The food of Korea

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Much of the food that exists in Korea today and the customs surrounding it have come from royal cuisine and the complex customs of the ancient court. The food is so well balanced, with careful consideration given to temperature, spiciness, colour and texture and presentation.

Starting with ritual bowls of rice and soup, the main meal is built around numerous shared dishes selected to complement each other. These multiple side dishes, known as banchan, traditionally accompany cooked short grain rice, noodles, vegetables and other dishes. The number of sides may vary from two to a dozen or even more!  Everyday shared meals include at least a few accompaniments served all at once, rather than in courses. The abundant plates of food are cooked using a wide range of techniques including steaming, simmering, frying, stewing, fermenting and leaving some items raw.

Rice is a staple of the Korean household and forms the backbone of almost every meal, although it is sometimes replaced with noodles. Other common aromatics and spices seen in Korean cuisine include sesame and sesame oil, garlic, ginger and chilli pepper flakes. Korean food tends to be intensely flavoured, pungent and often really spicy.

The food of Korea

Fermented Foods

Koreans have absolutely perfected the art of preserving food with many dishes being picked, fermented or salted. The preserves range in flavour from salty, tangy and bitter to sweet and spicy. Kimchi, Korea’s famous spicy fermented cabbage is served at almost every meal. It has hundreds of varieties made with different combinations of spices, aromatics and vegetables. Kimchi is adored for its sour, tangy crunch as well as it’s nutritional benefits and digestive aid. Popular variations include radish, cabbage, onion, cucumber, beans and other mixed vegetables.

Street Food

In South Korea, inexpensive food is often purchased from street carts. Major cities Seoul and Busan are essentially open-air restaurants in themselves. Cheap, hearty and delicious food is abundant at every corner and is one of the best ways to experience authentic Korean cuisine.

Traditional restaurants often feature charcoal grills in the middle of the table - a type of indoor barbecue. 

Some must try street foods when travelling in South Korea are:

  • Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes)
  • Twigim (Korean style tempura)
  • Mandu (dumplings)
  • Myeon (noodles)
  • Pajeon (pancakes)
  • Hotteok (Korean donuts)

Diet

 A well-planned traditional Korean meal includes sweet, sour, bitter, hot and salty tastes. It strives to include a variety of colours, textures and balance of vegetables, protein and carbohydrates. The idea of getting a variety of foods and not too much of any, makes intuitive sense. The Korean diet is considered one of the healthiest in the world, promoting long life in conjunction with an active lifestyle.

Among the traditions that may help Koreans maintain good health is the inclusion of soup at every meal, which means filling up on a relatively low-calorie but satisfying food. Every meal includes plenty of vegetables, most indispensably in the form of ferments and kimchi. Besides providing nutrients and fibre, kimchi also supplies lactobacillus and other good bacteria that help boost immune defences. Usually made from cabbage and radish vegetables, kimchi is often lavishly seasoned with garlic, spring onions and plenty of chilli (supplying capsaicin, a compound shown to protect blood vessels and boost metabolism).

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