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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