Korean Food IIIb
In a way, I was thankful that I had to spit these two up, since it was difficult to make a transition without a review of the path traveled in the previous chapter. Cooking can be broadly defined to include any work to food. I wanted to make a point that a large part of Korean cooking is dedicated to preservation not meal preparation.
In perhaps an inarticulate, or overly honest, moment a foreigner I once knew groused, “What kind of barbaric country has no ovens!” Her idiocy was greeted with unexpected guffaws from everyone around her, including me. To us it was obvious why her apartment had no oven, nothing in Korean cuisine requires, to put it clinically, dry heat applied all around the food. That raises the question though what techniques are used in Korean cooking.
In the west and near east, the invention of the oven came from a rather bizarre reason, to cook bread. One of the odder things about western food in my mind is the “cornerstone of civilization” has been bread. Odd because it requires three special things. First is the bizarre addition of yeast (something normally found on rotting food). Second is the complex process it takes to make bread. A process that the average person finds so difficult that either they leave it to a professional (the west has bakers, yet there are no rice cookers in the east), or the modern man can now use fancy electronic machines to make it. Finally to cook bread it takes an oven, a contraption that takes up a lot of space, is expensive to build, and wastes energy.
In comparison, the east embraced rice. Rice is simply boiled, and eaten. There is no need for time and money consuming preparations or contraptions. However this choice profoundly effected the foods Koreans eat beyond simply a choice of starch.
First, and perhaps most obvious, is that boiling is the second signature element of Korean cuisine out side of the pickeling a preservation methods formally discussed. As mentioned, the essential Korean meal is rice, soup, and kimchi. Two of those are boiled. In fact many Koreans have told me that if one of those three are left out (no matter if the meal was nutritionally sound) they do not feel like they have eaten properly.
I want to discuss such things more later, however this last observation is the reason you see some truly strange things in western restaurants in Korea (and in most of Asia). Countless times I have ordered a “western breakfast” in Asia that has been complemented by soup and rice. In running a restaurant in Korea, one has to be aware that he must have rice ready at any moment. The same is true with Kimichi pickles of some sort.
As I noted before Koreans and foreigners alike are under the misconception that “Freshness” is one of the tenets of Korean cuisine. Again, looking at most of the soups and stews with a critical eye one has to wonder if they are talking about the same food. Predominately the broth for these soups and stews are made from preserved preparations. Some of the more common are chili pepper paste (Gocju-jang) and Soybean paste (Dwengjang). Also just adding the pickles themselves (as in a Kimchi-jigae) is enough to start a soup. From these basic broths other ingredients are added, since some of these ingredients are fresh (vegetables, fish, etc.) perhaps this is where the idea of “fresh” cooking comes from.
On a final note about boiling, there is another section of soups and stews, the beef stoups. The major forms of these are rib soup (Galbi-tang) and brisket soup (Solleung-tang), however there are others. One of the more memorable beef soups I had was one where a whole cows head was boiled. These soups are interesting since the broth is more of a form used in the west. Bones, and sometimes a little meat, are simmered in water to get their flavor along with aromatics (mainly onions for Korean cuisine). These are usually “event foods”, a concept of my creation I will discuss later.
After the cooking methods of boiling and preserving, Korean cooking methods are somewhat limited. Perhaps, one could include grilling. Grilling, or sometimes searing, meats is a staple of what most foreigners think of Korean cuisine. Mainly this is because of the proliferation of Korean BBQ restaurants in foreign countries. However this is again an “event food”. There is some limited forms of steaming and sautéing, however these are more exceptions than rules. Also of note is most of these methods are used for “group foods” another term that will be explained later.
Again, perhaps the reason that many associate “fresh” with Korean cuisine is the use of ingredients such as small fish and vegetables. Korea cuisine does rely heavily on these two ingredients. If a westerner who thinks that Koreans eat BBQ everyday, he would be disappointed to visit Korea. Both of these items are perishable in some way. However the more interesting thing about these to me is that none of them take a large investment in time or equipment, nor do they produce a great deal of perishable food. It does not take a lot to use a net for some mackerel, however it takes a lot to pull in a tuna. A few mackerel can easily be eaten in a day or so. However a tuna yields a massive amount of meat, so much so that most tuna worldwide is not bought fresh, but frozen or canned. Furthermore it is relatively easy to raise a small plot of beans, compared to raising cattle, which in turn also need a plot of land for feed. Furthermore beans can be kept a while after a harvest, while a majority of the carcass of a cow must be used almost immediately.
All this again reinforces my earlier point that historical the Korean economy could not have been that advanced if you look at cuisine. Note the deliberate wish to avoid waste in the same manner as the multitude of pickles and preserves mentioned before. If the economy was strong, it could afford some waste. Also of note, one should consider the entire industry to support these larger sources of foods. Beef is a very labor and land intensive operation. Not only do you need land for cows to sleep, you need land to grow their food. You also need a whole industry dedicated to butchering and processing beef. Tuna for another example needs a large economy to support it. It is only a fish, but one would be surprised to see the specialized gear it takes to catch Tuna. What it takes an economy to catch one tuna is as relatively breathtaking as it takes to make one automobile (To catch tuna you need builder who can build deep-see vessels, to build deep sea vessels you need special lumber, to get special lumber you need the land to get enough trees…).
Speaking of special things for food, even the boiling issue reinforces the idea of a weak economy. If you take boiling rice as a given action in cooking, to get the amount of heat needed to boil rice, you need a large amount of fuel. Obviously you need to collect this fuel, and you need to have a device of some time for boiling (it may be tripod, but a device none the less). The most convenient thing to do is use the same setup for cooking your other food. This would negate the extra time and effort (read waste) it would take to grill or sauté, which would take different set-up and different levels of heat.
Some of the modern eating habits of Koreans support these theories as well. Perhaps counter intuitive given some observations, Koreans like to give practical gifts, rather than the bric-a-brac favored in the west. This however does not mean that Koreans are not about to give something cheap for a special gift. This combination of factors makes Korea, in my mind, the oddest gift sets in the world. Discarding the toothpaste, and SPAM sets (I talk SPAM later), on can find things like gift sets of canned tuna, jumbo shrimp, beef, and jumbo mushrooms readily. One of the more common strings in these sets (with the exception of the canned tuna), is not only are they expensive by themselves, historically speaking they would be expensive as well as support industry and time intensive for the reason mentioned above regarding tuna and beef. In short, despite the global economy making these things cheaper, these items are still seen as luxurious gifts due to history and culture.
This leads me to what I termed “event foods” earlier. While all cuisines have such foods, this type of food has a rather odd place in contemporary Korean cuisine. An “event food” is a type food that where by just eating it is an event of some type. In the west we may consider steak or champagne to be “event food”. Such a food is not necessarily a special occasion, nor expensive, however. As a child in a small rural town Pizza was an “Event Food” since at that time few, and most likely only one, places in town served Pizza. In fact, sadly, the Pizza Hut was considered a foreign cuisine nexus for the town.
Korean “event foods” is probably where the idea that “fresh” typifies Korean cuisine comes from. Most of the foods are centered on one of the aforementioned foods where you need to eat it all at once. This is where Korean BBQ comes in, fresh meat grilled. Sashimi (Hway) is another, since getting a fish like that was an event. I mentioned the beef soups earlier. Perhaps this is why beef soup is considered an “event food”, it is not all the time you have suitable beef bones.
However, some of these “Event Foods” are pricey, even by today’s standards. This leads to another common type of dish in Korea the “Group Foods” or dishes intended to be eaten by a group rather than served in one portion. The most obvious intersection of these two is Korean BBQ where an amount of meat is shared communally by a set group of people (most restaurants try to measure one serving a person, but it is not uncommon to see say 5 people sharing a serving for 4).
I will mention this once, and in a different way than most. I would be seen as derelict if I did not share the well-known secret that Koreans indeed eat dog. Dog however is an “event food” and luxurious in nature. This probably not because of the lack of dogs, but rather the long time the dish takes to prepare. Properly killing a dog to be butchered in Korea is a long (and arguably brutal) process. The nature of this process is the main reason why you do not see “Hound Steaks” or “Poodle Chops” at the E-mart.
“Group foods” as well are not limited to a main course, or even a meal. Noted earlier is the fact that an essential Korean meal is made of pickles. It is common for the pickles, and other little foods to be shared communally at a table. All these dishes make up the “panchon” mentioned in passing earlier. Furthermore it is common (in fact almost required) that Korans eat as they drink alcohol in any form. This leads to an array of drinking appetizers and snacks.