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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