Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Foods in Korea



As in China and Japan, the use of dairy products such as cheeses and butter and cultured milk products is not a part of the Korean menu.


The persimmon and the Chinese pear are the most common fruits. However, fruits are not a staple part of the menu, nor are they served with any frequency. In city homes or in upper-class families, fruits may be part of a snack or a treat offered to guests. When strips of raw meat are served (after marinating in garlic and sesame seed oil) it is customary to accompany the dish with thin slices of Chinese pear.

Vegetables offer important nutrients and variety to the diet. Many types and varieties of vegetables are grown and prepared in a number of ways: white potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, many squashes, onions, leeks, Chinese cabbage, turnips, red and green peppers, daikon (Oriental radish), many types of mushrooms, cucumbers, garlic, and many types of beans (red beans, green beans, soybeans, and pea beans).

Unquestionably the most important Korean vegetable dish present at every meal is kimchi. There are almost endless combinations but the general categories of kimchi include daikon kimchi made in large cut, small cut, salty, very salty, pickled, and summer; cabbage kimchi made with shredded Chinese or round cabbage; and cucumber kimchi. This national dish is made by layering cut vegetables with varying amounts of salt and onions and allowing it to ferment for a short time. After rinsing, the prepared vegetables are seasoned with peppery spices, garlic, leeks, and ginseng. A great variety of other special ingredients may be added to create the kimchi specialty of the household, such as dried or fresh shrimp, fish or other seafood, pine nuts, meats, chestnuts, pears, or apples.

In some households, kimchi and rice may be the entire meal. Huge earthen jars are used to store the kimchi and these are placed either underground or in cool places during the summer.

Cucumber and eggplant are greatly favored and are prepared in a variety of ways: stuffed, fresh, cooked, pickled, steamed, roasted, or as a salad with vinegar.

More than 1,000 varieties of seaweed or laver are found around the shores of both Korea and Japan. Edible seaweed is called nori in Japan and kim in Korea. It is popularly served by dipping in sesame seed oil and soy sauce then toasting. It can also be toasted then crushed and mixed with soy, sugar, sesame seed oil, and red pepper. Another way is to cut the greens into small pieces, paint with rice powder and seasonings cooked together, then dust with sesame seeds, sun-dry, and finally fry.

Other vegetables in the category of greens are parsley leaves, spinach, bean sprouts, lettuce, celery, bamboo shoots, and carrots. A delightful “lettuce lunch” called sang-chi-sam is prepared by washing fresh green lettuce leaves (a few drops of sesame oil in the last rinse water makes the leaves shine). The leaves are arranged on one platter, and various tidbits such as varieties of seafood, bean paste, slivered meats, kimchi (many types), and other greens are arranged on other platters. Diners choose their fillings, roll up their lettuce leaves, and eat. This dish is often served with soup.

An important ingredient and condiment is hot pepper mash made from sun-dried red peppers. Seeds are knocked off (they add bitterness) and the peppers are pounded into powder. The resulting powder is then mixed with soy sauce, sticky rice, and seasonings of onions, leeks, and spices. This may be eaten as a side dish, condiment with other foods, or in soups.

Finally, proper distinction must be given to the soybean, one of the most ingeniously used crops in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Aside from using the dried soybeans as any other dried legume (mixed with rice or vegetables), six other distinctive uses are made. Soybeans may be used in soy sauce, as soybean mash; as raw beans that are toasted in an iron pot then ground up and used as a garnish over rice cakes or plain rice (children enjoy eating the toasted coarser bits not used in the toasted meal); sprouted into soybean sprouts to be eaten lightly cooked as a vegetable; prepared into tu bu or soybean curd.

Tu bu is sometimes called “Oriental cheese” because of its creamy white appearance and smooth spongy texture. It is prepared by grinding soaked soybeans with water. The liquid is strained, boiled, and eaten as is, or it may be strained through a hemp bag into a shallow bowl; the curds left in the bag form a firm cake which may be cut, dipped in soy sauce, or fried in sesame seed oil and eaten. Oil can also be made from the soybeans, but it is not commonly used or prepared.


In many households, meat and fish are considered dishes for special occasions. Pork, chicken, fish, and many types of seafood are enjoyed when available. Fish is probably more plentiful than meats, though all rural households maintain a few pigs and chickens. Bits of fish or meat may be used in the preparation of kimchi, soups, in casseroles and other dishes where the combination of grains and vegetables stretches the flavor of the more expensive meats and fish. Marinated dried beef is a favorite for appetizers; some may be toasted before serving. Raw beef strips are enjoyed after marinating in garlic and sesame oil, and served with slices of raw pear.

Charcoal fires are frequently used for barbecues. Strips of chicken or beef are marinated in mixtures of ground sesame seeds, sugar, soy sauce, minced garlic and green onion with a little sesame oil added near the end of marinating.

Eggs are used as available. They are scrambled, formed into small pancakes with vegetables or kimchi, or made into steamed custards generally eaten for breakfast and, finally, sometimes used as soup garnishes.

The tiny Korean kitchens make ingenious use of their facilities: fish or meats are usually grilled over hot coals in a little pot stove; a cook may scramble eggs and add a few other ingredients and set the little filled bowls to steam over the rice in the rice pot; frying can be accomplished by using the top of the iron pot upside down; finally, great varieties of soups are begun in the Chinese way with the simple browning of tiny bits of meat or seafood in the bottom of a pot, followed by a sprinkling of soy sauce or other seasonings and the adding of water to make a basic broth.

Foods from the sea include sea cucumbers, oysters, crab, cuttlefish, cod, herring, whitebait (baingo), sea bream (plentiful and eaten with vinegar soy sauce), clams, crab, shrimp, and jellyfish.

Pine nuts, chestnuts, and walnuts are also used and must be considered for their texture and flavor as well as for the protein they provide. Kochujan, which is a seasoned red pepper bean paste, may be mixed with minced pine nuts, green onions, and sesame seeds to form a popular condiment used with pickled cucumbers and vinegar soy sauce. Many other dishes use pine nuts collected from the five-needled pine tree whose nuts are thought to have the essence of longevity.

Finally, two exotic foods enjoyed by Koreans are crickets and silkworms. Crickets are boiled whole then mixed with soy sauce usually as a special dish for babies and children in the autumn (said to prevent drooling), also as an upper-class delicacy for urban dwellers. Children also enjoy boiled silkworms when available.


Koreans do not generally eat breads as known in the western world. Rice is the staple and most important food. As a rule the rice is washed four times before cooking. The first rinse water is given to the pigs, the second may be used in the soup pot. Distinct personal preferences exist about exactly how much water to use for cooking the rice and the exact degree of hardness or softness desired. Rice accompanies every meal and often only rice with kimchi comprises the entire meal. Rice may be served plain or mixed together with barley cubed potatoes, sorghum, millet, or as a dish of rice, barley, and potatoes.

Rice flour is used in making special occasion cookies, steamed dumplings, and for the very special tuk-kuk or New Year’s rice cake soup. For the rice cakes, the rice flour is steamed then kneaded.

Barley is the next most important grain. It is grown in between the season for the rice crops and is considered important especially when rice is scarce. Since it takes a long time to cook, barley is often boiled separately first and is always served combined with other foods. It is considered a “low-level food” but nonetheless important.

Although corn is grown in some areas, it is not used as a grain. It is considered more of a children’s food and is cooked by steaming the ears of corn on top of the rice pot. The youngest children and babies are given cooked corn or white potato to gnaw on when they are hungry.

The buckwheat grown in Korean fields is widely enjoyed in the form of buckwheat noodles. In fact, noodles are frequently homemade from a dough of buckwheat flour, salt, rice flour, or cornstarch and water. The stiff dough is then pressed through a Korean noodle cutter placed over a pan of boiling water. Noodles are called myun. Noodles are considered a lunch dish, whether served hot or cold. Naing-myun is a cold plate of cooked buckwheat noodles served with a garnish of chopped kimchi, strips of beef or chicken and sliced pear and sliced hard egg; chilled broth is poured over. A similar dish served hot and said to be a favorite of the masses – especially enjoyed by men as they eat sitting cross-legged – is jaing-ban. The heated meat and condiments are enjoyed with wine, the noodles are eaten last, and the entire platter is kept hot over small fire pots placed on the low tables.


Sesame seed oil is used both for cooking and frying. Frequently the flavorful oil, reminiscent of toasted sesame seeds, is also used to give a sheen to washed greens or roasted (grilled) meats. Other fats consumed include those contained in pork crackling and chicken skin and in the actual meats themselves.


Considering that a small Korean child is commonly given a cooked potato or a steamed cob of corn to gnaw on as a snack between meals, as opposed to the early western introduction of sweet cookies and sweetened desserts, it can be seen that the Korean sweet tooth is an insignificant one.

Desserts are not part of traditional Korean meals but they are served when special guests come and also for holiday and feast occasions. Chun Kwa is the name given to a variety of candy-coated thinly sliced vegetables; the prepared vegetables are dipped into a syrup then allowed to cool and harden. Many types of dried fruits – sometimes candied – are also enjoyed. Steamed and kneaded glutinous rice can be made into many types of small cookies and pastries often flavored with honey and nuts. Some are even sun-dried then deep-fried. Kai-yut are sesame seed candies, and a candy treat made from glutinous rice powder, chestnuts, honey, dates, and cinnamon is called “flower paste” or ju-ak. Ju-ak is shaped and fried in sesame oil then sprinkled lightly with sugar.

Pine cakes or song-pyun are specially festive and often used as offerings to the spirits of ancestors. They are made with rice powder dough pressed into small cup shapes then filled with red beans, chestnuts, and raisin mixture. The unusual taste comes from steaming them together with fresh pine needles. Another festive favorite is kyung-dan, sweet dumplings which are also prepared from glutinous rice powder dough. Red bean paste and chestnut paste are popped into the center then rolled in a ball which is finally coated with yellow bean powder or very finely chopped walnuts or dates.

Interestingly, although these festive and dessert specialties are considered to be sweets, many are also considered medicinal because of their content of nutritious ingredients such as honey, raisins, etc.

Sometimes fruits are poached in a light syrup and flavored with ginger root. Such a dessert is su-jun-wa, made from persimmons.

The traditional children’s treat, particularly in rural areas at New Year’s, is yot. This is ritually prepared from ground barley powder mixed in a ratio of one-to-three parts of boiled rice, then heated carefully with water (overheating makes it bitter). The thick part is gradually spooned off and the remaining liquid is allowed to boil until it thickens into a rich syrup. This is much enjoyed by dipping rice cakes into it.


The taste and distinctive aroma of sesame seeds is characteristic of Korean cooking because sesame seed oil is the preferred fat, and sesame seeds are used in many dishes. Garlic, green onions, ginger root, pine nuts, and monosodium glutamate are all used generously. Pears and pear juice are often used both as seasoning and as condiment. Soy sauce, vinegar soy sauce (a combination of two parts soy sauce, one part vinegar and monosodium glutamate), and kochujan are the condiments. The latter is a red pepper and bean paste made from a blend of soy sauce, bean paste, and powdered red peppers in equal pans. Another condiment is prepared from a base of kochujan with minced green onions, crushed pine nuts, and sesame seeds. This pine nut condiment is served with pickled cucumbers.

Commercially prepared soy sauce, of course, is widely available, but many households in Korea still prepare their own. Prepared in the autumn, the boiled and pounded soybeans are molded into a cone shape and set to dry hard. Then they are wrapped with rice straw, hung from ceilings, and allowed to ferment for several weeks. (Such fermented cones may be winter-stored in huge rice straw bags kept in a cool place.)

In the spring, bits of the cone are broken into a water-filled jar to which is added salt, spices, red peppers, and a few charcoal lumps. This is left in the sun a few days until the molded soybean clumps float on top and the resulting liquid turns black. The final step is the ladling out of the black liquid which is then boiled to become soy sauce. The remaining contents of the jar are used as soybean mash.


Water is an anytime drink. Well water is considered superior but spring waters are considered to have medicinal value. In wintertime (November to February) hot water is sometimes taken with lunch.

It was the Japanese who introduced tea as a beverage in the cities and towns, but it is almost nonexistent in the villages. Sungyung completes every meal: the color and flavor are derived by pouring hot water over the charred rice or barley in the bottom of the pot. Sesame seed tea is also enjoyed.

There is a great fondness for wine and spirits although at all times drunkenness is considered very offensive, while an inebriated woman is simply intolerable. However, there is leeway in what is considered drunkenness. One village saying insists that a man may not be considered drunk so long as he can still move an arm.

T’akju is a light wine that has an alcohol content of about 10 percent, a bit stronger than beer. Yakju is a stronger version of T’akju with about 15 percent alcohol content and is considered medicinal, as are many other good things. Soju (“burning wine”) is a spirit so named because of its effect and probably because of its 25 percent alcohol content.

Omija-wha-chai is a refreshing beverage made either in the home or commercially. It is a seasonable drink prepared from fresh or dried fruit, parts of tart or sour flowers and is sweetened with honey or sugar. Shikhe is another sweetened drink, prepared from fermented rice and sugar and lightly scented with citron.

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