Korean cuisine is hot, spicy and garlicky and is quite different from both Chinese and Japanese cuisine although there are some similarities to each.. Rice and noodles are the staple of all Korean meals, which are usually accompanied by a variety of panchon (side dishes) and kimchi (fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, mixed with red pepper and garlic).

Korean food is very spicy and hot. Ruth Reichel of the New York Times called it, "Asia's most robust cuisine...It's fresh, healthy and low in cholesterol" and it "combines everyone's favorite flavors: sugar, salt, spice and peppers." Common spices and ingredients include garlic, red pepper, ginger, soy sauce, bean paste, soybean paste, sesame oil, red pepper paste and red pepper powder.

Korea is famous for its seafood dishes and snacks. Pork is relatively cheap while beef is very expensive. The variety of food found in South Korea is astounding. Hundreds of different dishes are available. Each city, town and region has specialities for which it is known nationally. But this wasn't always the case. Up until maybe 70 years ago most people ate soup and rice three meal day and occasionally ate dried, salted or fermented fish. Buddhist beliefs discouraged eating of meat and even milk.

Twelve-course Chosun-style royal meals featured gungjung tteok-bokki (court-style grilled rice rolls) and eomandu (fish dumplings). Korean cuisine has traditionally included cold noodles, sticky rice cakes and dog meat. Chinese consider Korean cuisine to be pungent, cool and light. Rice is the staple food. Koreans eat fish, beef, chicken, and, occasionally ducks, but seldom eat geese, mutton or other kinds of greasy food. Hammered cakes and cold noodles are distinctive Korean foods enjoyed by both Koreans and non-Koreans in China. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

Korea Cooking and Food Preparation

According to “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”: “Korea shares many similarities with other Asian cuisines such as the importance of rice and vegetables and cooking methods such as stir-frying, steaming, and braising (food first browned in oil, then cooked slowly in a liquid). As is true of the rest of Asia, Koreans eat far less meat than people in the Western world. Red meat is scarce and very expensive, so it is usually saved for special occasions. Chicken or seafood is more commonly eaten. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

“Red pepper paste, green onion, soy sauce, bean paste, garlic, and ginger are just some of the many seasonings Koreans use to flavor their dishes. The food is served with a bland grain such as rice to cool the heat of the spices. A meal served for a group of people often includes several large dishes and as many as twenty side dishes. Unlike other Asian cuisines, Korean cuisine includes many uncooked vegetables served in the form of salads and pickles. Traditional Korean meals include soup, served hot or cold depending on the season, like kamja guk (kahm-jah gook; potato soup), and hin pap (heen pop; white rice).

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “Owing to the popularity of Korean barbecue (kalbi and pulgogi) outside Korea, Korean cuisine is often thought of as meat-based when compared with other Asian cuisines. However, in essence it has for centuries depended largely on vegetables and, to a lesser degree, on seafood. In fact, the consumption of animal products (beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, and dairy products) in Korea increased more than twenty times in the last three decades of the twentieth century, mainly due to economic affluence. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Korean Food for Special Occasions

Traditional Korean holidays are associated with the seasons, rural agricultural life, Buddhism and Confucianism. Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “A variety of ttok (rice cake), other traditional confectionery, and fresh fruits are served to celebrate birthdays, marriages, and the hwan'gap (the sixtieth birthday). The offerings at ch'arye, memorial services for one's ancestors performed on special holidays, include rice wine, steamed white rice, soup, barbecued meats, and fresh fruits. After ritual offerings of the wine and food to the ancestral spirits, the family members consume the food and wine. Their ingestion symbolizes the receiving of blessings from the ancestral spirits.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”: “Honoring a family's ancestors is an important part of Korea's heritage. Four generations of ancestors are honored on the day before the anniversary of a person's death. Food is served in dishes with special stands to prevent the plates from touching the table. Food is arranged and combined according to strict ancient customs. For example, at least three different colors of fruits and vegetables are set on the table: red fruits and fish to the east, and white fruits and meat to the west. A special dish that may be served is kujolpan, which is served in a nine-compartment dish. These compartments are filled with nine different kinds of brightly colored meats and vegetables. These foods are wrapped in thin pancakes and eaten at the table. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “From the fifteenth century onward, Confucianism began to replace Buddhism as the strongest cultural influence in Korea. Various festivals and their celebration in Korea are closely related either to Buddhism or to Confucianism. These events are always marked by special food, with noodles, red beans, and many kinds of rice cakes playing a prominent role in festive meals and snacks. Because Korean meals traditionally did not include desserts, festivals were among the few occasions when sweet snacks were served, except in upper-class families, where sweet afternoon snacks were regularly prepared. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“Throughout the ages, each festival food has acquired a symbolic meaning or a function that justifies its use at a specific occasion. Noodles, for example, are appropriate for birthdays because they symbolize long life. Red-bean porridge (p'atchuk) with sweet rice balls (kyongdan) eaten on the day of the winter solstice is said to prevent colds and drive away ghosts. Colorful rice cake (mujigae ttok) is prepared for a child's first birthday in the hope that the child will enjoy a wide range of accomplishments.

“Certain occasions are inseparable from the food that is served during their celebration. The Harvest Moon Festival (Ch'usok), for example, is unimaginable without pine needle–scented rice cakes (songp'yon), and lunar New Year's Day celebrations (Sollal) would not be complete without rice cake soup (ttokkuk). "How many bowls of rice cake soup have you eaten?" is a polite way of asking about someone's age, as if failing to eat a bowl of rice cake soup would deprive a person from a complete New Year's experience. Garnishing (komyong) is taken very seriously in traditional Korean cooking and becomes especially pronounced in festival food. Three-color garnish is made with egg yolk (yellow), egg white (white), and Korean watercress (green). Five-color garnish includes these with the addition of chili pepper threads (red) and stone-ear mushrooms (black).

Sollal — Korean New Year, or Lunar or Chinese New Year — is the second biggest holiday of the year after Chusok and generally occurs in early or mid February. Traditional foods and drinks include tok kuk (rice cake soup), mandu (dumplings), bean pancakes, shik'e (rice punch) and sujonggwa (cinnamon and persimmon punch). There are five kinds of steamed fish, five kinds of marinated vegetables, four types of sweet rice cakes, and seven kinds of fruit. Different kinds of ji-jim (pancakes with vegetables, seafood or meat) are stacked nine levels high. One of the main dishes is chap-chae (glass noodles with meat and vegetables). At the head of the table are incense burners and neatly stacked chestnuts and dates. Among the no-nos are fruits with fuzzy skins such as peaches and seasoned rather than steamed fish.

Chusok Foods

The biggest holiday of the year in Korea is Chusok, a harvest festival, sometimes called Korean Thanksgiving, that is held in late September or early October on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The purpose of Chusok is for families to gather together and give thanks to their ancestors and express this thanks by making offering of food and other items to their ancestor's and tending their graves. Ancestors are honored with special foods.

The foods associated most with Chusok are songpyon (white, green and pink moon-shaped cakes made from the new rice and sprinkled with pine needles and filled with things like honey, cinnamon and sweet bean paste). According to one superstition the woman who makes the prettiest songpyon will give birth to a beautiful daughter. The drink associated most with Chusok is chongju (traditional rice wine made from the new crop of rice).

The Chusok celebration begins early in the morning when people wake up and gather for a breakfast of traditional foods and drinks such as songpyon, taro and beef soup, dried persimmons, brown, yellow and green fish and meat, "wild" vegetables, namul (edible wild plants and herbs), a sweet punch made with fruit, dates and chestnuts and chongju. Some people wear traditional clothes, known as hanbok.

Before eating, offerings of fruit, chongju and newly harvested rice are presented to ancestors on a small altar. Each family member then takes a ceremonial drink of chongju and performs a series of three deep bows in which they kneel and touch their head to the floor. Men precede women, and children are before adults. This memorial ceremony, called charye, is the most important Chusok ritual.

Spam, a Luxury Holiday Gift in South Korea

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Stroll into an expensive department store and walk straight past the US$180 watermelon with a ribbon twirled just so around its stem. Don't bother with the tea in a butterfly-shaped tin for US$153, or with the gift boxes of Belgian chocolates or French cheeses. If you're looking for a gift that bespeaks elegance and taste, you might try Spam. The luncheon meat might be the subject of satire in the United States, but in South Korea it is positively classy. With US$136 million in sales, South Korea is the largest market in the world outside the United States for Spam. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2005]

“But here, the pink luncheon meat with its gelatinous shell is deemed too nice to buy for oneself, and 40 percent of the Spam sold here is in the form of gifts. ''Spam really is a luxury item," said Han Geun Rae, 43, an impeccably dressed fashion buyer who was loading gift boxes of Spam into a cart at Shinseyge department store before the recent Chusok holiday.

“Chusok is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year. On this one holiday alone, Korean distributor CJ Corp. estimates, 8 million cans change hands. Han's intended recipients were her employees, among them a young single guy and a married woman with children. ''Everybody loves it. It is so easy and convenient," she said.

Koreans take their Spam seriously and seem mystified about why it is a subject of parody among Americans. ''I can't understand what is funny about Spam," said Jeon Pyoung Soo, a CJ Corp. executive who is brand manager here for Spam. Jeon recalled a June visit to Austin, Minn., where Spam's manufacturer, Hormel Foods Corp., has set up a Spam museum devoted to the history and cult of Spam. ''Everybody was laughing and smiling but me," said Jeon, 27, who went to business school in the United States and is fluent in English. ''I knew all the words, but I didn't get the joke."”

Hansik: Traditional Korean Cuisine

Korean food is referred to in Korean as Hansik. Hansik refers to traditional Korean food, as well as the manners and rules required in serving them beautifully. What makes Korean food culture different from the rest of the world is mainly the representation of diverse side dishes, served alongside a simple bowl of rice or subtitutory stable food. This composition of rice and various complementary ingredients makes a highly balanced meal, providing all the many nutrients that the average person requires in a day. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

In addition, hanik encourages eaters to experience 'slow food' cuisine, a movement well suited to health and well-being, because it is mostly based on locally grown vegetables with aged and fermented sauces. This has significant medicinal effects in preventing cancer and other diseases of rising concerns, with kimchi (fermented cabbage) playing the biggest part. The health benefits have also led to an increasing number of overseas tourists wishing to experience hansik.

Lastly, Korean royal cuisine is by far the most lavish version of hansik, originally served to kings and queens. The table setting is quite large, always accompanied by at least 12 different sides and desserts. Because it requires a lot more in the way of preparations than average hansik, people generally only have this on special days. International tourists can visit designated restaurants to experience the superiority of hansik for themselves!

The Korean government is crusading for the globalization of hansik in cooperation with companies, civic groups and the mass media. As the people of the world gain a better understanding of Korean food, its flavors, and its roots, Korean food will undoubtedly become a global commodity like the food of Korea’s neighbors.

Hansik and Fermentation

The key to Hansik is fermentation. Every nation has their unique fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt or natto. There are many kinds of fermented foods in Korean cuisine. The purpose of fermentation is to purposely break down foods into more digestible components through the natural use of the bacteria that exists all around us. Unlike food simply going bad, fermentation represents a useful and practical change. So the Korean says not sseokhinda (to be spoiled) but “sakhinda” (to be fermented). The expression is based on the concept of in-depth understanding on fermentation. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

The quintessential fermented food of hansik is kimchi, and although there are hundreds of different kinds, the most internationally well known is spicy fermented cabbage. When meeting someone who has never encountered kimchi before, Koreans may introduce its as a type of salad, a kind of salad made using spices, red peppers, salt, garlic and oriental cabbage, sauerkraut with a kick, if you will. But this simple explanation leaves out the most important variable, that of fermentation, which is the entire key to how a particular batch of kimchi might taste. The kimchi that is preferred most by Korean people contains salted shrimp or anchovies and has aged underground for at least a year in a jangdokdae (large clay jar). Like a fine wine, the process of aging gives kimchi its deep taste.

Koreans express a well-aged kimchi as being "ripe". The verb of "ripe' is often used for fruits. However, the Korean use it also for many kinds of fermented food. As with fruit, edible after the process of blooming, growing and ripening on the tree, in the same way, kimchi is allowed to develop its own complexities of taste over a long period of time. The very idea of kimchi embodies the notion of extended waiting.

Koreans make their supply of kimchi once a year before winter to ensure they get the nutrients they need during the winter. This tradition is known as gimjang. The ‘jang’ in gimjang and ‘jang’ in ganjang, gochujang and doenjang are the same word and reflects the same basic principle of fermentation.

Hansik Foods

Besides kimchi, other popular sides widely known include bulgogi, bibimbap, and royal cuisines. Bulgogi is a marinated beef or sometimes pork dish, that is sweet and tender in texture, having a taste loved by foreigners as well. Bibimbap, on the other hand, is a complete meal in and of itself, rice mixed with all kinds of condiments of ones choice, topped with red chili sauce (or gochu-jang) for that extra kick, and enjoyed by the spoonful. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Another feature of hansik is that it is strongly based on vegetables. The basic composition of a table serving is steamed rice, soup and a variety of side dishes. All of them are traditionally vegetable based; in fact, a side dish of meat was typically a rare sight on the dining table of common people. The cow in Korea, which has long been an agricultural society, was regarded as a tool of labor rather than mere food.

Hansik is fundamentally a slow food, a cuisine well suited to health and well being, because it is mostly based on vegetables grown locally and aged and fermented sauces. One of the best opportunities for visitors to Korea is 'the temple stay'. The most popular type of temple stay is one that includes the true temple dining experience, which prohibits the use of meat and of artificial flavors.

Some of the other typical fermented food found Korean table are jang (sauces) of all kinds including ganjang (soybean sauce), gochujang (red pepper paste) and doenjang (soybean paste) are known collectively as jang (sauces). The old saying that the taste of food is the taste of sauce is highly applicable in hansik because these sauces are the basis of Korean food. Sauces are added to most Korean dishes and foods are classified depending on the kinds and quantity of the sauces they contain

Ingredients of Korean Food

Grains Despite the ubiquity of rice today, Koreans have traditionally relied on millet and barely as their staple foods. Both of these grains grow better in Korea's cold climate than rice. Wheat flour is used in making noodles and served at feasts. Barley is used in bibimbap-style dishes and in various processed foods with wheat. Buckwheat flour is used for noodles, dumplings, jelly and cookies. Foxtail millet, Chinese millet, and African millet are also used in cooking rice, porridges, cakes and cookies. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Rice is the chief grain in Korea, used with almost every meal, in porridges, rice cakes and desserts as well as straight up in a bowl. According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”: “Hin pap (heen pop; white rice) remains the main staple and is the biggest crop produced in South Korea. It can be eaten in many different ways. There are ogokbap (boiled rice mixed with four grains), yakbap (a sweet rice dish), and over fifty varieties of rice cakes.’ [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

Beans are used extensively in Korean cooking; in particular soybeans, red beans, mung beans and peas. Beans are used with rice to create cakes, steamed food or porridges, sprouted for use in banchan (side dishes) and bibimbap and also as ingredients for fermented foods such as soy sauce and soybean paste.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes may be substituted for rice and are used in cakes and fried food. They are also used to produce starch flour and other processed products.

Edible Oils Varieties include sesame oil, perilla (wild sesame) oil and soybean oil. Sesame oil and perilla oil have a unique flavor that stimulates the appetite. They add a nutty aroma to food and prevent moisture evaporation when grilling meat or fish.

Rice in South Korea

Rice has been a leading grain in Korea for over a thousand years (Crawford and Lee, 2003), and currently is the staple grain and largest starch source in Korea. Rice provided 64 percent of the starch-based calories and 28 percent of total calories in 2011 (FAOSTAT, 2015). Consumption has varied greatly over many centuries. In times of poverty and foreign rule (for example, during the Japanese empire, 1910-45), Koreans have relied on other domestically produced traditional grains and seeds in addition to rice: wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, and buckwheat. In times of prosperity, white rice has been the dominant grain. [Source: Economic Research Service/USDA United States Department of Agriculture, September 2016 ~]

White rice, cooked or steamed, is typically served and eaten in a bowl. Sometimes the rice is mixed with other grains or ingredients like seasonings, vegetables, etc. Another longstanding use has been for making alcoholic beverages. These include makkoli, a fermented rice wine with alcoholic content under 8 percent. Makkoli was traditionally produced in farm households using simple methods. It is now widely available as a bottled product. Soju is a distilled beverage that has often been made from old rice, but is also made from imported tapioca, other grains, sweet potatoes, or potatoes. Its alcohol content varies from under 20 percent to over 40 percent. The Government has promoted rice use in processed foods since the mid-1990s. Besides makkoli and soju, rice has been used in bakery applications. ~

Rice is the staple food of Korea — both North and South — and the chief crop of its farms. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Rice is the basic food of the Koreans and an essential part of every meal including breakfast. The variety is provided by other foods that are served separately as panchan^ or "side dishes." The clean white rice that appears on the table is the product of an elaborate process of farming that has always been at the heart of the Korean economy and is still essential to the nation's economic health. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

“The Koreans' emotional affinity for rice is rooted in memories of mothers and grandmothers who got up before dawn every day to start the day's rice cooking. Rice was in their lunchboxes at school. Water that was boiled in the nearly empty cooking pot made a comforting family drink. Burnt rice made a crunchy snack. Puffed rice was a special treat; it was shot out of metal cannons by peddlers who came through the neighborhood and subjected the raw grains mixed with sugar to intense pressure until they exploded all at once. When the puffed rice was finished, it was eaten like popcorn. There was also rice candy wrapped in "rice paper" that melted in a person's mouth. The grown-ups drank rice wine. Houses were roofed with rice straw thatch. Life was full of things related to rice.”

Rice Consumption in Korea

In the 1990s, around 90 percent of all Koreans ate rice three meals a day. Rice consumption increased by 40 percent between 1954 and 1970 and then started declined . Rice consumption per person fell from a peak of 136.4 kilograms in 1970 to 133.6 kilograms in 1975, to 128.1 kilograms in 1985 to 119.6 kilograms in 1990 and 106.5 kilograms in 1995. By 2000 rice consumption per person had fallen to below 100 kilograms. In 2010 it was around 86 kilograms per person

A Westernized diet is believed to account for the steady decrease of per capita rice consumption, with the decrease more pronounced in urban areas. In 1995, urban consumption of rice per person was 99.8 kilograms, compared to 108.6 kilograms in rural areas.

Rice is still a staple food and part of the culture. Many churches have a “love rice” system to help out those who are down on their luck. According to the system, parishioners donate dry rice whenever they can into a large plastic barrel in their church. If ever they should be hungry or in need they can take as much rice as they like, no questions asked. The idea caught on to help families of people who lost their jobs during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

In the 1970s, when much of South Korea was still poor, students were told they couldn’t’ bring expensive “pure” rice to school because not everyone could afford it. Instead they were instructed to bring “mixed rice. Sometimes there were spot checks and students that had only pure rice in their lunch boxes were punished.

Types of Rice Consumed in South Korea

Koreans consume primarily japonica rice, a rice type grown mostly in northeastern Asia. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), “Japonica grains are short, roundish, spikelets are awnless to long-awned, grains do not shatter easily, and have 0-20 percent amylose content.” This is in contrast to the other major category of rice, indica rice: “Indica grains are long to short, slender, somewhat flat, and the spikelets are awnless. Indica grains shatter more easily and have 23-31 percent amylose content” (IRRI, Rice Knowledge Bank, 2016). Amylose is a component of starch. Amylose content strongly influences the cooking and eating characteristics of rice. Rice with a high amylose content (25-30 percent) tends to cook firm and dry, whereas rice with an intermediate amylose content (20-25 percent) tends to be softer and stickier and rice with a low amylose content (<20 percent) is generally quite soft and sticky (IRRI, Rice Knowledge Bank, 2016). Korean producers and consumers distinguish many varieties of japonica rice, often named by the place in Korea where the variety is produced. The varietal distinctions lead to price differences in the market. [Source: Economic Research Service/USDA United States Department of Agriculture, September 2016]

As in most countries of East Asia, Koreans also use glutinous rice, which IRRI defines as “Special varieties of rice (Oryza sativa L. glutinosa) the kernels of which have a white and opaque appearance. The starch of glutinous rice consists almost entirely of amylopectin. It has a tendency to stick together after cooking” (IRRI, Rice Knowledge Bank, 2016). Thus, glutinous rice has almost no amylose content in the grain. Glutinous rice has many uses, but a major use in Korea is in baking rice pastries.

Finally, Koreans also use some indica rice, especially in restaurants that feature Chinese, Southeast Asian, or South Asian foods. However, in contrast to japonica rice and glutinous rice, there is no Korean production of indica rice. Japonica and indica rice can be cross-bred. Rice production in Korea rose sharply in the 1970s after the introduction of tongil rice, crossbred from indica and japonica rices. Tongil yields were higher than japonica yields. Consumers did not like the taste and cooking characteristics of tongil rice, and the Government was forced to pay high prices to farmers to induce them to plant tongil in most of Korea’s rice area. A cold snap in June 1980 devastated the tongil rice crop, leading to large imports. By 1991, the Government had ended its purchases of tongil rice. With no other market for the unwanted rice, planting of tongil ceased (Kim and Sumner, 2006).

Decline of Rice Consumption in South Korea

The significance of rice in the diet has been steadily diminishing, As part of its self-sufficiency drive in the 1970s, the Korean Government tried to decrease rice consumption, so that the gap between consumption and production would be narrowed. Consumers were encouraged not to eat rice, and were required to use rice mixed with barley for some meals. During the 1980s, restrictions on the use of rice were gradually lifted. The use of rice in making processed foods was banned or limited until 1991. In recent years, instead of worrying about self-sufficiency, the Government has confronted unwanted surpluses of rice as table rice consumption has decreased faster than production. [Source: Economic Research Service/USDA United States Department of Agriculture, September 2016]

Rice consumption per person for direct food use peaked in 1970 at 136.4 kilograms per year. Since the mid-1980s, rice consumption per person has declined in almost every year, reaching 62.9 kilograms per year in 2015.1 The decline in consumption per person of table rice has also been evident in some other Asian countries whose diet has been centered on rice (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, China, and Thailand). Some of the factors that may contribute to declining consumption include: The shift from living on a farm to living in a town or city, where it is more convenient to buy a variety of foods, and where stores and restaurants advertise other foods. In 2015, farm households consumed 102.1 kilograms of rice per person, while nonfarm households consumed 60 kilograms per person (Statistics Korea, 2016). Urbanization has become so dominant in Korea (80 percent of the population is now in urban areas (World DataBank, 2014)) that this will not be a major factor going forward.

The shift from eating at home to having lunch at or near the workplace. This does not necessarily mean a shift away from rice, but disrupts the old pattern of family-based cooking centered on rice. The shift to workplace eating affected men and, more recently, even married women. This shift is ongoing, as women move into the workplace. Expenditures on rice declined from 38.6 percent of food expenditures in 1970 to 4.6 percent in 2006. Over the same period, expenditures on eating away from home rose from 2.1 percent of food expenditures to 45.6 percent (Han et al., 2008).

High consumer prices for rice have likely depressed consumption. The convenience and low prices of foods based on imported wheat, such as instant noodles, breads, and rolls. Such foods became common in the post-World War II period. Wheat food consumption per person has been virtually static since 1980 — but not falling, like rice. The dietary shift away from starch-based foods. Starch-based calories as a proportion of total calories have steadily declined since 1972. Although consumption has declined, rice consumption probably benefited from the even greater decline in consumption of some other grains, especially barley, for which it is a substitute.

Unlike other Asian countries, rice has not been regularly used for feed in Korea, except for the rice bran removed during milling. However, in 2016, the Government has made its first sale of subsidized rice from stocks for feed use. The government estimates a substantial amount of rice as a loss or other use (i.e., not for table rice, processing, or feed). In recent years, the amount of rice categorized as loss or other and loss has significantly grown. It averaged over 625,000 tons per year in the period 1995-2012 and averaged of over 235,000 tons in the decade before 1995. Loss has grown as a share of the market: As a proportion of total supply, the loss category averaged 10.3 percent in the 1995-2012 period, compared to 3.3 percent in the years 1985-94. At one-tenth of supply, this level of loss is an important factor in Korea’s rice balance, and the annual average cost, evaluated in terms of average rice import values, would be over US$300 million (GTIS, World Trade Atlas, 2015). Other anomalies in Korea’s rice supply and demand data are inconsistent stock data in the 1970s and 1980s. The reasons for the unaccounted-for rice are not known.

Spices, Seasonings, Flavorings in Korean Food

Soybean paste, soy sauce, red pepper paste and kimchi are the most important flavorings in Korean food. Onions, garlic, scallions, ginger, sesame oil, crushed sesame salt and powdered red pepper are among the most popular spices in Korea. Seasonings enhance taste and flavor, and have traditionally been used to extend the storage life of foods. Yangnyeom, Korean for seasoning, literally means “consider medicine.” The flavor of Korean food very much depends upon the selection and quantity of seasonings. There are specific seasonings or combinations of seasonings for saltiness, sweetness, sourness, spiciness or to to add additional flavors and colors. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Salt is the most common source of the salty taste in food. It is classified as horyeom, jaeyeom, and table salt according to the size of the crystals. Horyeom is coarse bay salt used when making kimchi, bean sauce or bean paste and marinated fish. Jaeyeom is a finer salt also called kkotsogeum (flower salt). It is white and clean, and used as an ordinary salt for seasoning food. Table salt is the finest salt, used for seasoning food at the table.

Garlic is used quite liberally in Korean food. The volatile compound called “allicin” in garlic gives it its spicy taste, and eliminates the strong odors from fat, fish and vegetables. Garlic is also an important seasoning for kimchi. Minced garlic is used for seasoning. Garlic is usually sliced or shredded for flavoring or garnishing, although whole cloves may also be served.

Green onions eliminates strong odors from fish and fatty foods. It enhances the taste of food with its unique flavor. They range in size from large to medium and thin. Large green onions are used for seasoning. Finely chopped medium green onions are added to soups such as seollongtang (ox bone soup), gomtang (beef bone soup) and haejang-guk (hangover soup). Thin green onions are added to kimchi.

Ground red pepper is made of dried red pepper. It is classified by size as coarse, medium and fine, and classified by spiciness as very spicy, medium and mild. Coarse ground red pepper is used for making kimchi, medium size is also used for kimchi and seasoning, and fine ground red pepper is for red pepper paste or salads. Ground black pepper eliminates the strong odors from fat and fish with its pungent taste and flavor, and it stimulates the appetite. The more pungent black pepper is used for meat dishes while the milder, white pepper is used for fish. Whole peppercorns are used in making Korean pear pickles, broths and thick soups. Ground Chinese pepper eliminates the strong odors from fish and fats in fish or meat soups, and it also breaks down the fats.

Ginger has a unique flavor and spicy taste which eliminates the strong odors from fish and the fat in pork and chicken, and enhances the taste of food. It is minced, sliced, shred or juiced for seasoning. Cinnamon has a unique flavor that enhances the taste of food. Powdered cinnamon eliminates the strong odors from fatty food. Cinnamon provides a special spice and color in cinnamon punch, rice cakes and Korean cookies. Mustard comes from mustard seeds and contains the enzyme myrosinase, which produces a unique flavor and spicy taste when fermented with water at about 40?. A mustard sauce with salt, sugar and vinegar is used to dress salads such as gyeojachae (assorted meats and vegetables with mustard sauce) or naengchae (chilled salad).

Vinegar is made by fermenting grains or fruit and it adds tartness to food. As a seasoning, vinegar gives a clear and cool taste to the food, stimulates the appetite and aids with digestion. It also eliminates the strong odors from fish, makes fish fillets firmer, and acts as an antiseptic. Sugar, starch syrup, honey, glutinous starch syrup are added, they provide sweetness and color to the food. They also make the food soft and glutinous by keeping it moist for a long time. Therefore, they are used for seasoning food, and used in making Korean cookies, such as gangjeong, junggwa (fruit- or flower-shaped honey cookie), and yumilgwa (deep-fried cookie of flour and honey).

Sesame salt is made by washing sesame seeds and stir-frying and grinding them with a small amount of salt while hot. This process produces a sweet taste and flavor. It is used to season namul and steamed or braised food. Toasted Sesame Seeds are an ingredient in many Korean recipes, such as Chap Ch'ae, Ch'o Kanjang, and Shigumch'i Namul. Salt-fermented seafood has been marinated with salt and fermented. It is an important side dish since it has a lot of protein. It harmonized salty, sweet and savory flavors beautifully when making kimchi or served as a side dish on the dining table.

Red Pepper Paste, Soy Bean Paste and Soy Sauce

Red pepper paste and soybean paste are arguably the most Korean sauces and play key role giving Korean food its distinctive taste Korean food wouldn’t be Korean food without red, hot peppers. Hot peppers are the main ingredient of gochujang (“red pepper paste”) and the required ingredient in several casseroles and side dishes. Koreans believe the components in peppers, which gives them their spicy taste, helps to relieve pain and breaks down fat, making red, hot pepper an ideal dietary food. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Gochu-jang (“red chili paste”) is made from dried peppers, salt, water, fermented soybeans and sweet rice powder. These ingredients are mixed thoroughly and then fermented, which enhances the spicy flavor of this sauce. Koreans typically eat rice mixed with this spicy paste and sesame oil. It is also used as a dipping sauce for fresh vegetables. Red pepper paste is used for stews, soups, fried food, salads, grilled food and namul. It is also used in making fried red pepper paste sauce for side dishes, and served with raw fish or mixed noodles.

Doenjang ( soybean paste) literally means “thick paste.” It is a soybean paste made of the fermented solid ingredients of soy sauce. Doenjang is usually used in cooking stews such as doenjang-guk (soybean paste soup) or tojang-guk (soybean paste soup flavored with dried vegetables and meats). It is also served as a condiment for ssam (leaf wraps), or for namul and jang-tteok (wheat flour pancakes with doenjang).

Soybean paste has been popular among Koreans for over 2,000 years. The ingredients consist of soybeans, salt and water, which are combined with natural elements, such as sun and wind. Koreans say Doenjang has been scientifically proven to help prevent cancer. People from all over the world come to Korea to enjoy this soybean paste. It is used in casseroles or mixed with fresh mountain herbs.

Soy sauce is known in Korea as ganjang, which means “salty.” Soy sauce is made of fermented beans and is used for seasoning food. It adds saltiness, a savory taste and coloring. Soy sauce is used differently depending on the cooking method. Soup, jjigae (stew) and namul are seasoned with gukganjang (concentrated soy sauce, 24 percent salinity). Jinganjang (less salty soy sauce, 16 percent salinity) is good for braising, slicing and simmering food and also for meats. Seasoned soy sauce or vinegar soy sauce may accompany fried fish and other fried food.

Ganjang (“soy sauce”) is made through the same process as soybean paste. Water and salt are added to soybeans and then fermented for two months. During the fermentation process, amino acids and lactic acids are released, which creates soy sauce. Ganjang is used in casseroles and soups. It can also be used as a dipping sauce for various fried foods.

Main Dishes in Korea

Bap (Rice), a staple of Korean food, is steamed rice. It may also include other grains. There are many kinds of bap depending on the ingredients such as huinbap (white rice); japgokbap (rice with barley, millet, and beans); byeolmibap (rice with vegetables, seafood and meat); and bibimbap (rice mixed with namul and beef).

Juk (Porridge) is one of the Korean dishes that was developed in early times. It consists of grains simmered for a long time with 5 to 7 times the volume of water. There are many varieties of juk depending on the ingredients. Juk is not only served as a main dish but it can also be part of a special meal. It is served to patients and eaten for health.

Guksu (Noodles) helped develop the use of chopsticks in Korea. Korean noodles are made by kneading wheat flour or buckwheat flour and drawing the dough into long coils. Mandu are dumplings made with thin wheat flour wrappers stuffed with fillings then steamed, or boiled in jangguk (soy sauce soup). It is a specialty of the northern area of Korea.

Vegetables, Fruits, Mushrooms and Seaweed in Korea

According to South Korean sources, South Koreans eat more vegetables (186.7 kilograms or 413.6 pounds a year) per capita than anyone else in the world. Much of vegetables undoubtably is cabbage used to make kimchi. Unusual vegetables and vegetable-like foods eaten by Koreans include lotus roots, namul (edible wild plants and herbs), toraji (bellflower root), kosari fern bracken), daikon radishes, chrysanthemum leaves and mung bean sprouts.

South Korea has blocked the import of genetically modified (GM) foods and South Korean consumers have expressed suspicion of GM crops. Even so large amounts of money have ben invested in biotech crops. A law was passed in 1999 that required GM food to be labeled but the law lacked details on enforcement.

Various vegetables are grown throughout the seasons. They are used as ingredients in soup, kimchi, salad, namul (wild greens) and pickled vegetables, which are an important source of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Common vegetables include spinach, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, squash, white radish, green beans, snow peas, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, ginger, onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beets, mushrooms, potatoes and a wide variety of Chinese vegetables. Bok choy, Chinese cabbage, was once considered exotic in the United States but now is relatively commonplace.

Pine mushrooms, brown oak mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, stone mushrooms and snow puff mushrooms are the most edible mushrooms in Korea. Brown oak mushrooms have a good flavor and are often used in braised, steamed, pan-fried and stir-fried dishes. Stone mushrooms are often used as garnish. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization visitkorea.or.kr ]

Various seaweeds such as laver, brown seaweed, tot (brown algae), and sea lettuce are used in soups, fried foods, and salads. Seaweed is a notable health food that is rich in minerals and low in calories.

Fresh fruits such as apples, pears, peaches and strawberries may be soaked in wine or vinegar. Persimmons and jujubes (Korean dates) may be dried rather than soaked. Hard shell nuts such as chestnuts, walnuts, gingkoes and pine nuts are used as garnish for gangjeong (sweet rice puffs), steamed foods, gujeol-pan (platter of nine delicacies), sinseollo (royal hot pot) and tea.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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