80 Plates: South Korea

Around the world in 80 plates:
South Korea

Anyeonghaseyo!

(an-nyeong-ha-se-yo)

Welcome to South korea, a country filled with wild and beautiful contradictions. Among the skyscrapers and the mountains, the palaces and the street markets, the smokey barbecue joints and the traditional teahouses, there’s a lot to take in.

In Korea you can experience the peaceful serenity of nature, then walk 100 metres round the corner to step foot in the hustle and bustle of the city. A place where buzzing high-tech society co-exists alongside natural beauty and tradition.

When it comes to listing all the reasons why South Korea is so impressive, we have absolutely no qualms. Yes, it boasts the world’s best education system and the world’s fastest internet connection. Sure, it’s pretty cool that 64% of the country is covered in forest. But as a team of food obsessed individuals, what's really grabbed our attention is the fact that one of the most common greetings you’ll hear in Korea, interchangeable to ‘how are you?’ is 'shiksa hashutsuyo?' meaning are you hungry?

That’s reason enough to know that this is our kind of place. This fact alone summarises Korea's feelings towards food: it is much more than something to satisfy your hunger, food is deeply ingrained in the culture.

Early developments in Korean cuisine

‘Food and medicine come from the same root’. This is the philosophy that captures Korean food culture. The mantra stems from the country’s deep rooted Buddhist history and informs much of what we know of Korean food culture today. Some 1,000 years ago, Buddhism made its way over to Korea from India, which soon led to the development of Korean Temple Cuisine. In Buddhism, eating is considered part of the practice. Temple food trains humans on how to live harmoniously with nature. It preaches the idea that you should only take as much food as needed for physical sustenance.

 

Despite Korean temple cuisine being one of the most traditional forms of Korean food, it’s actually wildly ahead of its time in some respects. Today’s increasingly popular food movements:‘farm to plate’ — which encourages people to question where their food comes from, and veganism, reflect the same inherent Buddhist concept that food should be local, organic, plant based and seasonal. It seems there’s a lot to learn from traditional Buddhist cuisine about respecting and protecting our precious planet.

Photo: Korean Tourism Organisation

Eum and Yang

Eum and yang is the Korean translation of ying and yang, a concept that you will see is integral to pretty much all Korean dishes. Korean temple food centres around the concept of achieving a harmonious balance between humans and nature; forces that are opposed but complimentary.This means eating no meat, as well as avoiding foods from the allium family: garlic, onions, shallots, chives. These foods are said to oppose the concept of harmony and balance due to their pungent nature.

Taking a few steps forward, we can see how the concept of eum and yang is found in more modern Korean cooking. The prime example is the extremely popular and immensely delicious Korean dish called bibimbap.

Bibimbap is one of the Korean dishes made famous by the West, and you've likely come across lots of different types — my favourite, in case you were wondering, is dolsot (stone bowl) bibimbap. I dream of the next occasion i'll be diving face first into the crispy golden bed of rice that forms along the bottom of the sizzling hot stone bowl. Whichever bibimbap you try, this formidable dish is formed upon one simple blueprint: a one-bowl meal of carefully cut, beautifully arranged in-season and colourful vegetables, on top of a bed of rice (Korea’s most famous culinary export) and sometimes topped with meat and/or a fried egg. Bibimbap translates as a description of what it is and how you eat it : ‘bibim’ which means to mix things together and ‘bap’ meaning cooked rice. Once served, you mix all the components together shovel them into your mouth.

The list of opposing yet complementary pairings in bibimbap goes on and on.

Starting with the balance of colours: vibrant veggies that catch the eye against white or golden rice with slightly caramelised, browned meats.

Balance of flavour: crunchy, tangy fresh veg and sour kimchi, all mixed together with the fiery gochujang and umami rich grilled meats and their savoury juices. This dish is the perfect demonstration that Korean cooking is designed around opposing textures and flavours that come together in perfect symphony. A marriage made in heaven.

East meets West

When you think of the urban metropolis that is Seoul today, it may surprise you to learn that Korea was once known as the ‘hermit kingdom’. The only things that came in were from Japan and China. Now, South Korea is a mix of east meets west. This is largely down to the impact of the Korean War in 1953, when Seoul was heavily occupied by American soldiers. Post 1953, many aspects of Western culture began to infiltrate Korean ways of life, including the local cuisine.

Like most cuisines around the world, Korean food has evolved greatly over the years. Once a meat free kingdom, South Korea is ironically now renowned for its inviting Korean BBQ’s and gochujang drenched, crispy Korean fried chicken also known as dakgangjeong - a stark resemblance of American influence.

 

The best KFC in the world can be found roaming Seoul’s streets. Restaurants are dedicated solely to dakgangjeong. Choose between chicken on or off the bone, smothered in cheese or sweet and spicy sauces, simple soy & garlic and or just plain. I can guarantee that whichever variation you choose, it’ll be the best experience of KFC your taste buds will ever be blessed with

Korean Traditions and Table Manners:

Social graces are taken very seriously in Korean culture and there’s a huge emphasis on politeness at mealtimes. Some of the etiquettes have cooled down in recent years, understood instead as old traditions or superstitions.

I’ve narrowed down some of the important steps to help you become the perfect dinner guest:

  1. Wait for the eldest to be seated first. The eldest person, also known as the most honorable guest, is seated the furthest away from the door
  2. Before eating, people say Jalmukesumneda (I will eat well)
  3. Do not refuse an alcohol offering - especially not from an elder. it is considered rude
  4. Do not waste food - it is seen as respectful to clean your plate
  5. Say thanks: In Korean, people say masegaemugusuyo (I ate well)

Rice is a big deal in Korean culture; it is the heart and soul of Korean cuisine. Therefore, it comes with its own set of dos and don’ts.

Do place your bowl to the right of your soup. You will only place it to the left if you’re honouring the dead

Don’t pick up your rice bowl or any other bowl when eating, it’s considered bad manners - unlike in Japan where lifting your bowl up to eat your rice with chopsticks is perfectly acceptable

Do eat your ssam in one mouthful!

*Everything in Korean cuisine, from meat and poultry to fish and veggies, are cut up into bite sized pieces. Bite sized pieces means no need for a knife, everything can be broken up with stainless steel chopsticks.

Photo: Korean Tourism Organisation

Dishes you might find at a Korean table:

A typical Korean dining table will consist of: ssam (lettuce), protein, soup or stew, rice, banchan.

The various different dishes at a Korean dining table ranges anywhere from 2 to 12, but everyday meals feature at least 4 or 5 different components.

Ssam - a dish where sides, vegetables and proteins are wrapped up in lettuce, cabbage and perilla leaves. You’ll always see Korean BBQ and bulgogi with ssam involved

Banchan: the name for the range of side dishes enjoyed with a typical Korean meal.

We could go into the long list of different types of banchan, but that requires a new blog entirely!


Kimchi, is a classic banchan: fermented or salted vegetables. There’s no single way to prepare kimchi. In fact, there’s over a hundred different types. Although commonly made with cabbage, kimchi can be made with pretty much any vegetable you like. Different communities of diasporic Koreans incorporate local ingredients.

 

Aside from Korean Fried Chicken, which is largely down to American influence, Korean cuisine is extremely healthy. Nearly all dishes consist of nutritious vegetables and most meat and fish is prepared by steaming, boiling or pan frying rather than deep frying.

Must-see markets in Seoul:

Kwangjang market - know for their mungbean pancakes: Ground mungbeans and beansprouts shallow fried in oil. Crispy on the outside and light and soft on the inside

Noryangjin fish market - Korea’s oldest seafood market. It’s absolutely huge. You’ll see live octopus being prepared. Expect the tentacles to squirm around a little bit in our mouth, they may even stick to your tongue! Once you’ve got passed that, it’s supposed to be very delicious.

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