‘There is no better medicine than food,’ said an ancient philosopher. Most Koreans would agree that food plays a major role in the holistic well being of body, mind and soul. Ranking among the best in Asian cuisine, from Sri Lanka to Hong Kong or Bangladesh, Korean food is about healthy ingredients, healthy cooking methods and carefully balanced dishes. For instance, adding ginseng to chicken soup in summer helps counteract the heat while salted shrimp served with pork breaks down fat.
At home, on the streets or at festival time, fermented foods have long been at the forefront of Korean cuisine and are now recognized world-wide as enhancing nutrition.
Yin Yang and Kimchi
According to oriental beliefs, the opposing forces of yin and yang are the basis of all creation, including the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These are linked to colours, blue, red, white, yellow and black which, in the right combinations, are said to improve nutrition. Add five tastes, sweet, sour, hot, bitter and salty and you have the main principles of Korean cuisine.
Invented 1000 years ago, Kimchi is Korea’s signature dish, a cabbage cut into quarters, salted and soaked, stuffed with finely chopped vegetables, chilli powder, shrimp sauce, ginger, sugar, garlic, oysters, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. There are over 200 variants, rich in vitamins A, B and C and friendly bacteria. Kimchi can be eaten fresh or fermented when it also claims anti-oxidant properties.
Korean Foods, Rice, Stews and Desserts
Rice is Korea’s staple diet, steamed or cooked with soybean sprouts, oysters or chestnuts and grains. Soups are popular, often including noodles or for a birthday treat, seaweed to bring good health for the coming year. Stews range from soybean paste to tofu or mushroom, with various vegetables and in most cases, fish, meat or clams. Side dishes are an integral part of any Korean meal, covering hundreds of varieties based on regional produce.
Desserts stand in a class of their own, from dasik, a tea snack with flower powder and medicinal herbs, to fried honey or ginger cookies. Rice cakes come in many forms, steamed, rolled in bean powder, pan-fried and decorated with flowers, enhanced with mugwort or red bean, nuts and other nutritious ingredients.
Korea Food Festivals and Street Food in Seoul
Some of the best street food in Seoul is found in the popular shopping and business districts, with lots of rice cakes alongside sugary peanut pancakes, egg-filled bread, Korean sausage, chicken kebabs, fish cakes, sweet potato fritters and for a heart-warming winter treat, roasted chestnuts, savoury or sweet. Look out for the traditional string candy, made from matured honey malt, stretched into thousands of strands and filled with nuts.
Korea is rich in regional traditional cuisine, seen at its best during the food festivals held in a number of venues. Busan, the most important port, celebrates fishing and seafood in mid-October, Yangyang is all about Songi mushrooms, from picking to cooking, while Ganggyeong gives pride of place to fermented foods, such as pickled anchovies or shrimps. In Gwangju, the famous Kimchi festival includes cooking demonstrations and performing arts.