In South Korea, the question of what constitutes food was vastly different from the American diet that I was familiar with. Through centuries of hardship, isolation, occupation and famine, the general rule was that if it was already edible, could be made edible or could be preserved in any manner to be edible later, it was food. With great creativity, the Koreans developed methods to use the entirety of any animal or plant as well as unique methods of preserving and cooking to prepare their food. The variety of their foods, as I recall, rivaled even that of the Scandinavians–any food item from seafood to vegetables could be eaten raw, cooked, pickled, fermented, dried or even rotten. As such, the flavors of Korea were bolder, aroma was more pronounced, textures varied and meals were more balanced: spice with sweet, sweet with sour, sour with bitter and bitter with salty.
When we arrived in South Korea in the early 1980’s, the country was in the transition between a largely agrarian society to the industrial society it is today. Even in Seoul, fresh and seasonable vegetables would be brought in from the countryside and hours each day were devoted into transforming ordinary ingredients into incredible meals. We were usually served simple but filling meals of rice and cold or hot soup along with a vast assortment of side dishes or panchan (반찬) served in settings of three, five, seven, nine or twelve if you were a king. Rice was mixed with other grains to “stretch” the rice and enhance its nutritional value. We were served boribap (rice with barley) and kongbap (rice with beans), even obapkuk or five grain rice. Grains such as barley and millet were supplemented with wheat, sorghum, and buckwheat. Our Canadian friends used to eat cooked millet for breakfast and we thought they were eating birdseed, that being our only association with the grain. The variety of these dishes was amazing! At lunchtime with pastors we would enjoy thick dumpling soup (만두국) or BBQ beef (불고기) with rice, bean sprouts (콩나물), tofu (두부), spinach (시금치) sweet soy glazed lotus root (연근조림) and always, of course, kim chi (김치) as sides.
Everywhere we went the people seemed eager to greet us and especially to feed us! The largest difficulty about eating food in South Korea was my brother’s food allergy to shellfish. This was difficult to avoid as many dishes included fish sauce or cooking oil with shellfish products in them. My brother became adept at being able to distinguish shellfish ingredients in the first bite, although in the following minutes he would start to break out in patches of red raised hives that would slowly cover his body and itch all over. Being wary of my brother’s needs, Mom would often ask for plain rice and bulgogi or mandu (dumplings) and our hosts would often try to give him Kim Chi (fermented cabbage) made with shrimp sauce or fried prawns as well. Sometimes Mom would just bring a package of dried noodles and broth for my brother, but it would embarrass our hosts to give him so little to eat. They would always want to crack an egg on the boiling dish or give him seaweed (which he liked) along with his rice and soup. He always had to be very careful.
Because Korea is unique in its geography and history, its food is also unique. Korea is a peninsula with a climate similar to the north central region of the United States, states like Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. But because of its many mountains and the way its landmass is cradled in the warmer seas of the South China Sea, Korea also has many microenvironments and climate zones leading to a great diversity of foods. Rice, beans, and vegetables, for instance, are grown in the valleys while mushrooms, herbs and wild plants can be found more readily in the mountains. When we went to the sea we would enjoy piles of freshly caught shrimp (which my brother could not eat) while in the mountains people foraged for edible plants such as ramps—a cross between a leek and garlic—and Myeongaju” (명아주) or green leaves foraged in the mountains and fields in the spring. Even Kim Chi varied by geography. Northern kimchi often has a more watery consistency while Kimchi made in the south used salt, chili peppers and brined anchovy or brined shrimp allowed to ferment. Every region took advantage of its unique climate and featured its own unique dishes.
Since Korea is a peninsula jutting out into the ocean, many South Korean dishes featured seafood. On one trip, we left the city to visit the ocean side town of Incheon. Next to the waterfront, swirling eddies formed next to the pier pilings with light penetrating shallowly into the amethyst green water. Offshore, boats carrying freshly harvested seaweed would bring their haul dockside to the awaiting dried seaweed factory. But seaweed and I never got along. Besides the fact that seaweed tasted like the ocean (which I have never been fond of), there was a problem with its texture. Seaweed could never seem to choose what type of texture it was. First, it would start out as a thin, brittle, dry salty strip. Once in your mouth however, it would quickly convert into a sticky film that would get stuck against the flat of your tongue or the roof of your mouth. Trying to get it unstuck from my tongue, I would rub the seaweed back and forth against the roof of my mouth, where it would stick. Then I would have sticky seaweed paste stuck to both my tongue and the roof of my mouth. After a minute or so of sliding my tongue around, the paste would once again change form into a liquid. So maybe putting it flat on your tongue wasn’t such a great idea, but how about just chewing it like with sushi? Then it gets stuck in the crevices of your teeth and the whole use your tongue to get it unstuck process started all over again. There are plenty of people that enjoy eating seaweed, and more power to them. But for me, seaweed was the practical equivalent of feeding a dog peanut butter.
At a restaurant next to where they made seaweed was a restaurant that offered the freshest seafood dishes in the country. It was a more relaxed restaurant than the formal ones, as noted by the seafood friendly thin cotton batten plastic tablecloths. We were just starting to eat lunch with a group of Koreans when a waiter delivered a plate to the table. On the white round plate writhed three or four small pale grey octopus with long tentacles. As one would expect, they all desperately tried to escape the plate and were immediately met with descending chopstick fence posts preventing their movement. The Korean men smiled at the activity and efforts to keep them on the plate. One of the men then picked one up with his chopsticks, exposing the curious nature of the small head and long stringy tentacles. At this point, I was still unsure as to the presence of live octopus at the table, but I had a general idea of where this was heading. Bright eyed and with my entire attention captivated, the Korean man used his hands to wrap the tentacles around his chopsticks and then placed the whole octopus into his mouth, downing it with one glup and smiling.
To really understand Korean cooking one must also understand the theory of Yin and Yang, cold and hot. Koreans follow a regional form of humoral medicine, the balance of um (cold) foods and yang (hot) foods. For them, a healthy diet should be a balance of both um foods such as green vegetables and fruits, and yang foods such as roots, radishes, carrots, and potatoes. An imbalance of these foods, or their over-consumption, is regarded as a primary cause of bad health. Although at the time we were not familiar with this theory, we, too, from familiarization began to associate specific foods with their respective seasons and to appreciate their benefits. Our first taste of Korea came in the spring. We arrived in early March when the trees were still wrapped and the fields were deceptively bare. As the weather warmed, however, yellow Forsythia burst into bloom along the hillsides and cherry blossoms graced Buddhist temples on the mountainside. Spring set the tone for good health; Koreans were eager to eat the fresh foods of the spring as a means of staying healthy throughout the year. On the coast, tender Jukkumi octopus, its head filled with eggs, was eaten in the spring because it was rich in taurine, important for relieving fatigue. King Crabs were popular on the coast, too, along with a variety of spring vegetables. In Seoul we were introduced to bibimbap and it quickly became a favorite. Rich in greens and roots one of its main ingredients is fernbrake or bracken, known as “the beef of the mountains” due to its high protein content. One of my earliest memories in Korea is of little old grandmothers climbing our hill in the spring with spade and clippers, searching at the side of the road for wild roots and bracken.
As spring slipped into summer our diet changed as well. In hot weather the body sweats and is stressed. To balance the heat it was important to eat cooling and soothing foods, avoiding a lot of meat and spice. Sometimes during the summer Dad would take long bus trips deep into the remote countryside to meet with Korean pastors. During one trip he took a bus to the provincial capital and then to the road’s end at a farm in the central mountains. He was treated to a glass of thick raw honey with ice cubes as well as dotorimuk, an acorn jelly salad dressed in a spicy sauce. In the city Dad would enjoy cooling bowls of cold noodles with pear slices (mulnaengmyun), a dish that became hugely popular after the Korean War. Even at camp we would eat cooling and soothing foods. Our trays would include salads, cucumbers, and lightly cooked green leafy vegetables. During the hottest part of the day, after a nap, there was nothing like going out to the farms on a hot day to sit in the shade of a 수박 과 멜론 wondumak or lookout, eating ripe watermelon and chamwae. On our way home from camp we would all be treated to Bacchus, 박카스), a non-carbonated South Korean energy drink. We had the original drink, now called Bacchus-F to distinguish it from later Bacchus and its more potent ingredients. Summertime would not have been complete without samgyetang. Samgyetang is a Korean version of the Russian doll: a bowl of hot broth cradling a whole chicken, inside which is a stuffing of glutinous rice within which you will find a piece of ginseng, a Korean date or jujube, a ginkgo nut, and garlic cloves. Voilà! Traditionally eaten on the hottest 30 days of the year called sambok, samgyetang is believed to replace the internal heat lost by sweating. It is also good for restoring strength: our friends recently sent Dad a treasure-load of fresh ginseng following his surgery with a reminder to use it in samgyetang. Another summer time favorite, even now, is patbingsu. Patbingsu is a dessert made of shaved ice topped with sweet red beans and ice cream. Sometimes strawberries and other fruit are added as well to explore summer’s flavors.
As the days shortened and the wind turned cold, our food choices changed yet again. Coming inside from a brisk wind we would enjoy greater portions of meat including warm beef dishes, dark poultry and meat-based soups and stews. Who could resist soondubu jiggae, a delicious soft tofu stew, or ddukbokki – 떡볶이 long round rice cakes in a spicy red broth? Dad remembers buying ddukbokki from Yunhee Dong street vendors. Lucky kids went home from school to freshly made hoeddeok 호떡, sweet syrupy pancakes made with cinnamon, sugar and walnuts. Vegetables, in their turn, included cooked root vegetables, baked winter squashes, onions, and mustard. Helpful grains include oatmeal, quinoa, and buckwheat. My Mom’s favorite dish is an autumn dish called Japchae – 잡채, sweet potato starch noodles stir fried with vegetables. Nuts and seeds are considered warming as well, as are butter, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and pepper.
Outside our second house was a chestnut tree. We would gather the chestnuts in the Fall and roast them, sometimes alone and sometimes in foil with chunks of roast beef and garlic. One day my mother looked out our window and saw a grandfather near the tree in traditional dress. Curious as to what he might want, Mom watched as he skillfully began to wield his walking stick at the branches, knocking the chestnuts to the ground. Knowing you should never question or counter an elder, Mom opened the door, bowed and greeted the haraboji, receiving a bow in return. “It is a nice day,” Mom said. “Yea……” said the haraboji, smiling. After other pleasantries, Mom said, “We enjoy chestnuts, too.” “Yea…..” replied the haraboji. Having said as much as she could, Mom bowed again, said farewell, turned and went inside. The grandfather continued to belie his stick against the tree until most of the nuts had been harvested. Later, Mom opened the door only to find a sack of freshly-harvested chestnuts. Having supplied the labor, the haraboji, who for all we know was a child on those same hills, had also shared the nuts.
Among the greatest autumnal holidays is Chuseok (추석) the “Great Middle of Autumn”. It is a busy time of reunion and travel as Koreans visit their ancestral homes, clean their ancestor’s graves and prepare a feast of songpyeon (송편) and rice wines. These are then shared with the dead in ancestral rites. Korean Christians will also take time during Chuseok to reflect on the life and contributions of their ancestors. Many will attend church services while visiting their families. All will enjoy Galbi, grilled Short Ribs with lettuce wraps, or chapchae along with rice cakes stuffed with sesame seeds, black beans, mung beans, cinnamon, pine nut, walnut, chestnut, jujube, and honey.
I think of autumn as Mom would prepare fermented foods; crisp golden air and piles of petchu cabbage and radishes on plastic mats in the gentle sun, and as I enjoy the smell of green-bean (lentil) pancakes (빈대떡) and chap-chae, mixed vegetables with rice (잡채). Koreans eat many preserved foods because of their cold winters. Kimchi, in fact, was stored underground in jars to keep cool during the summer months and unfrozen during the winter months. They needed the Vitamin C in preserved cabbage as well as the nutrition in fermented soybean pastes and chile pastes. We ate the dried fish, too, along with dried and smoked meats like jerky. Our friends in Mongolia were taught to eat these foods, too, and today are blessed with better health and fewer diseases as a result.
Seollal 설날 is the most celebrated holiday in South Korea. It’s celebrated not only to mark the entrance of a new year, but also a time for families to catch up with each other, pay respect to elders and exchange gifts. Gifts may include fresh fruits, ginseng, honey, gift baskets (with tuna, spam, traditional sweets, dried fish) toiletries and cash. We once received a large piece of meat as a gift along with boxes of Asian pears and mandarin oranges. Tteokguk (ddukguk) or rice cake soup is traditional. In fact, one asks how old another person is by asking “how many bowls of tteokguk have you eaten?” Mandu guk, japchae and Su-jeong-gwa, a traditional fruit punch made from persimmons, cinnamon and ginger, are served as well. Rice cakes are also traditional. There are over two hundred varieties of these cakes from colorful mocha style rice cake called Chapssaltteok 찹쌀떡, to green and pink Rice cake or Songpyeon 송편, and Yaksik 약식, sweetened rice with dried fruits and nuts. Fried honey cakes called Yakgwa are great, too!
I was too young to really pay attention to table manners, but over time I became familiar with the pattern even if I did not understand the words that were said. When in the company of elders, take your seat according to social ranking with the youngest or lowest ranked person closest to the door. Before you eat, especially at someone’s home, it’s polite to say that you are looking forward to the meal. In Korean, people say Jalmukesumneda (I will eat well) and wait for the oldest person/people to lift their spoon or chopsticks first before you start eating. One tries to eat at the same pace as everyone else, especially the elders. Don’t blow your nose at the table. Ever. When someone senior pours a drink for you, hold out your cup with both hands to accept (this also holds true for someone passing you a side dish or something else at the table). During the meal, uneatable parts such as bones or fish bones are quietly discarded by wrapping them in a paper so that others won’t see them. After a meal, return your spoon and chopsticks to the spot where they were placed. Fold the used napkin and put it back on the table.
Normally the meal started with a first course of soup, often composed of broth, noodles and vegetables. From the Western point of view, it could be said that Koreans loudly slurp their food while eating it, but the more technical term is aspiration. As any good wine connoisseur knows, swirling the wine around in your glass introduces traces of oxygen into the wine, brining out the subtle flavors and aromas. The Koreans would do the same with their soup, taking in a large breath of air around their bite of noodles to help bring out the flavors. In a group, the dining area would fill with the loud cacophony of people aspirating with each of their bites. When the bowl had been emptied of its non-broth contents with chopsticks, the remaining broth would be drained by raising the bowl to ones mouth and aspirating the contents over several swallows. At the end of the process, it was normal to have swallowed a good portion of air as well as soup, and the burps that would follow were a sign of a guest enjoying a good meal.
Each person would take what they needed one serving at a time, building a single bite by layering the food in the rice bowl. Sometimes the host would take chopsticks-full portion of meats off the steaming BBQ plate and place it on his guest’s plates. After that was gone, you would get more. Despite all this food, the hostess would urge us to eat more!
The end of the meal would arrive when everyone had eaten their fill and their plates were empty, as a plate with food left on it would signal that the food was not good enough to eat. For me, this frequently meant passing my plate off to my parents, so they could eat the vegetables and other items that I was too picky to eat. The host would then offer more food to their guests, not just once or twice, but three times. It was only after the guest confirmed that they were finished for the third time that they were considered officially done. I was taught to hold my left hand under my right wrist when I reached for something and at the end of the meal to say “I ate well,” – challmokasumnda (잘 먹었다).
Dad was an adventurous eater with an iron stomach. He would eat and enjoy almost anything thrown at him and would often put so much spice on his food that he would use a white handkerchief kept in his pocket to remember vet the beads of sweat forming an n his forehead from the spice. Mom and Ruth enjoyed Korean food, especially the kim chi and the vegetable dishes. I was a meat and potatoes type of kid… or meat and rice as it would go in this country. I enjoyed ketchup with rice or butter and rice but I also enjoyed vegetable pancakes (pindaetak), Bulgogi and chicken with vegetables stew (takchim). I also enjoyed any kind of noodle–rice noodles, wheat noodles, buckwheat noodles, ramyon (라면)….and mulkimchi or Kimchi dipped in water to remove the spice.
We ate Korean food whenever we could but we also fixed Western meals. For our parent’s anniversary one year we kids wanted to make them a special meal. So we set the table for two with candles. We hung a sheet across the doorway to the kitchen to make it private (and so they couldn’t see what we were doing) and started to prepare the food. My brother and sister prepared spaghetti, cooking the noodles and stirring the sauce while Ruth and I served it. I couldn’t help much because of my age, and was more of a hindrance than a help, but I tried anyway. Several times Mom had to come in and help do certain tasks, but pretended not to be helping. We set our Western dining table with plate ware for two and served my parents their meal complete with handwritten menus. After the meal was served, us kids retreated to a bedroom to eat our meal and give our parents a private dinner.
At the local markets, Mom or Esuk would by chickens and bring them home to cook dinner. The job would then turn to Dad, whose responsibility was to removed the head and feet before Mom would touch it. On occasion, Dad would finish chopping off the feet and would hold the foot with one hand and the leg tendon with the other, pulling on the tendon to open and retract the claws of the foot. He would then proceed to chase Mom or my sister around the house with the moving chicken foot, something that from my vantage point, looked hilarious. While any good Korean would use the whole chicken, the cooked feet as a crunchy appetizer and the head for soup seasoning, we would normally discard those parts. Included with the chickens was almost always the liver, heart and gizzard, since you were paying for one whole chicken, it was assumed those were part of the purchase. In my parents younger years they would have put them to good use in liver and onions or some similar dish, but a bout of food poisoning after consuming liver and onions did away with chicken offal dishes.
My favorite dish from Korea was bulgogi, thin slices of beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame seed oil, garlic and sugar. While you could order the dish at most restaurants and they would bring out your prepared order to your table, there were specialty restaurants where you could cook the meat yourself at the table. In the middle of the table sat a large cast iron dome with a moat around the edges and a heat source underneath. The waiters would bring out a set of prepared condiments and raw ingredients and place them on the table. The guests would then place pieces of raw meat onto the cast iron dome as well raw vegetables and would tend to their cooking while talking with each other. I enjoyed placing strips of meat on the dome, making sure to smooth out any folds or ridges. Once one side was cooked, I would pickup the piece of meat and draw it through the cooking liquid that had pooled in the moat at the edges of the pan and then place the raw side against the dome until cooked. The meat was best enjoyed medium rare; just after the point that the redness softened but removed before the meat lost its tenderness. I would then take a piece of lettuce, add a layer of rice, place the piece of meat on top and enjoy a very Korean version of a taco. Adults would add other things like kimchi, vegetables and gochujang, but I thought those things distracted from the main ingredient: the bulgogi. In the years and countries that followed, my birthday meal of choice was bulgogi, and it is still a dish that I frequently make for my family, albeit without the enjoyment of the bulgogi cooker. Writing this, I should seriously consider purchasing one.
In the years since leaving South Korea, all of our family members still enjoy cooking Korean meals. A hallmark of any of our family reunions or celebrations is a large meal of different Korean dishes complete with thin metal chopsticks. During these meals we will frequently recall and discuss our different memories from South Korea with the smells and tastes of our meal helping to jog our memories. With my family we still prepare some basic Korean meals at least once a month. I will make bulgogi and takchim and will sometimes visit our local Korean H-Mart store to buy prepared pindetak, japchae, mandu guk or other sides. For anyone interested in learning about Korean food or recipes for the myriad of different dishes, Cooking with Maangchi has a large list with instructions and photos.
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