a Chinese text on food therapy, and it is thought as a possible source for the original Korean red pepper (Joong-Ang Daily), but further research needs to be done to confirm this link.  

*Hanja (Sino-Korean characters) were used to represent the Korean language in written form before the Korean alphabet was invented. The individual characters are Chinese, but the combinations and the meaning of those combinations may differ from the Chinese language along with the pronunciation of the individual characters, which is very different.

Additional references:

"김치의 필요한 고추, 한국 고추의 전래 역사 바로알기^^" - 천년의 김치맛! 이야기 
"An Essential Ingredient of Kimchi, Pepper, and the Proper Understanding of the Origin of Korean Pepper" - The Taste of Thousand Year Old Kimchi! The Story blog)

Posted by tastingkorea

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making Tteokpokki from Scratch

Here are some ingredient recipes if you would like to make tteokpokki from scratch:

The simplest recipe for making tteokbokki tteok from scratch
If you prefer sleek cylinders, you may shape your dough using cannoli 
or other tube molds and cut the dough to your desired length. 

Anchovy-Dashima Stock via cHow Divine

For flat fish cakes, you may try slightly baking or frying the mixture after rolling it into a flat sheet to get a solid texture before cooking in tteokpokki sauce. 

Here are some additional recipes for making tteokbokki:

Two chefs present Goongjoong (Royal Court) and Spicy Tteokpokki 

with a little background information about tteok and the dishes presented
The Goongjoong Tteokpokki has beef, eggs, and assorted vegetables.
The spicy version has boiled eggs and fish cakes.

Kochujang Tteokpokki with Fish Cakes via KFoodAddict (written recipe)
Adding cheese for a fusion option

For more tteokpokki recipes and a background on the dish, you may refer to the post Tteokpokki (Revised May 8, 2012).

Posted by tastingkorea

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Finding Good Sources of Information About Korean Food

The wide reach of the internet enables us to access many informational resources regarding Korean food, online and offline. Whether they be professional or personal sites, books, magazines, or blogs, there is much information in English and Korean to be perused by the Korean food lover. Amidst this avalanche, it can be difficult to discern whether a source is providing accurate information unless one knows a bit about Korean cuisine.

There are certain things that one can look out for when evaluating a source that will make it more likely that the information provided is correct. It does not require a deep understanding of the food, but a discernment for what makes a source more credible. The first question one must ask is, Who is the source? If it is a business, one should question their personal interests in regards to Korean cuisine. There should be a consistency in what they say about the food and the information they present on promotional materials. Professional sources, including professional blogs, can be great as they often take a serious approach to writing articles about Korean food. Personal bloggers can be great as well, but do not have an external check on their credibility like customers or a supervisor. They only answer to themselves and can write whatever they want as long as it does not violate their site host or blog publisher's guidelines. But I have comes across a number of personal bloggers that do care and do a much better job than some big, established media outlets, so the quality can vary.

Whether you are evaluating a personal or professional source, you need to assess how objective the writer is in presenting Korean food. Does he or she do the proper research and try to understand the information collected in an objective way? I don't think one needs to love Korean food or even like it to write about it objectively. Jeffrey Steingarten really did not like kimchi before he gave it a chance and tried out many samples at various Korean restaurants. It is important to keep in mind the writer's attitude toward the subject in order to determine whether he or she is being objective. Is the writer allowing his or her attitude to color the presentation of Korean food? Or is the writer presenting it objectively regardless of his or her own personal feelings? Also, does the writer allow for critical discussion about the ideas presented? For a business, it is understandable that they would not publish comments that go against their professional interests. Their interests may not be justifiable from a moral or logical standpoint, but a business is run for profit and needs to make money in order to survive. There are businesses that have a genuine interest in sharing information, but ultimately, it depends on the individual running the site and their own sense of ethics. A personal blogger may not be driven by profit, but may still have a personal interest in how the site is run. Of course, every blog host has the right to moderate comments according to how they see fit. But if the author deletes respectful, yet critical comments, it is obvious that he or she is not interested in frank discussion, but just promoting their own view or pride. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to assess what he or she is reading in a proper manner, to make sense of the information received in a way that is critical and meaningful. Even the best sources can get it wrong at some point despite their best effort. 

So the question is not only the credibility of the source, but the accuracy of the information. At the very least, the writer should be able to substantiate his or her argument by providing adequate proof. Just saying that Korean food looks like a mixture of certain cuisines does not provide evidence that it is so. There needs to be greater evidence in terms of an exploration into the history and background of Korean food. Korean cuisine certainly has influences from other cultures, but it has also provided its own influence to other cultures as well. This also does not take into account the vast indigenous sources of Korean cuisine. In order to substantiate any claim about Korean food, one must use sources that are historically and culturally valid from credible, verified sources such as documents, artifacts, cultural heritages, etc. Of course, it is impractical to expect every student of Korean cuisine to be an archaeologist or historian. Still, there are ways to verify certain things through proper research and documentation. In order to truly understand the nature of a cuisine, one must study the history and culture behind it.

Information about Korean food in English is very limited compared to resources in Korean. It makes sense that the culture of origin would have more resources regarding its cuisine than foreign cultures. It is in the personal interest of every culture to know its history, understand and preserve its culture, and carry out its valued traditions. Foreign sources only become available when another culture takes interest in its cuisine. As Korean food was not particularly known or popular in English speaking countries until recently, it would be a given that English resources would be limited in comparison to Korean ones. Sometimes, we need to dig for information instead of accepting what has been presented to us. We may be surprised to learn that there is a greater world than we have realized.

Posted by tastingkorea

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Tteokpokki (떡볶이) refers to little rice cakes sauteed in a kochujang (red pepper paste) or soy sauce-based sauce, or other kinds like seafood, jahpchae, beef, or fusion sauces like curry, cheese, jjajang (자장, black bean sauce), etc. The rice cakes, called 떡 ('tteok') in Korean, are shaped in the form of little cylinders the size of one's index finger, tteokpokki tteok, or much bigger in the form of jumbo rolls with the diameter of a quarter, garaetteok (가래떡). They can also take the form of ovalettes a few mm in thickness, tteokguek tteok, but this is not a traditional ingredient for tteokbokki. '볶이' means 'sautee' and thus tteokpokki refers to 'sauteed rice cakes'.

Topokki JJang 
an iPad app that features 
32 tteokpokki recipes

More tteokpokki recipes from Topokki Research Institute

An excellent overview of several basic types of tteokpokki

Tteokpokki originated from the Korean royal court where it was referred to as '떡찜' ('Steamed Tteok'), '떡잡채' ('Tteok Jahpchae', sauteed tteok with assorted vegetables and beef), '떡전골' ('Tteok Jeongol', tteok hotpot), etc. (Assorted faculty and students from the Traditional Food Culture Dept. of Sookmyung University and its Korean Food Research Center). The royal version of tteokpokki, which we now know as 'Goongjoong Tteokpokki', was a special treat for royals. According to Sookmyung University, one version was made of white tteok, rib meat (sirloin), sesame oil, soy sauce, green onions, etc. according to the late 18th century cookbook 시의전서 (Nate 백과사전). Goongjoong Tteokpokki was the original form of tteokpokki as well as the first version of 간장 떡볶이 ('Gahnjang Tteokpokki', Soy Sauce Tteokpokki). 

The name '떡볶이' ('tteokpokki') was first featured in print in the 1942 cookbook "조선요리제법" ('Joseon Cooking Methods') (Sookmyung). The modern version of tteokpokki was established sometime after 1950 with Kochujang Tteokpokki (고추장 떡볶이) ("길거리 음식의 140억 투입 . . . 한식 세계화의 첨병으로", JoongAng Sunday, Suh Kyung-Ho). The exact timeline for the popular transition from soy sauce to kochujang tteokpokki is not clear, but this was the time when tteokpokki became a mainstream dish from the exclusive treat that it once was for the aristocrats and royalty (Suh). The noble class did not prepare tteokpokki in such a spicy manner, but used soy sauce as a flavor base. The introduction of kochujang was an adaptation made when tteokpokki became a mainstream dish. 

For a more extensive summary of how tteokpokki evolved, you may refer to the sources cited as well as these articles:

an excellent introduction to the history of tteokpokki 

A Brief Timeline of How Tteokpokki Evolved via Topokki Research Institute

The really cheap version of tteokpokki is made up of just sauce and rice cakes. But more standard variations include vegetables, beef, boiled eggs, fishcakes, and/or seafood. Ramen noodles may also be added as an additional treat, turning it into rappokki (라볶이). The key to making delicious tteokpokki is to use cakes that are freshly made of 100% rice in addition to using a delicious broth to flavor the sauce. Cakes that contain white flour do not taste as fresh or light as pure rice cakes. I prefer using ovalettes when rice cakes are called for in a recipe as they are thinner and lighter than the more commonly used cylinders. If you are marinading or thawing rice cakes, do not soak them too long or they will get too soft. I prefer to get the most most flavor per piece so use thinner versions of tteokpokki tteok. I add a seaweed and anchovy broth made of dashima (thick and flat dried kelp) to my tteokpokki sauce to give it a more savory flavor in addition to the carrots, squash, and beef that I use. Other broths may include seafood, beef, and/or vegetables, depending on the version of tteokpokki one is making. I prefer a slight sweetness to my tteokpokki sauce, so add additional sugar if necessary. 

An introduction to Royal Tteokpokki and a parody via Korean Food Festival
the most traditional version of tteokpokki

Royal or Gungjung Tteokpokki (궁중떡볶이)
via Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine

A modern take on the royal dish via Storycook124

궁중떡볶이 via Naver Kitchen (Korean)
Royal Tteokpokki adapted for the home cook

the most popular version of tteokpokki

해물떡볶이 ('Haemool Tteokpokki') or Seafood Tteokpokki via theboni
a popular variation on the spicy standard

해물떡볶이 via Naver Kitchen 

라볶이 or Rappokki via Seoul Taste
Tteokpokki with Ramen Noodles

라볶이 via 황금연못

잡채 떡볶이 or Jahpchae Tteokpokki via Samna

불고기 야채 떡볶이 or Bulgogi Vegetable Tteokpokki via Bravo My Life

카레 떡볶이 or Curry Tteokpokki via 아송
(카레 - curry, pronounced 'karae' in Korean)
Indian, Japanese, and Korean fusion dish

자장 떡볶이 or Jjajang Tteokpokki via Life is Cooking
Chinese Korean fusion dish

치즈 떡볶이 or Cheese Tteokpokki via theboni
American Korean fusion dish

Posted by tastingkorea

Friday, March 2, 2012

Food and Writing Should Be Cooked with a True and Honorable Spirit

Two na-in, Jang Geum and Geum Young, setting the surasang for a feast
(Credit: Dae Jang Geum)

That is a tenet of traditional Korean cuisine. And it is evident if you have watched the drama series "Jewel in the Palace" or "Daejanggeum" ("대장금") in Korean. In Korean royal cuisine, food was presented and prepared in deference to a guest's position and social standing. The higher one's social status, the more elaborate and refined his/her table setting would be (The Inheritance of the Joseon Dynasty's Royal Court Cuisine - Part 22011 presentation of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine). This holds true today in the homes of modern day Koreans when they receive guests as well as eat together as a family. A proper Korean mother will put her love and devotion into preparing meals for her family. A proper Korean host will make sure to provide his or her guests with plenty of food and refreshment. 

Hospitality is a big part of Korean culture and this should be demonstrated in the way one receives a guest, the thoughtfulness and consideration that one shows through the food and accommodation that one provides. To be a good host is to be gracious, to make sure that one's guest is comfortably accommodated and provided for. It is through one's spirit that one realizes this grace. So when cooking food or receiving guests, one should do it with a true and honorable spirit. We realize our spirit through the manner by which we undertake our actions. We realize our spirit through the intention we approach every moment of the day. Our spirit not only affects the actions we take, but our surrounding environment as well, the spiritual and emotional landscape around us. This includes the food we prepare for others as well as ourselves. So it is important to prepare food with a true and honorable spirit so that this intention is expressed. Our sincerity is the most important aspect of being a good host. Letting our guests know that we care and will accommodate them is how we realize this intention. What we cook for others affects their well being as we are physically, mentally, and emotionally affected by what we eat. So in preparing food, we must also be cognizant of the health of our guests and cook accordingly. That is true jeongseong (정성, 'a true and honorable spirit'). 

This quality does not just apply to food, but writing as well. It is important to write with the right spirit, respecting one's subject by doing thorough research and approaching it with an open and honorable mentality. There is a power in the written word to convince, provoke, and affect one's readers on an emotional as well as intellectual level, so it is important to be aware of that and respect one's readers. Some people do things with the right spirit, seeking to create greater understanding and awareness, while others choose to use their platform to spread ignorance and misunderstanding. It's not about perfection, but putting forth one's best effort to realize a work of quality. Just like food that has been prepared with a negative attitude, writing that is done in that spirit is terrible. It shows the writer in a bad light and makes one lose respect for him or her as both a writer and a human being. We are all responsible for our mentality and so we should act accordingly. 

Posted by tastingkorea

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Intelligently About Korean Cuisine

Korean food is a distinct cuisine with some influences from other cultures, but one cannot draw a conclusion about Korean food based on what they know about Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian cuisines. Unless one has studied the history and culture of Korean cuisine, one cannot speak with authority about the history and origins of Korean food. Generations of Koreans have eaten jjampong, a spicy seafood noodle dish, but to say that it is a traditional Korean dish would be false. The jjampong eaten in Korea has its origins in Chinese cuisine, with some Korean touches, so it is a Chinese Korean dish. The same can be said for yakiniku. Generations of Japanese have eaten this dish, but to say that it is an authentic Japanese dish would be false. It has its origins in Korean bbq, but with some Japanese flourishes, so it is a Korean Japanese dish. It is very presumptuous to assume that a dish has been influenced by another culture just because of its similarities to a dish from that cuisine. That is not good research or critical understanding.

It is our personal responsibility to make sure that we do our due diligence and spread awareness instead of ignorance and misinformation. This behooves you if you have a public forum to express your views, especially if you are a professional working in the media, particularly the food media. Food media professionals should be held to a much higher standard than personal bloggers, but no one is free from the responsibility to thoroughly research and disseminate the proper information. So I have been seriously disappointed by some food magazines and media outlets that have gotten it wrong in such an egregious way about Korean food, particularly such basic information as the name of Korean dishes, things that could easily be discerned through a proper internet search. I cannot believe that in the diverse melting pot of America, it would be that difficult for a food writer to find experts in Korean cuisine, be they Korean restaurant owners, cooking instructors, etc. If one is a professional writer, one should have the know-how to discern who the proper experts are and locate them. There are Korean government sites like the Korea Tourism Organization and Korea Taste, etc. that are actively promoting Korean food and would probably help you learn more about the cuisine as it is in their interest to do so. (I have listed them on my sidebar under "Korean Food - History and Culture".) But none of this information would be necessary if one truly researched and respected the topic at hand. 

Posted by tastingkorea

Korean Food and Msg

There is a misconception that Korean food uses a lot of msg. Some Korean restaurants do use msg, but it is not a necessary ingredient of Korean cuisine. Traditional Korean food does not use artificial msg. Natural msg can be found in anchovies, mushrooms, and seaweed, etc. The enticing flavor that is the cornerstone of Korean cuisine (Han Bok-Ryeoh, Korea's foremost expert on royal Korean cuisine) can be created through the use of the foods mentioned above as well as meat, seafood, beans, and/or vegetables. 

In Korean, monosodium glutamate (msg) is called: 

조미료 (jo-mi-ryo, also means 'seasoning' in general),

글루타민산느트륨 (gloo-tah-min-sahn-nah-teu-ryoom), 

글루타민산소다 (gloo-tah-min-sahn-soh-da) 

or less commonly, 글루타민산모노나트륨 (gloo-tah-min-sahn-moh-noh-nah-teu-ryoom)

Artificial msg is known as 화학 조미료 (hwah-hahk jo-mi-ryo, 'chemical msg') 

or 인공 조미료 (iin-gong jo-mi-ryo, 'synthetic msg'). 

Natural msg is known as 천연 조미료 (cheon-yeon jo-mi-ryo).

Natural Msg or 천연 조미료 via 행복지킴이

Nowadays, some Korean households and restaurants use msg as a convenience item, but due to the greater awareness of its ill effects on one's health, many use natural msg as it is healthful. Common ingredients in natural msg are mushrooms, anchovies, dashima (kelp), beef extract, etc. The ingredients are generally dried, roasted, and then powderized. I recommend not using msg when cooking Korean food because it cannot give the fresh and full flavor that can be obtained by using fresh and wholesome ingredients.

Posted by tastingkorea

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Korean Food is Home

Fried Tofu and Dumpling Hot Pot or 유부만두 전골 ('Yubu Mandu Jeongoel')
via Matzzang

The main reason I love Korean food is that it is reminiscent of home to me. I was not exposed to great Korean fare until after college when I went to live in Korea and not truly until I took a great interest in the cooking. I grew up eating various kinds of food, but in my heart, Korean food has always provided a comfort that I could not find in some other cuisines no matter how familiar or delicious. Korean food is about family, connecting with others. This is evident in the custom of sharing a spread with others at the same table, eating from the same dishes of banchan (side dishes). Of course, one could say that sharing food with others in this manner is not completely sanitary and they would have a point. But the dining experience would be much different if people were to take what they wanted buffet style and focus on their individual plates. When people eat together, sharing the same dishes of banchan, there is a coming together, a sense of sharing and oneness. There is a Korean saying that food eaten alone is not delicious. Because food is a way to connect to others around you. When you make food with a true and loving heart, it does come out in the presentation and flavor of the dish whatever your cooking ability. 

Posted by tastingkorea

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Learning More About Korean Ingredients

In order to fully grasp Korean cooking, one needs to understand the ingredients that are used. For produce, one needs to get a sense of where it is grown, when it comes in season, and how it is prepared as well as how to make the best use of it in Korean cooking. One must also consider the texture and flavor of an ingredient as well as its effect on the body to determine how to put it to good use. Some of this knowledge can be acquired over time as one engages with the cooking process. But in order to learn about the background and seasonality of an ingredient, it is important to do further research on one's own through additional study (reading, watching, listening to resources) or consulting with an expert on the subject.

Stuffed Kkaenip Leaves Prior to Battering 
for Kkaenip Jeon or 깻잎전 (One Fork, One Spoon)

Yeongeun Jorim, 'Lotus Roots Reduced in a Sweet Soy Sauce'

Korean Sweet Potatoes or 고구마 ('Goguma') via Rimi

Here are some resources that you may find helpful in learning more about Korean ingredients:


1. Holly of Beyond Kimchee gives an excellent introduction to the common ingredients used in Korean cooking with a great emphasis on sauces and seasonings as well as meats, vegetables, seafood, grain, tea, batter mix, and other convenience foods.

2. Seoulist magazine is planning a series of articles titled The Local Pantry, "introducing produce indigenous to Korea". Here is the first article in the series, on ssuk (쑥) or mugwort by Sonja Swanson.

3. Shin Kim of Shinshine shares quite a bit of background about some of the key ingredients featured in her recipes like the seasonality, cultural information, and how they are prepared in Korean cooking.

4. Grace of One Fork, One Spoon really goes in-depth about the history and cultural background of Korean dishes and their ingredients on her blog. 


1. Naver Kitchen provides a collection of ingredient guides for both Korean and other cuisines, each displaying a brief description of an ingredient, its region of origin, and  nutritional/health benefits as well as guidelines for best storage, preparation, and selection. Similar ingredients as well as serving suggestions are also provided. 

2. Rimi's 식재료 가이드 (ingredient guide - www.rimi.kr/ingridient) also features a series of articles on common ingredients used in Korean and other cooking. Each article explains the history of an ingredient in Korea, its health benefits and considerations, as well as information on handling, storage, preparation, and selection.  

3. 식재료류 ('Ingredients') - a professional Naver blog written by Hwang Gyo-Ik, a food consultant, and a Korean medicine doctor, scholars, and other writers from the food world that is centered on the ingredients used in Korean cuisine. Provides a good cultural/historical background of each ingredient covered.

4. Great Books for Learning About the Essentials of Korean Cooking cover the preparation of Korean ingredients in great detail. 

Posted by tastingkorea

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Do You Love Korean Food?

I know that I love Korean food because it reflects the culture I was partly raised in as well as the traditions of my family. Korean food is much more than something delicious to eat or beautiful to look at. It is sustenance for the body and soul. It is food for the heart. 

A while back, I came across an article in Danmee (단미), an online women's magazine published by The Chosun Ilbo, a major Korean daily. It is titled "Our Hansik, Food That We Can't Help But Love". 'Hansik' refers to traditional Korean food. 

Here is a translation of part of that article:

What I Think of Hansik. Korean Food to Me is . . . 

"Korean food is home meals. Because it is what my mom makes for me everyday."
 Kim Min-Kyung (student), 18
"Korean food is jeong (the Korean sense of deep emotional attachment). Because it tastes best when eaten surrounded by family."
 Jung Ji-Young (homemaker), 33

"Hansik is food to be shared."
 Goeng Sang-Yeon (office worker), 32

"Korean food is rice. Because without rice, the table cannot be set."
Kim Ho-Jin (office worker), 40
"Korean food is dwaenjang jjigae (bean paste stew). That is my favorite Korean dish."
 Kim Jeong-Jin (office worker), 40
"Korean food is analogue. Prepared without the true and proper spirit, it does not taste good."
 Shin Hye-Jin (food stylist), 29

"It is the aesthetics of waiting (the philosophical study of the beauty of waiting). When I hear Korean food, what comes to mind is kimchi, dwaenjang, gochujang (red pepper paste) . . . They are all foods made through waiting." 
Kim Ji-Yeon (grad student), 27
"Korean food is kimchi. Because it is the food I think of most when I am abroad."
Noh Jeong-Taek (student studying abroad), 30
"Korean food is the taste the comes from the skill of one's hands. Even if the ingredients are the same, the taste changes according to the person making it."
Kang Shin-Yune (business owner), 55

"Korean food is soul food. Because it comforts you when you are lonely or having a hard time."
 Kim Jeong-Eun (homemaker), 44

"Korean food is one's hometown. One can enjoy it cushily and comfortably like one's hometown." 
 Yune-Mie (Yeoseong Chosun reporter), 26
"Korean food is etiquette. Etiquette is necessary, of course, when picking up and laying down a spoon and chopsticks and also when eating."
 Ie Han-Kyung (homemaker), 53

Why do you love Korean food?
Posted by tastingkorea

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Korean Food is a Cultural Heritage

As delicious as Korean food can be, it is more than something tasty to eat. It is a cultural heritage of Korea, both North and South. And so it should be given the proper respect due to something of that importance. That means acknowledging that it is a cultural heritage and honoring that by presenting Korean food with the right spirit, recognizing and understanding the place it comes from and respecting that in how one presents the food and how one comes to understand it. There are far too many people, whether bloggers or culinary professionals, who speak far too casually and flippantly about Korean food. Many of them are not ill-willed and show a nice appreciation for Korean food otherwise, but their lack of critical discernment as well as their ignorance and disregard for the history and culture behind Korean cuisine does a great disservice to a true understanding of the food. One does not have to be a Korean food expert to write about it intelligently, but one does need to do due diligence in terms of research, making sure that there is a solid basis for one's statements. Of course, perfection cannot be expected 100% of the time, but one should do one's best to research claims before making them.  

Korean food has been around for quite a long time. Many dishes have been prepared and honed for generations. So I am highly skeptical when I find someone who claims to have improved upon a time-honored recipe like kimchi chigae for example. Now, everyone has their own individual taste. Some prefer kimchi chigae with pork, some with tuna, and some with beef, etc. One needs to understand the intent behind each flavor profile to truly know if one has improved upon the dish. Kimchi chigae is not meant to be a heavy stew, so adding something like miso would counteract that purpose, not to mention dull the refreshing sharpness of the kimchi that is meant to be the star of the dish, hence the name, kimchi chigae. If one finds the broth too diluted for one's taste, that means that one should add more of the broth base such as pork, tuna, etc. to bring out a fuller and heartier flavor or use a more sour kimchi. What tastes good is a matter of interpretation. It is not up to the individual to dictate how a culture's cuisine should taste.

Additional Resources:

Korean Food in K-town vs. Korea by Tasting Korea

Rant: Yelp reviews of Korean food from One Fork, One Spoon

Posted by tastingkorea

Monday, January 2, 2012

Korean Food is Not Peasant Food, But Comfort Food

". . . there is a false perception that Corean cuisine is not “authentic” unless it is very cheap, rustic, very spicy, and served in a hole-in-the-wall somewhere in a Coreatown . . ."

Mickey Lee, "Martial Foodie’s Joy of Fine Dining Guide: WOO LAE OAK, 
the Finest Korean Restaurant in Washington, DC Area" (CultureMob)

I have heard Korean food referred to as a "peasant food" by some, but I would strongly disagree with this characterization. Sure, Korean food does have a lot of simple meals that are filling and made with accessible ingredients. But the term 'peasant food' implies that Korean food is mainly eaten or influenced by peasants and that the ingredients used are cheap and of lower quality. Korean cuisine is very resourceful in how it uses meats as well as the leftover curd from making tofu, etc., but being resourceful in using ingredients does not make something a peasant cuisine. Korean food uses most parts of chicken and beef--the flesh, bones, and innards as well as the blood of beef and pork.  The flesh and bones of pork is used as well. When cooking seafood, both the flesh and shell may be used. As for vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits, they are generally peeled/hulled/shelled prior to cooking if there is a rough/hard skin or shell. Beans are cooked as a whole generally.

Kkori Gomttang or 꼬리곰탕 via 요안나의 행복이 팍팍

Jaengbahn Mahkguksu or 쟁반막국수 via Orihime Kitchen
Rough Buckwheat Noodles Served on a Platter

Of course, peasant dishes exist in the cuisine such as gomtang, which is beef soup made with bones, and makguksu, rough buckwheat noodles served in a sauce, which comes in many varieties (Chuncheon Makguksu Museum). But most Koreans are not farmers or farm laborers working the land and the ingredients used in Korean cooking may be accessible, but are not always cheap. The tenant farming system ended as a government policy in 1950 (Doopedia), which diminished the number of farmers in Korea. Rapid economic development also brought a decrease in the number of farmers with the opening of greater job opportunities. But even before then, the advent of modern farming techniques brought a gradual dwindling of the peasant lifestyle. There were discernible peasant communities during the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), but this gradually became replaced by communities that engaged in modern farming practices. Traditional farmers still exist in Korea, but they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as farmers that rely on modern techniques. Even if one is a traditional farmer, unless one strongly adheres to the peasant lifestyle, retaining its traditional values and customs and practicing traditional ways of farming exclusively, it is very difficult to remain a peasant in today's society. Most traditional farmers today cannot be considered peasants as they engage in the social mores and technology around them outside of farming life. 

I really don't think one should judge the quality of an ingredient by its cost. Korean cooking focuses much more on high quality ingredients than the "lower grade" parts used in peasant food. There are peasant dishes made with "lower grade" cuts of meat such as oxtail and pig's feet as well as normally discarded animal parts such as innards and bones. But just because a cuisine uses components of a food that are normally discarded in other cultures does not make it a peasant cuisine. What each culture decides to consume is subjective and a matter of taste. Every food has its place. Just because a cut of meat is not tender and fatty does not make it of a lesser quality than meat that is. Tender and fatty cuts of meat may be prized in some meat-centric cuisines, but the Korean diet is not really a meat-centered one. There are many meat dishes in Korean cuisine, of course, but most Koreans do not make meat a large part of their diet for health, spiritual, and/or economic reasons. Some cuts of meat are good for roasting while others are good for making broths, etc. The texture and flavor of a cut is what determines its suitability for a certain style of cooking. So the question should be whether a cut of meat is suited for a particular cooking purpose and not whether it is tender or fatty. 

There is also a class connotation to the term 'peasant food' that I find offensive and don't really think applies to any ethnic cuisine as a whole. The term implies that the culture itself is one of peasantry and poverty, which is ridiculous when applied to industrialized countries where only a small portion of the population are farmers. 'Peasant food' is a term that is used too liberally by some to describe comfort food that is not high-end, but eaten mainly by the masses. Some people have a false notion that because a dish does not use complicated cooking techniques, it is not sophisticated. But sophistication lies in the refinement of the presentation and flavor of the final dish. Traditional Korean food is largely influenced by Korean royal court and Buddhist temple cuisine as well as the distinct characteristics of each region. It is based on the principle that food is medicine. Overprocessing food diminishes its nutritional content and is not always necessary to bring out the best flavor of a dish.  Korean food strives for a vibrance and purity in flavor that comes from using fresh ingredients seasoned to entice the palate, balancing the five tastes of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter for a savory flavor. I am aware that some people do not use the term "peasant food" with a dismissive connotation, but regardless, I still think it is a very limited way to characterize Korean cuisine. Most of the Korean restaurants overseas are family style/Korean bbq, so one can see the basis of this misunderstanding, but that does not excuse it.

Korean food is not peasant food, but comfort food. It is soothing to the soul. This quality emerges when Korean food is properly prepared with 정성 or 'jeongseong', a sincere and proper spirit. In Korean culture, food is a way to show hospitality, so great effort and consideration is given in preparing meals for guests. One should consider the health and well being as well as the palate of the eater when preparing his/her food. Korean food is meant to please the five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This is known as 오감만족 or  'ohgahm-mahnjoek', the satisfaction of the five senses. There is no formal term to denote 'comfort food' in Korean cuisine, but it is widely understood as a concept. The Korean culture can be a very sentimental one and many people do look fondly on the dishes that they grew up with made by their mother, grandmother, or neighborhood restaurants. When speaking about comfort food, the term is transliterated into Korean as  '컴포트 푸드' or can be translated as "그리운 옛맛 (Naver 영어사전)", 'the taste one yearns for from long ago'.

Posted by tastingkorea
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