I will preface this week by saying that I have not previously had much experience eating Korean food, but I was absolutely floored by how much I loved it. The heavy use of vegetables with varied simple flavourings, such as chilli, fermentation, vinegar and soy, produced gob-smacking taste sensations. Also, after stuffing myself on this cuisine all week I happened to lose weight without trying, which may be coincidence or a testament to its healthful properties. Korean food is based upon the combination of rice or noodles, vegetables and meat, flavoured with ingredients/techniques such as chilli, sesame oil, fermented bean paste, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, pepper, fermentation and pickling. The divide between North and South Korea in modern times is dramatic and fraught with misery for many, although it has only been thus for 70 years, and therefore a lot of the culinary traditions are shared between the regions. Before the divide of north and south in 1948, Korea was divided into eight provinces, and although there were commonalities between them, they also each had their own particular taste preferences and environmental conditions suited to the production of specific ingredients. Food is an important part of Korean culture, and plays an integral part in the four big family celebrations: coming-of-age, wedding, funeral and ancestral rite. In each of these, specific recipes are displayed in particular spatial and temporal patterns, all of which carry deep spiritual significance to the celebration. Korean culture also carries a great weight of rules of etiquette around eating: for example, that the elders of the family must be served and must eat first, with conversation generally discouraged; and one should not lift the bowl or plate from the table while eating. There are also more specific sayings containing words of wisdom regarding dining etiquette, such as “don’t eat so slowly as to appear as if it’s against your will, nor so fast as if to be stealing another’s food”, “don’t speak of disgusting things while eating”, or, my favourite “upon sighting a fat cow, goat, pig or chicken, do not immediately speak of slaughtering, cooking or consuming it”. I think the latter is actually a useful motto that could be more broadly applied to life, advising consideration and reflection before speaking immediately of your desires and impulses.
Bibimbap literally means “mixed rice” and describes a dish of cooked white rice topped with varieties of cooked, pickled or fermented vegetables, a sauce (commonly with a basis of gochujang, fermented soy bean and chilli paste), and egg. The dish is traditionally served in a hot stone bowl, and the egg or egg yolk is often served raw, then stirred through the piping hot dish to cook it to a rich and creamy consistency. However, for those churlish about the concept of raw egg, a fried egg is commonly substituted. Bibimbap is traditionally served on the eve of the lunar New Year, as a way to use up all of the leftover side dishes in the house and therefore start anew in all aspects. However, there are also origin stories of bibimbap in farming communities to feed masses of hungry workers, as a between-meal snack for royalty, and mixing varied food offerings at an ancestral rite (jesa) in a bowl, as part of the memorial ceremony to deceased ancestors. In my bibimbap I included some sautéed beef mince flavoured with soy sauce, ginger and garlic, dried seaweed, pickled cucumber, stir fried zucchini, sautéed spinach, gochujang-based chilli sauce, sautéed carrot, blanched bean sprouts and shitake mushrooms, with piping hot rice and a raw egg yolk. The dish is notorious for its beautiful presentation, with all the varied ingredients delicately arranged in aesthetically pleasing clumps of colour; however it is essential that the whole thing be roughly mixed together into a mess before consumption. There’s something pleasing in the necessary transience of this beautiful dish – it must be destroyed soon after being served to properly cook the raw egg yolk, so your enjoyment of its aesthetics needs to be brief and intense! Within the colour combinations, however, lies complex symbolism, with black/brown representing the north and kidneys, red or orange for the south and heart, green symbolising the east and liver, white for the west and lungs and yellow for the centre or stomach. A balance of these would therefore result in a balance between all of these forces and the healthiest and most delicious bibimbap.
One simply cannot discuss Korean cuisine without mentioning the indisputable national food: kimchi. Dating back to the transition between BC and AD, over 2 million tonnes of kimchi is eaten every year in modern South Korea alone (around 18kg per person), and regular consumption of the food was considered so important to Koreans that millions of dollars were spent on the development of a special kimchi, which was designed to better survive the conditions of interplanetary travel, and was indeed eaten in space by a South Korean astronaut. A South Korean president once famously said that on an international trip he was missing kimchi more than his wife, and a national tragedy emerged from a 2010 cabbage crop failure, when kimchi prices rose by 400%, bankrupting families who, of course, couldn’t just stop eating the food in the same way they couldn’t very well stop breathing air. Kimchi is made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly cabbage, although popularly also radish. To the fermenting mixture is added flavourings such as gochugaru (chilli powder), garlic, ginger, scallions, and often some sort of salted seafood, such as anchovies. Every household will have its preferred recipe of kimchi, which also varies according to seasonal availability of ingredients, so the inclusion and proportions of these ingredients varies incredibly according to personal taste and kimchi variety (e.g. white kimchi does not contain any chilli). The other element that is important to imparting flavour to the kimchi is the fermentation process, where jars were traditionally buried in the earth in brown ceramic pots (onggi) to ferment at a stable temperature, although are usually kept in specially-dedicated kimchi fridges in modern times, which can control the temperature and length of time of fermentation and dramatically alter the taste. The process of fermentation is ideal to preserve vegetables and ensure a nourishing supply over the winter, while also imparting the incredible health benefits of all fermented food to the gut biome, as well as being low in calories and high in dietary fibre, vitamin A, B, C, calcium, iron and carotene. Although kimchi is served as a side dish with almost every Korean meal, it can also form the basis of main meals, such as kimchi-jjigae, a kimchi-based stew. In my kimchi-jjigae I included chunks of pork belly, kimchi, broth, spring onions, onions and firm tofu, stewed together into a chunky and thick stew. I was momentarily perplexed by the concept of heating up kimchi, and therefore killing many of the healthful bacteria, but then remembered that it hardly matters given the quantities of cool kimchi that Koreans (and I, this week), consume on a daily basis. Older kimchi is preferred for the stew, creating a more strongly flavoured stew, but I used the kimchi I made several weeks back that has been fermenting gently for a relatively short period of time.
Bulgogi and banchan
Bulgogi is one of the most famous examples of Korean barbecue, the name literally meaning “fire meat”. Very finely sliced beef is marinated in a sauce of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper, ginger and onions, then quickly grilled over hot flames until cooked. Beef bulgogi is often eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves, and with other side dishes, which are collectively called banchan. Banchan is an important concept in Korean cuisine, describing the general practice of placing many distinct side dishes in individual bowls in the centre of the table, and eating communally from all of them. They are often accompanied by a meat-based centrepiece (such as bulgogi), bap (rice), soup or stew. The concept of banchan is thought to have originated from a Buddhist influence on Korea during the early centuries of AD, which decreased the consumption of meat for many years subsequent. A varied assortment of vegetable-based dishes therefore became the central point of Korean cuisine, even after the reemergence of meat in the culture. The varieties of banchan can be broadly categorised into namul (steamed, marinated or stir fried vegetables, seasoned with assorted combinations of sesame oil, vinegar, garlic, scallions, soy sauce and chilli), bokkeum (meat or mushrooms stir fried with sauce), jorim (a broth-based dish), jjim (steamed protein), jeon (pancake-based foods), hoe (raw dishes) and, of course, kimchi. For my banchan, I made kongamool (blanched soybean sprouts), pa muchim (spring onion salad), kimchi, steamed broccoli, braised potatoes and lotus root, stir fried eggplant, and oi muchim (spicy cucumber salad). The more individual dishes served for a banchan, the fancier it is, so although it took me half a day to make, I felt slightly inferior about my paltry offering of seven!
Naengmyeon describes a noodle dish served in ice cold broth, particularly popular during summer, in which the noodles are made from various ingredients, most commonly buckwheat. Naengmyeon is thought to have originated in North Korea, but after the Korean War, spread in popularity to the south as well. There are two main varieties of naengmyeon: bibim naengmyeon, served in a spicy chilli broth, and mul naengmyeon, served in a mild meat-based broth. I made mul naengmyeon, originating from Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, first simmering beef in water and spices for several hours to make the stock, then cooling and adding slices of beef, cucumber, nashi pear, shitake mushrooms and a boiled egg. This delicious dish has recently taken centre stage in acts of diplomacy, as it was given as a gift from Kim Jong-un to Moon Jae-in during the first meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea early in 2018. Perhaps the ice-cold meal was intended to cool tensions between the regions?