Ssan-si, Chungcheongnam-do 336-882
36° 48′ 13.3668″ N, 126° 56′ 10.1292″ E
Do you think of eating as a chore or as an activity? Of course we have to eat something if we want to live and grow, but I think there is much more to eating than just stuffing your belly and the Koreans seem to think so too. Meals are a reason to come together and be social, to be joyful for the food you have and can share with others. It is a very important part of Korean culture to eat as a family and you can see this in the way foods are served. You will never see a traditional Korean meal served to someone on one plate just for them. Several dishes are each served on individual plates and placed around the table so everyone can reach them. Then the main course is placed in the very center of the table and everyone shares from all the different plates or bowls. Do you share food with your friends? Do you drink after other people? When I was a kid, I was very afraid of germs so I would never drink after someone else. If I still felt that way, I could never survive in Korea! Each person has a pair of chopsticks and a spoon that they use to pick up food from the shared plates and to put the food in their mouths. I hesitated to participate in my first Korean meal because I could only think about swapping cooties with all those spoons! I was hungry though and the food smelled amazing so I pushed myself forward and dug in with my spoon as well. I was so glad I did! Sharing all things is a way of life in Korea and I think it makes everything better!
Korean food today is based on rice, but it was not always this way. At one time, Korea did not have any rice at all! Can you guess where rice originally came from? Many scientists argue about the origin of rice, but most of them agree that it was grown first in China. After the Chinese traders introduced rice to the rest of Asia, the Koreans started finding hundreds of new uses for this amazing grain. Some examples are rice flour for breads, pounded rice paste, paper, glue and even money! Because of all this, rice was very expensive at first, but new methods of farming were developed and Korean rice production became very good. Now, rice is used in Korea more commonly than we use bread in America!
The weather in Korea can be very cold so having dried rice they could keep through the long winter was very important for them. You can’t live on just rice though, right? They needed something else to go with the rice that would be healthy, easy to grow, and would last a long time in storage. The answer for this problem was a very special, and now very famous, dish called Kimchi (sounds like kim-chee). Have you heard of it before? Kimchi is made by placing salted Korean cabbages with other vegetables into big clay pots where they are left to ferment for days or even months. Fermenting is really just another word for letting something grow old. Little bacteria live in the food and start to change it over time. In the case of kimchi, the bacteria make the cabbage turn slightly sour and the juice around the cabbage becomes bubbly! Do you know anything else that is fermented? Some of my favorite foods are from fermented milk, cucumbers, soybeans and tea. Do you think you could guess what they are?
The histories of Asian foods are sometimes very closely connected and it is hard to say exactly where one food came from originally, but the Koreans have a lot of pride for inventing kimchi first. It is an almost perfect food with plenty of nutrition, flexible uses, a variety of flavors, and excellent storability. You will find kimchi in almost every single restaurant and home in Korea. Kimchi and rice is a delicious meal by itself, but there are so many other scrumptious foods I could never list them all! Korea has dozens of exciting new shapes, colors, textures and flavors to drool over. Some of my favorites that I wish you could try too are the Dokkboki (dock-bo-gee) and Bulgogi Bibimbap (bull-go-gee bee-bim-bap).
I tried so many foods I can’t even count them, but the one I really want to share with you is called kimbap. Kim is the Korean word for seaweed and bap means rice. It looks to me like a seaweed burrito! I know that it may not sound that great if you have never tried seaweed before, but I can promise that the taste will really surprise you! The seaweed has just a little oil and salt in it and the crisp veggies in the center mix with the chewy rice to make different textures in your mouth.
Kimbap is the fast food of Korea. It is so easy to find and can be filled with almost anything you like. You can often see people grabbing one or two rolls from a street-side vendor on their way to school or during a lunch break at work. I had my first kimbap while I was rushing to one of the museums in Seoul. My friend and I were running late so we did not have time to sit down and eat in a restaurant, but I still wanted to try real Korean food. Kimbap to the rescue! There was a very small shop on the way to the bus stop that had some very fat and delicious looking kimbap for sale so we bought a big order of them and hurried on our way. Sitting in the back of the bus, we opened the plastic box and took a look at the green, bulging rolls. I used my little bamboo chopsticks to carefully snatch a piece as the bus tried very hard to bump it out of my hands and spill rice all over me. The center was filled with pickled yellow radish, cucumber, eggs, spinach, tuna, cheese and more! There were three different flavors in the box and they were all delicious!
Kimbap is made by laying a flat piece of dried or roasted seaweed “paper” on the table then spreading sticky short-grain rice on it. The rice is cooked with a little salt and vinegar or sesame oil to flavor it. The fillings that go inside the roll can be almost anything, but the most common are thin slices of cooked carrots, cucumber, fried eggs, yellow pickled radish, and some type of meat. Once the fillings you want are placed on the rice, you need to grab the whole roll with two hands and carefully roll it tightly into a long tube. Usually the finished kimbap is then cut into little slices about a half inch thick. My favorite parts are the two ends that have all the fillings sticking out of them like a sushi roll with a crazy punk haircut! I hope you will try to make this yourself! The most important part is that you must use short-grain rice that becomes sticky after you cook it. If the rice isn’t sticky enough, your kimbap will be just be kimbap-slop! Try it with pickles if you can’t find the yellow radish and feel free to use anything else you have that you might like. I saw people use hotdogs, ham, tuna, crab, cheese, mayonnaise, and even a whole salad! Try to make one Korean-style first and then experiment on your own! Be sure to let me know if you make a new recipe for a really yummy one!
I feel like kimbap is a really good reflection of food history and culture in Korea. The very first ingredient is seaweed that shows the connection that Korea has to the sea. The country is surrounded by the ocean on three sides and depends heavily on the foods harvested from the sea. The second ingredient is the rice and it shows the historical connection Korea shares with the rest of Asia. The rice may have come from the Chinese originally, but it has been explored and adapted by Koreans to fit their own tastes and needs. The fillings show the type of diet that Koreans have been used to for a very long time. Because growing crops was the most important way to get food for so long, the Korean diet is rich in vegetables and very sparse on meats. The pickled radish also makes us remember that fermenting was a necessary part of storing food through the long, cold winters of the Korean countryside.
Korea’s relationship with the sea, the rice fields, the vegetable gardens, animals and climate can all be rolled into this handy meal that keeps the busy workers of a high tech country still connected to its humble roots. I hope you will try it and taste how wonderful Korean culture can be!