1 GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
The Korean Peninsula is a large finger of land that extends south from the
northeastern border of China into the ocean parallel to Japan. It is
surrounded by the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Until World War II
(1939–1945), Korea was a single country. After World War II, Korea
was divided in half to form the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea (known as North Korea) with a communist form of government, and the
Republic of Korea (known as South Korea) with a democratic form of
Both North Korea and South Korea have problems with air and water
pollution, and both governments have passed laws to control pollution.
Higher elevations are found in North Korea, while South Korea has fertile
plains suitable for agriculture in its southern region. The climate
supports agriculture, and South Korea grows enough rice to support its
population. The main rivers, the Han and the Kum, help to provide adequate
water supply for the agricultural lands.
2 HISTORY AND FOOD
Since the country was divided into North Korea and South Korea, the
government of North Korea has not welcomed outsiders. Because of this,
information about its food and the cooking style of its people is not
readily available. Most of the descriptions and recipes included here come
from South Korea, although the same foods are probably enjoyed by North
Koreans and people of Korean descent living anywhere in the world.
The seas surrounding the Korean peninsula—the Yellow and East China
seas, and the Sea of Japan—provide not only many types of seafood,
like tuna, king crab and squid, but moisture for the fertile soil needed
to grow rice and grains.
For centuries, the Koreans have eaten the products of the land and sea.
growing grains thousands of years ago, and rice cultivation was
introduced to some parts of the country around 2000 b.c. During this time
they also grew millet (a type of grass grown for its edible seed),
soybeans, red beans, and other grains. They cured and pickled fish, were
skilled in making wine and bean paste, and often used honey and oil in
Chinese and Japanese invasions during the fourteenth through twentieth
centuries gave rise to a culinary influence on Korea that remains today.
Like the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans eat rice with almost every meal and
use chopsticks. Eating with chopsticks means the food is usually cut up
into little pieces that are easy to pick up. Food cut this size cooks
fast, which cuts down on the use of fuel.
Unlike China and Japan, however, Korea was never a tea-drinking nation.
Historically, China and Japan had to boil their water for it to be fit to
drink. Korea's water was pure, which led them to discover other
beverages, such as ginseng and ginger drinks (made from herbs of the same
name), wines, and spirits.
(ginger drink) is often served on joyous occasions during the winter, and
especially at New Year's.
Soo Chunkwa (Ginger Drink)
- ½ pound ginger (the actual root, not powdered)
- 10 cups cold water
- ¾ pound dried jujubes (red dates used in sweet dishes), or
substitute brown dates
- 1 jar (16-ounce) of honey
- Pine nuts (can be found at the local supermarket)
To prepare jujubes
Note: This step applies only if jujubes are being used. Skip this step if
- Wash the jujubes under cold running water.
- Place them in 4 cups of water and bring it to a boil. Cook for 30
minutes. Cool to room temperature.
- Wash, but do not peel the ginger.
- Slice it paper-thin.
- Place the ginger in a large pot and add 10 cups cold water.
- Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 2½ hours.
- Scoop out all of the ginger with a slotted spoon and throw it away.
- Heat the ginger water to boiling again, and add the honey.
- Boil on high heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until the honey has been
- Let the ginger water cool to drinking temperature (just warm).
- Place a jujube (or date) at the bottom of each glass.
- Add the ginger water; top each glass with 2 pine nuts and sprinkle with
a dash of powdered cinnamon.
Makes about 10 servings. Soo Chunkwa will keep, refrigerated, for a few
3 FOODS OF THE KOREANS
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
Korean food is often very spicy. 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.
Dried jujubes, available at Asian specialty markets, resemble
raspberries. One jujube is placed in each glass of soo chunkwa
(ginger drink). Before they can be used in most recipes, jujubes
must be presoaked.
The Korean way of preparing and eating their dishes makes for healthy
eating. Generally speaking, Koreans are thin people. Being overweight is
considered a sign of wealth and dignity and seen particularly among the
rich, and high officials.
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
(kahm-jah gook; potato soup), and
(heen pop; white rice).
Kamja Guk (Potato Soup)
- 2 cans beef or chicken broth
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
- ½ cup mushrooms, chopped
- 1 green onion, chopped
- Pinch black pepper
- In a large saucepan, combine broth, potatoes, and carrots.
- Bring to a boil over high heat, and cover.
- Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, or until vegetables are
- Add mushrooms, green onions, and black pepper.
- Stir well and cook for 2 minutes more.
- Serve hot.
(pronounced kim chee), a common spicy Korean side dish, is considered a
comes in a variety of flavors depending on family tradition. The main
ingredients are cabbage and radish, which are fermented with red chilies,
salt, and other vegetables.
is the traditional Korean custom of making
in the early winter to prepare for the cold months.
Kimchi is served with almost every meal in Korea. It is usually
homemade, but it may be found in many large grocery stores and
- 1 cup medium cabbage, chopped
- 1 cup carrots, thinly sliced
- 1 cup cauliflower, separated into small pieces
- 2 Tablespoons salt
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly chopped, or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated, or ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- Combine cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower in strainer and sprinkle with
- Toss lightly and set in sink for about one hour and allow to drain.
- Rinse with cold water, drain well and place in a medium-size bowl.
- Add onions, garlic, red pepper and ginger.
- Mix thoroughly.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 days, stirring frequently to mix
- Allow kimchi to sit for 1 or 2 days to ferment. The longer it sits, the
spicier it will become.
(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
(boiled rice mixed with four grains),
(a sweet rice dish), and over fifty varieties of rice cakes.
Hin Pap (White Rice)
- 2 cups short-grain white rice (not instant)
- 2⅔ cups water
- Pour the rice and water into a deep saucepan, and stir to combine.
- Bring to a boil over high heat.
- Boil, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir.
- Cover pan, reduce heat to low, and simmer rice 20 to 25 minutes, or
until all water is absorbed.
- Remove pan from heat.
- Keep covered for 10 minutes.
- Fluff with a fork and serve hot.
Serves 6 to 8.
Other common dishes include
(marinated beef short ribs) and
(a meal of meat, fish, vegetables, eggs, nuts, and bean curd cooked
together in broth).
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
Traditional Korean holidays have developed under the influence of the
seasons, rural agricultural life, and the religions of Buddhism and
Confucianism. As of the twenty-first century, traditional holidays still
held significant meaning in the daily lives of the Korean people.
Toasted Sesame Seeds
Toasted sesame seeds are an ingredient in many Korean recipes, such as
Chap Ch'ae, Ch'o Kanjang, and Shigumch'i Namul.
- 4 teaspoons sesame seeds
- Measure sesame seeds into a small frying pan (do not add oil).
- Cook, stirring constantly over medium heat 2 to 4 minutes or until the
seeds are golden brown (be careful not to burn).
- Remove the seeds from heat and pour into a large bowl. Crush with the
back of a wooden spoon.
The Lunar New Year, or Sol, is the first day of the new year. Koreans
traditionally hold a memorial service for their ancestors, after which
, a formal bow of respect, to their elders as a New Year's
greeting. The day is always celebrated with a bowl of
, or rice cake soup. Other popular foods eaten on Lunar
New Year are
(noodles with meat and vegetables),
(mung bean pancakes), and
(cinnamon flavored persimmon punch). At weddings,
, a sticky rice ball loaded with chestnuts, jujubes, raisins, and pine
nuts to symbolize children, is served.
Chap Ch'ae (Mixed Vegetables with Cellophane Noodles)
- 5 dried black mushrooms (button mushrooms, or one small can of mushrooms
may be substituted)
- 1 cup hot water
- 4 Tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
- 4 teaspoons toasted, crushed sesame seeds (see above on how to make)
- 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 package cellophane noodles (can be found in the supermarket)
- 6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
- 3 carrots, peeled and cut into medium strips
- 1 cup bean sprouts
- ½ cup fresh spinach, chopped
- 5 teaspoons sesame oil
- If using dried black mushrooms, put them into a small bowl and pour hot
water over them. Soak for 20 minutes or until soft.
- Marinate chicken: In a medium bowl, combine 2 Tablespoons soy sauce, 1
teaspoon sugar, garlic, 2 teaspoons sesame seeds, and chicken. Set
- Prepare noodles: Heat 3 cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add
the cellophane noodles and return to a boil.
- Reduce heat to medium to high and cook uncovered, for 5 to 7 minutes or
until soft. Drain the noodles and rinse briefly in cold water. Place in
large mixing bowl and set aside.
- Prepare chicken and vegetables: In a large frying pan or wok, heat 1
Tablespoon vegetable oil over high heat for 1 minute.
- Add chicken mixture and fry, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes or
until chicken is white and tender. Remove pan from heat and add chicken
- When pan has cooled, wash and dry it completely.
- Heat 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil over high heat for 1 minute. Add
mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute or until soft.
- Repeat with remaining vegetables, cooking each one separately. (It is
not necessary to wash and dry the pan between vegetables.)
- Add 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 teaspoons sesame seeds
and 5 teaspoons sesame oil to noodle mixture and mix well. Serve warm or
at room temperature.
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
, 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.
Another traditional holiday in South Korea is called
, or Shampoo Day, on June 15. Friends and family gather at a stream or
waterfall to bathe in the clear water, a ceremony they believe will ward
off fevers for the rest of the year. A picnic meal is packed and may
(mahndoo; dumplings), sweet rice cakes, grilled fish or meat, and
Mandu (Korean Dumplings)
- ¼ pound ground beef
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
- ½ small onion, peeled and finely chopped
- ¾ cup cabbage, shredded
- ½ cup bean sprouts
- 1 green onion, finely chopped
- 1½ teaspoons black pepper
- Salt, dash
- 25 wonton wrappers (can be found at a supermarket)
- 1 egg
- In a large frying pan or wok, cook meat until brown, mashing with a fork
to break into small pieces. Remove meat, using a slotted spoon to drain
off fat, and set meat aside in a bowl.
- Once cool, wash frying pan or wok and dry thoroughly.
- Heat 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil over high heat for 1 minute.
- Add onions and cook 2 to 3 minutes or until crisp and tender.
- Add cabbage and continue to cook, stirring frequently until cabbage is
crisp and tender.
- Add bean sprouts and green onion, mix well, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes
- Remove pan from the heat and drain vegetable mixture.
- In a large bowl, combine meat, vegetables, salt and black pepper and mix
well to make the filling.
- Place 1 wonton wrapper on a flat surface and cover remaining wrappers
with a damp paper paper towel (not dish towel) so they won't dry
- Beat the egg in a small bowl. Brush all 4 edges of the wonton wrapper
with the beaten egg.
- Place about 1 Tablespoon of the filling mixture just above the center of
the wonton wrapper.
- Fold wrapper in half over filling and press the edges together to seal,
forming a dumpling.
- In a large frying pan or wok, heat 1 cup vegetable oil over medium heat
for 1 minute.
- Carefully place 6 dumplings into oil with tongs and fry 3 to 4 minutes
or until golden brown.
- Turn and fry the other side, 2 to 3 minutes.
5 MEALTIME CUSTOMS
There is little difference in what Koreans eat for breakfast, lunch, or
dinner. Breakfast, the biggest meal of the day, may include a cold soup,
oi naeng guk
(oh-ee nayng good; cucumber soup), steamed peppers, and
saeng son jon
(pool-goh-gee; grilled beef) is one of Korea's best-known meat
Pulgogi (Korean Beef)
In Korea, Pulgogi is prepared on a small grill at the table.
- 2 pounds beef sirloin
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup water
- 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 Tablespoon sesame seed
- 1 Tablespoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon ginger
- 3 Tablespoons brown sugar or honey (white sugar may be substituted)
- Before beginning, place meat in the freezer for 10 minutes to make it
easier to slice. Slice beef as thinly as possible.
- Cut meat slices into bite-sized squares. Lightly score the surface of
each square to prevent the meat from curling when cooked.
- Put the meat pieces into a large mixing bowl. Add all the other
ingredients, and stir with a wooden spoon to mix everything together.
- Cover the bowl and refrigerate for several hours (at least one hour) to
allow the meat to absorb the flavors of the marinade.
- Transfer everything to a large saucepan. Heat over medium-low heat until
the mixture begins to simmer. Cover and cook about 30 minutes, until the
meat has been thoroughly cooked. Stir every 5 minutes to prevent meat
- Serve with rice and kimchi.
Serves 8 to 10.
Ch'o Kanjang (Vinegar Soy Sauce)
- 4 Tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 Tablespoons vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon green onions, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (see recipe)
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve sugar.
- Vinegar soy sauce will keep up to a week, covered, in the refrigerator.
Lunch could be
(kahm-jah gook; potato soup) and mixed vegetables with
(chop-chay; cellophane noodles made from mung bean flour). For dinner,
(kahl-bee gook; beef short rib soup),
(shee-guhm-chee nah-mool; spinach salad), pulgogi (pool-goh-gee; Korean
beef), and steamed chicken is eaten. Of course, all three meals would be
served with white rice and
. A good Korean cook will try to
include five colors at every meal: red, green, yellow, white, and black.
Koreans seldom serve dessert, but often eat fresh fruit instead.
Shigumch'i Namul (Korean Spinach)
- ½ cup water
- 1 pound fresh spinach, rinsed with water
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
- ½ teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
- 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (see recipe)
- In a large saucepan, bring water to a boil.
- Add spinach, cover, and reduce heat to medium to high. Cook for 2 to 3
minutes, or until bright green.
- Pour into a strainer. Cool.
- Gently squeeze out excess water with your hands.
- Chop spinach and place in a large bowl.
- Add remaining ingredients and mix well.
- Serve at room temperature.
Serves 6 to 8.
Meals are considered an important event in the day to Koreans and much
time is spent in its preparation. In fact, Koreans find eating so
important they want to concentrate all of their attention on it, and
consider it impolite to talk while eating. They avoid conversation until
the end of the meal. At mealtime, the dishes of food are placed in the
middle of the table and individual bowls of rice are set in front of each
The Korean table setting is much different than the table setting used in
the United States. The tables, finished with shiny red or black lacquer,
are only 10 inches high. Diners are seated on cushions placed on the floor
around the table. Beautiful patterns in mother-of-pearl decorate the
tables. When the table is not being used, it is hung on the wall like a
Students carry lunch boxes to school that are quite unlike those of U.S.
students. They are little tin boxes with several compartments built into
them for chopsticks, rice, dried fish, and other foods. Small children
have small chopsticks, and as they grow bigger, they use bigger
For snacks at home, Korean students like to eat fruit, either fresh or
dried, and sometimes little cakes made from sugar, honey, dried fruit, and
rice flour. They are much less sweet tasting than the cookies and cakes
made in the United States. The popular
is always in the kitchen and easy to eat as a snack.
6 POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
Almost all Koreans receive adequate nutrition in their diets, with the
World Bank reporting that less than 1 percent of the population is
malnourished and nearly all have access to adequate sanitation and safe
drinking water. Korean farmers grow enough rice to meet the
country's needs, and fruit growers produce abundant crops of
apples, pears, persimmons, and melons. The main vegetable crops are white
radish, known as
and cabbage. Both are used in
the national dish.
7 FURTHER STUDY
Cho, Joong Ok.
Homestyle Korean Cooking in Pictures
. Tokyo: Japan Publications; New York: Kodansha International/USA through
Harper & Row [distributor], 1981.
Chef Ki is Serving Dinner!
Danbury, CT: Children’s Press, 1997.
The Korean Cookbook.
Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International Corp., 1983.
Food in Korea
. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publications, 1991.
The Korean Kitchen: Classic Recipes from the Land of the Morning Calm.
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.
Traditional Korean Cooking: Snacks & Basic Side Dishes
. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International Corp., 1985.
Okwha Chung and Judy Monroe.
Cooking the Korean Way.
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1988.
KidSight. [Online] Available
(accessed March 14, 2001).
Korea Insights. [Online] Available
(accessed March 14, 2001).
Life in Korea. [Online] Available
(accessed March 14, 2001).
Working Holiday Association. [Online] Available
(accessed March 14, 2001).