Friday, October 08, 2004

Korean Food II

Part I Introduction



I think it is beneficial to take historical perspective on Korean food. Again, I have no real researched history per se, however if we piece together the obvious, a story emerges. This story is different from anything I have read about Korean food. If one were to look at the ¡°party line¡± on Korean food, a foreigner would get the idea that King Sejong himself ate the food eaten today as he invented the Hangul alphabet.


Instead of looking at this in a linear fashion, I would simply like to point out two major cuisine milestones, and work forward and back from them. These two milestones actually tell a lot in my opinion of Korean culture, and its history.


For a modern dinner nothing stands out more in Korean food than the chili pepper. This is an almost universal ingredient and condiment for Koreans. However when you really think, Korean food was never like this. Probably even most Koreans would be surprised to learn that the chili is not native to the peninsula, nor anywhere in Asia.


Chilies are native to the Americas, and once discovered by the Europeans, it was widely exported. The Portuguese were the first to have contact with the Chosun dynasty in the 16 Century (as I recall). It must have been at that time that the chilies was introduced to Korean palates, and soon became an indivisible part of the cuisine and the country.


This milestone, leads to many other things. First, given the ubiquitous ness of the chili, what was Korean cuisine like this before? This is actually a question that has puzzled me to no end. I would think garlic, and bean pastes would dominate. Both of these are very common in today, but nether stand out, nor are they looked with the same modern reverence as the chilie (granted garlic comes a close second). I also guess that the green onion (¡°pa¡± in Korean) played a much larger role the cuisine than it does now. Accordingly the ¡°kimchi¡± of today would be considered very strange for somebody from the Shilla Dynasty. My guess is the kimchi of yore would be more like the ¡°Water Kimchi¡± I see today (a mixture of radish, cabbage, carrot, and others, in a vinegary salty broth served cold).


This landmark stands out in my mind as one of the paradoxes of Korea. As I recall, the first Europeans to visit Korea (the Portuguese) were killed and their boat burned to the waterline. Korea was a entirely closed off country, and traded with nobody. Yet somehow, it was able to trade for the chilies, and this was not a one time thing. If you look in the markets you will a few types of ¡°Korean¡± chilies, indicating that Korea traded their isolationalism more than once for seeds.


It is not only that, it does make one wonder why the chili caught on like wildfire (excuse the pun). Other influences I will discuss later have really failed to be seen as widely used, or even recognized as Korean. What made this so special? This brings me to my other myth busing thought about Korean history.


First are its agricultural capabilities. The plant is very rugged. It flourishes in just about any climate, and is remarkably reliant to pests. Handling chilies is simple, the skin is thick, they are pliant, and store well once picked. Secondly it is very productive. The crop from healthy plant can get up to 100 chilies. Compare these qualities to the wet soil you need for Garlic, and the fact that once garlic plant only yields 20-30 cloves. Or if you want count it as a vegetable, look at the amount of water needed for cucumbers and the problems with pests and handling them later.


The spice or vegetable conflict brings us to another thing about why chilies are used. They are, and this may shock many, spicy. Spicy qualities cover up bad tastes in food quite well. It is no coincidence that Kimchi uses chilies. Kimchi by definition is rotten cabbage. What better way to cover up the rotted flavor than with chilies.


Know I know may will argue that Kimchi is ¡°rotten¡±, however I hate to tell you it is. Koreans, and even more amusingly Korean doctors, will laude the bacteria in Kimchi as beneficial. Why does one think the bacteria are there in the first place? Is one to believe that the bacteria commute during the day to feed off of rotten leaves? This is also the major difference between Kimchi and Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is not fermented like Kimchi, it is simply cabbage picked in water (bateria may come in, but it is a side effect). Kimchi by contrast MUST be fermented (spoiled) to be proper.


This leads to a very interesting window on Korea¡¯s past. First, nobody eats rotten food normally (there are some exceptions, however I dare you find such produced or used so voluminously as Kimchi). The way modern Kimchi evolved may have happed like ¡°This picked cabbage is rotten, but if you add chili pepper nobody knows¡± to ¡°You know we are always having our cabbage rot. It think if we add the chili pepper BEFORE storage it will take make our jobs easier¡±. Modern Kimchi was born.


However to have it take of the way it did, means that this cabbage storage problem was not limited to a few people. It was a widespread problem. Furthermore the aguratural properties of the chilies indicate that what ever they used before was either too expensive, or too inefficient to produce. Yet rotting kimchi was a major problem.


Accordingly, all this leads me to a conclusion that files in the face of modern Korean interpretations of history. Both the Shilla and Chosun dynasties were probably not too prosperous. Korea throughout its history has had a very difficult time producing what it can, and then storing it, accordingly the dynasties were never really prosperous.


If you project this further it leads to all sorts of things. If the country was not so prosperous, perhaps all the supposed fineries of the aristocrats did not exists in the volumes alleged. Or to make a more controversial statement, perhaps China has a point about the history of Manchuria. It would be hard for an ill supported Korean army to really project power into the north.


The second milestone Korean cuisine is the impact of the events on the 20th Century. This era found Korea pried open to the world, the Japanese colonizing with the intent on ending Korean culture (and with that the food most likely), and a war that pretty much destroyed everything. I submit that this dubious milestone has made Korean cuisine a classless cuisine.


When the Japanese colonized, they quickly eliminated the existing ruling class. This created not only a loss of Korean leaders, but also a loss of all their support. One such support was the legion of cooks that worked in royal and aristocratic kitchens. Furthermore since the new ruling class had different preferences, these cooks had to either change or find new jobs entirely.


After the Japanese left, the Korean peninsula fought a civil war that still exists to day (yes I am talking the Korean War). This killed much of the population some undoubtedly were expert cooks. Finally what ever was left of thinned out cooking community that still held on to the recipes and methods of the past was unable to really communicate due to divisions and the lack of communication after the war.


With all this, I think that the aristocratic culinary traditions of Korea disappeared. What lived on though was all the peasant food. This makes some since as you survey the cuisine. While I will talk about it later, it is worth nothing that modern Korean food does not use much in the way of specialized ingredients, cooking techniques, or presentations. Furthermore, most of it makes good use of preserved foods (Kimchi, bean pastes, dried vegetables, etc.). Both of these are hallmarks of peasant cuisine, the use of inexpensive ingredients, and the elimination of waste.


For example, a typical ¡°grand¡± mean in Korea would be Korean beef BBQ (Sogogi-galbi). While this is understandably affordable today due to many factors, consider how often the average family did it long ago. You would also have to remember that beef was never really raised that much due to space (supply and demand making it very costly). One could imagine this to be a festival, or whole village type feast (a head of cattle is a lot of meat). However due to simplicity of preparation and accompaniments (simple grilling which you do yourself, greens, preserved cabbage, soup made of preserved bean paste) on only has to wonder if the royalty really ate like this, even if they could afford it.


One could point to a ¡°grand¡± meal of sashimi (Hway), another popular ¡°big night out¡± type dish. However a world traveler has to look at such meal, and wonder how much of this was more the Japanese influence than anything Korean. More telling though in my opinion is that there are no real traditional Korean accompaniments for sashimi as you would for Korean BBQ. Also worth noting the wasabi served along side (the only thing that comes close to a traditional accompaniment) is native to Japan, and more importantly is used for almost nothing else in Korea.


Again to reinforce my point, Korean cuisine is basically classes. Due to the developments of the last century, a distinction between high and low cuisine disappeared (mainly because high cuisine disappeared). Even the supposed Korean ¡°grand¡± meals are on reflection not so grand. This has implications I will discuss later.


Despite some of the things I may have said, I still do not think that Korean cuisine was really open to the world. All this changed with the last milestone in Korean cuisine, the results in the South of the Korean War. This milestone comes in two parts. One is the stationing of the US Army in Korea, which placed foreign ways right in Korea¡¯s face. Secondly is the rapid industrialization of Korea, and how it was done. The rise of the Korean economy also changes Korean cuisine as Koreans contacted the world, and the world made contact back.


The implications of this are really a whole separate section. However it is important to make note of this milestone in the history section.


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