Korean Food IIIa
Note: Sorry for the time this is taking. I finshed this much of part III, there is more to come.
"Traditional" Korean Cuisine
I put quotes in this title to reflect the aforementioned history of Korea cuisine. This adjective is bandied about by many in Korea in the context to cuisine. Yet I remain mystified as to why it used when you take history into context.
The use of "Traditional", I think, refers more to "pure" Korean foods. Pure in one sense that a majority of the ingredients are native to Korea, or, with some notable exceptions, have been grown in Korea since the beginnings of the Korea. Pure in another sense that traditional Korean preparation and cooking methods are used.
One of the more amusing, to me anyway, statements that Korean's tend to make about their cuisine and eating habits is that "Korean food is always fresh". Amusing because it discounts the multitude of preservation techniques used in Korean cooking. If one to walk through a traditional Korean market setting, one is struck by not only the array of fresh foods, but also the array of dried and prepared ingredients.
First are the multitudes of sauces available. It should be noted that the recipe for Korean pepper sauce (Gochu-jang) is not only a good condiment, but it is also a very good way to preserve peppers. The same can be said about Soybean paste (Dweng-jang). Even rice paste cakes (ttok) are a form of preservation, since the outside ttok forms an airtight barrier that keeps a filing fresh, and ttok alone keeps for days only needing water (or heat) to be fresh again.
Another common form of preservation is drying. A popular snack in Korea is dried seafood such as squid and fish. If one were to pass through the streets of Seoul during the fall, in areas rich and poor, one is sure to see a variety of vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms being dried by home cooks (this would include the ubiquitous drying of red chili peppers). Such dried foods are used in soups, stews, condiments, and other places. This list would not be complete with out fruit preservation Dried persimmon is one my favorite snacks in Korea. There are also fruit jelled preparations (notably quince) that are used for teas.
The largest group by far however is brined goods and other pickles. In Korea is possible to buy a multitude of vegetables pickled. If one were to go to a seafood market, one could also by a preparation of small shrimp, or other seafood. Ultimately though the most striking thing is the various types of prepared pickles that go straight to the dinner table.
These pickles go by various names. Kimchi is used to refer to these as a group, however it is easily confused with the ubiquitous picked cabbage with pepper paste (which is one kind of Kimchi). Panchon (Side dishes, see below) is also another popular word, however this word covers fresh preparations and other non-picked foods.
The one feature all these pickles have in common is there abundance of salt (appropriately enough). While this may seem trivial and obvious, it has a profound effect on the Korean palette. Second, most of them usually have chili pepper, garlic, or both in their preparation. From this basic recipe just about anything and everything is pickled. From root vegetables to greens to fruits. Again some of the most popular are cabbage and radishes.
These dishes are a surprising share of an average Korean's meal. A typical Korean meal today consists of rice, a soup or stew, and a selection of pickles and other small foods (again, all these small dishes are called ¡°panchon¡± collectively). Infact when it gets down to it, in many cases the soup is a luxury, and the essential Korean meal consists of rice and pickles.
To reinforce my assertions in history, if this is the quintessential everyday Korean meal (which I doubt most Koreans would argue with), it makes a rather interesting argument. Both essentials rice and pickles can be stored for a long time. The fact that storage was necessary, and in fact preservation becoming such a well developed cooking method, hints that Korea was not all that prosperous of a nation.
Korea, despite having a temperate climate, and in places almost sub-tropical, has brutal winter months. The cold winds from the north conspire with seas and mountains to create a winter that makes it difficult to harvest or grow anything. If you are spending half the year scrambling to eat, it makes it less likely you have energy for other things.
They do not call Korea the "Hermit Kingdom" for nothing, and Hermits are not only characterized by aloofness, but also other qualities not so positive. Trade would have been important not only for luxury bric-a-brac, but also food. Korea could have imported a lot from tropic and sub-tropic China with their longer growing seasons. They also could have gained various other foodstuffs common in the areas around Korea, but did not. This is even more surprising, considering the natural asset Korea has. Currently Korea is clamoring to become a ¡°hub¡± of trade in the region, one wonders why this was not thought of a thousand years ago when it could have meant a remarkable difference. Regardless, Korea chose not to do so, perhaps this more basic existence was self-imposed in many senses.
In a related way, and more evidence to my assertion, is they way Koreans think of food. At first this may be a difficult idea to grasp, however I think its essential to anybody who wants to know about Koreans ideas toward food. Korea considers food very different than other nations. In other countries food is seen as a source of celebration, unity, bounty, or even luxury. In Korea food is certainly a part of any celebration, however in marked contrast to other places around the world, there is little thought given to what is eaten, how it is cooked, or how it is eaten. In a Korean celebration the only rule for food seems to be to ¡°have a lot¡± of everyday foods. (Side note, this may have been different in the past, however I think the aforementioned loss high cuisine may have relegated such differences to the history books).
Accordingly, based on my observations and experience, I think food is seen in Korea as a source of health. It would be improper to say Koreans equate food with fuel however. Such derision would overlook the earnestness Koreans place on food each food¡¯s benefits.
As I have dinned in Korea with locals, I am always amused by the way my fellow diners eagerly point out the health benefits of each food I am eating. One soup is good for this, another green sprout is good for that, and this noodle is good for that. As one eats, one is also struck by how finicky Korean diners are as they eschew some food, totally fine, as unhealthy. In this area meat stands out. Koreas are fearful of redness in meat (which has caused problems for me as chef in cooking beef and duck). Koreans are also fearful of any burnt areas (This is a problem for a western cooking with grilled meats that typically have black grill marks on them).
This pursuit of healthy food, sometimes takes on absurd proportions. Many a time I have eaten a particular food in Korea, only to find it not to my liking while my companions are eagerly downing it. To which I have had a Korean tell me in all honesty "I do not like the way its tastes, but its good for health!¡± Similar is a recent fad of "Well Being" as Koreans call it. Cornerstone of "Well Being" is healthy food, however little regard is given to the taste, texture, or other qualitative things. The only goal is for this to be healthy.
As I mentioned before, Korean pickles contain an enormous amount of salt. Salt is an interesting ingredient in ones diet because people need it and crave it, yet too much salt in ones diet can be very unhealthy. Koreans, because of the ubiquity of pickles, eat an enormous amount of salt. However since most of the pickles contain chili pepper, the diner rarely notices the salt content (a common chefs tip is if you have too much salt in your food is to add spiciness to cover it up). Because of all this salt intake, Koreans are very sensitive to the salt content in other foods. A common Korean reaction to any western food is that its "too salty". It is not that its salty per se, rather the mind is rejecting the salt since already more than enough salt is in the body due to pickle consumption.
This observation leads me back to another piece of incidental evidence for the argument that Koreans eat only for health. With the dislike of (palatable) salt in the diet, one thing that amuses me is toothpaste. Salt is actually a very popular toothpaste ingredient in Korea. There are two major types, one prepared with bamboo, another with pine. The constant complaint from Koreans is that the toothpastes are too salty (admittedly when I tasted them, it was like taking swigs from a salt shaker), yet Koreans will use them because "its good for [teeth] health".
As a final antidote to this argument, I will bring up popular giggle foreigners in Korea share. The Korean press is like most other press in the world in there sensationalism of health issues. Every so often some disease would be dug up, and bandied about as the new ¡°threat to humanity¡±. Most recently it was SARS and the bird flu. As the Korean press reports on this ¡°plague¡±, they will invariably find a Korean doctor, sometimes shockingly in positions of actually authority, who will say something categorical like ¡°Koreans can¡¯t get sick from this because they eat kimchi!¡±. This is the point where Korean eating for health descends into self-parody.