In today’s climate of political correctness, the food of Korea holds special interest. For while Korean cuisine is heavily influenced by China, it differs in one important respect – a reliance on beef as the main meat. Pork is the main meat of China, and fish serves as the main meat in traditional Japanese cuisine; Koreans eat plenty of seafood and pork, as well as some chicken. But the distinguishing characteristic of this Asian diet is the frequent use of beef. Consumption of beef is more common among the affluent who typically eat beef several times per week; the less well-to-do consume more pork. Much of Korea’s beef is domestically grown, with a total of about three and one-half million head of cattle per year, for a population of about 46 million.
A popular beef dish in Korea is one of the fattiest cuts – beef short ribs – prepared with a spicy sauce; or thinly sliced flank steak or brisket, marinated in a sauce made from toasted sesame oil, garlic, onion, sugar, pepper and soy sauce, and broiled on a small charcoal grill. Skewered beef, ground beef, boiled beef and salted beef feature prominently in Korean cookbooks – along with recipes for the innards including liver, tongue and tripe. A popular hors d’oeuvre or snack is dried beef, similar to beef jerky. Thinly sliced beef is marinated in a spicy sauce made from soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame oil and dried in the sun or in a very low-temperature oven. Beef is also frequently eaten raw.
Koreans consume a wide variety of sea foods including shrimp, oysters, squid, crab, clams, abalone, snapper, cod, perch and whiting. Fish and shellfish are usually steamed, but are also eaten raw. Vitamin-D-rich shrimp sauce, made of tiny preserved shrimp cured in salty brine, is used in small amounts as a flavoring. Small dried shrimp are added to many dishes.
Eggs are consumed as part of traditional dishes, such as egg custard, egg batters and egg pancakes, and not separately as a breakfast food. In fact, Koreans eat the same foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Enzyme-rich fermented foods are served at every meal, principally as kimchi, a spicy condiment made from cabbage, radish, cucumber and shrimp sauce. In the summer kimchi is made every day. Winter kimchi is usually made in autumn and is a project for the entire family. The kimchi is stored in large earthenware jars and buried in the ground, so that just the mouth of the jar is above the surface.
A variety of other fermented foods can be found in Korean markets including pickled cucumbers, garlic, fish, crab, squid, anchovies, jellyfish, shrimp and many flavorful fermented sauces and pastes made from fish, shrimp, red beans and soy beans.
Soybeans play a minor but important role in Korean cooking, as tofu or bean paste added to soups as a thickener, or mixed with eggs. Mung beans are used more frequently, either sprouted or cooked, and made into delicious bean pancakes.
The principle grain is rice, which is prepared by soaking overnight. The next day, the rice is brought to a boil, cooked for about one half hour, and then gently steamed for several hours. Rice is also used to prepare various types of rice cakes that are colored white, green and pink, or mixed with nuts and other seeds, and sold as convenience foods. “Five grain rice,” a combination of glutinous rice, black beans, sweet beans, sorghum and millet, often replaces plain rice at family meals. Additional carbohydrates are provided by potatoes and sweet potatoes; noodles made from wheat, buckwheat, sweet potatoes or rice; or from various types of dumplings and cakes. Grains were traditionally treated by fermenting, roasting or malting, before they were used for dumplings and noodles – Korean markets carry wheat malt flour, barley malt flour, fermented soy bean flour, roasted five grain powder and potato starch, all of which are easier to digest than flours made with whole grains and legumes that have not been properly prepared to neutralize phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. Nowadays, housewives are more likely to use white flour.
A unique feature of Korean cuisine is its emphasis on wild roots, wild mushrooms and ferns, gathered from the forests and mountainous areas. These would provide minerals in abundance. Plentiful fat soluble activators – from organ meats and shellfish – would ensure that these minerals are well absorbed.
Fresh vegetables are also served at every meal, usually lightly steamed, particularly turnips, radishes, green onions and lots and lots of garlic. Most produce farms in South Korea are privately owned and quite small – averaging less than three acres in size. The best cropland is along the western and southern coasts.
Koreans also frequently consume seaweed, particularly kelp, which is an excellent source of iodine and trace minerals. A soup of beef broth with added kelp and rice is considered an important dish for pregnant women.
Sesame oil is the chief oil used in Korean cooking, although meat fats are used for cooking ramen noodles. Wild sesame oil, also called perilla oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, is not used for cooking, but consumed by the spoonful as a health food, or mixed with raw egg.
On the whole, Korean cuisine is low in fat compared to that of China. Chinese food is characterized by the stir-fry technique and the use of rich sauces. The Japanese eat many things raw or deep fried, but most Korean dishes are grilled, or prepared as stews.
Red pepper, ginger, garlic, onions, toasted sesame oil and fermented sauces made from legumes or sea food are the principal flavorings used in Korean cuisine. Korean food is spicy, but not overly so.
In general, Korea is not a tea-drinking nation. In the old days, the water in China and Japan had to be boiled in order to make it fit to drink – and tea was added to make the hot water palatable. Korea, however, was blessed with pure mineral water that did not have to be boiled, so widespread tea drinking did not take hold. Today, ginseng is widely used as a base for herbal drinks, and as a hot drink. Other hot drinks are prepared with roasted barley, cinnamon or lemons. A variety of punches made from peaches, strawberries, cherries, lemons, pomegranate seeds and persimmons can be found in Korean cookbooks. A popular beverage is sweetened and fermented rice water. Korean alcoholic beverages include a weak medicinal wine brewed from rice, and a stronger distilled beverage made from grain. Often flowers or fruits are added to these brews to produce plum-ginger wine, magnolia wine, hundred-flower wine and chrysanthemum wine.
Most meals begin with soup based on a mineral-rich broth made from beef bones. Korean beef broth, made by simmering bones for at least twelve hours, is a rich source of minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus, in easily assimilated form. Korean stores carry concentrated soup bone powder and fish powders to facilitate the process of making soup and provide additional calcium. Vegetables including radishes, cabbage and mushrooms, as well as meat, tofu, seafoods, rice and spice may be added.
One of the most prominent of Korea’s distinguishing dishes is sul long tang, a broth made of beef bones to which slices of beef brisket, rice and noodles are added. Sul long tang may be eaten at the beginning of a meal, but it is also served as a popular snack food, eaten morning, noon and night, and available at numerous mom-and-pop style cafes – the Korean equivalent to McDonalds, the difference being that the fast food of Korea, produced by traditional methods, is actually good for you!
Sol lung tang is the specialty of a restaurant called Gam Mee Ok, at 43 West 32nd Street in Manhattan. Other dishes include raw beef, cut into a julienne and served with the typical tangy sauce, cooked brisket, tongue, liver, tripe, sliced calves feet and an interesting looking dish made of snails. Fermented kimchi is served with everything. Fresh raw vegetables garnish the various platters, served plain and crisp – not smothered in vegetable oils. Rice is served as a side dish as well as a fermented beverage. Sugary desserts don’t figure on the menu. In fact, the fare at Gam Mee Ok is a paradigm of a healthy traditional diet, containing a good source of fat soluble vitamins (liver, tripe, tongue and snails), raw meat, gelatinous mineral-rich bone broth, and fermented condiments and beverages. Conspicuously lacking are sugar and vegetable oils – and for that matter soy. The one legume dish is a delicious pancake made from mung bean sprouts.
The waiters and waitresses at Gam Mee Ok look like they have just stepped from the pages of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration – all have beautifully white straight teeth, well formed faces and graceful, muscular, lean physiques. In general, Koreans have good teeth, at least compared to the Japanese.
According to National Cancer Institute data, Korean women have one of the lowest cancer rates in the world (64.9), slightly lower than that of Japan (78.1) and China (88.6), and considerably lower than that of the United States (109.7). For Korean men, the cancer rate falls in the lower middle range (150.3), almost equal to that of Japan and China and slightly lower than that of the United States (150.3) Rates for colon and rectal cancer for beef-eating Koreans are very low, as are rates for lung cancer, breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive organs. But Koreans have the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world. Irritants added to foods – such as talc in white rice – may account in part for high rates of stomach cancer, as well as the prevalence of smoking and consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially among Korean males. Koreans have a relatively high rate of liver disease, also possibly due to consumption of alcoholic beverages without the protective benefits of adequate saturated fat in the diet. The rate of ischemic heart disease is relatively low, about 21 per 100,000, compared to 66.8 in the United States. Average life span in Korea is 70 for men and 77.7 for women.
Despite the impact of the west on South Korea, and its embrace of industrialization, traditional Korean cuisine has changed relatively little. Like the French, the Koreans take food very seriously. Koreans believe that the happiness of a family depends on the quality of food served in the household. For Koreans who have emigrated to the United States, the ties to their native diet are less strong. While Korean markets in the US are filled with a huge variety of Korean foods, from fresh sea food to fermented condiments, they also now sell bread, cakes and pastry made with white flour. Candies made with sugar and high fructose corn syrup take up far more shelf space than traditional sweets based on grains, seeds and honey or malt syrup.
The challenge for Koreans in their homeland will be to remain faithful to their traditional diets, while increasing the amount of animal foods, particularly animal fats, available to the poor, and reducing carcinogens in their environment and food supply. The great challenge for Koreans in America will be to resist adding sugary, devitalized foods to their healthy traditional cuisine.
The authors are grateful to Tina Parks and Hea Young Kuhn for their help in preparing this article.
Copyright: ©1999 Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD. All Rights Reserved. First published in Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation Health Journal Vol 22, No 1. (619) 574-7763.