Korean food is characterized by taste. The distinctive tastes of Korean cuisine are the result of condiments that are used in flavouring foods either individually or in combination. These condiments are called ‘Jang’, which means sauce in Korean. Jang is the source of all flavours in Korean cuisines. Soybean paste (doenjang), soy sauce (ganjang) and red pepper paste (gochujang) are all considered Jang.
These sauces are traditionally made once a year. If the Jang is not made well, even with good ingredients, a cook cannot prepare good foods. Jang can be used to make many different dishes such as stir-frys, soups, stews, braised foods and as a marinade for meats.
Soybeans are high in protein; they offer an alternative protein source for vegetarians as doenjang. Red pepper paste (gochujang) is an essential to make Korean food but it is a relatively new sauce in Korean cuisine. This is because chili pepper was introduced to Korea in the late 16th century.
In addition to the three Jangs described above, other seasonings are extremely important. Sesame oil and perilla oil (wild sesame seed oil) are used to add flavour. These oils have delicate fragrances and are used in vegetable dishes, dipping sauces and to marinate meats.
When preparing dishes usually several seasonings are used to create unique flavour with different nuances of taste. Such combinations allow Koreans to make numerous banchan (side dishes), which are the representative dishes of Korean cuisine.
Korea’s national dish, kimchi, embodies the ideology of Korean cuisine. Kimchi is a technique of preserving and fortifying vegetables - mostly through the process of fermentation. There are over 100 different types of kimchi, which are made using seasonal ingredients. Any vegetables can be used such as radish, onions, cucumbers, eggplant, etc. The ubiquitous cabbage kimchi has been around since the 17th century.
A mixture of garlic, ginger, daikon radish, fermented fish, onions and red pepper powder is the typical seasoning applied to brined vegetables. These combined ingredients will preserve and fortify the vegetables and start a natural fermentation process. Kimchi is rich in dietary fibers, lactobacilus, lactic acid and acetic acid, which is extremely beneficial to the digestive system. The fermentation process allows kimchi to be stored for long periods of time. In the past, Kimchi would be only be made before the start of winter at the kimchi making festival, Kimjang. This festival would unite families and villages, as people would make hundreds of heads of kimchi and then store them in special slab pottery pots called Onngi that they would bury up to the neck of the pot in the ground. The burying process would help the fermentation and keep the vegetables at the optimal temperature. Kimchi was essential for survival during the long cold winters. These days specialized kimchi refrigerators are used to maintain correct temperature and humidity.
Today, kimchi is still seen at almost every meal in Korea. It has been used in Western dishes such as hotdogs, tacos, hamburgers, savoury pancakes and even in pasta sauces. Also, it can be used as a filling for dumplings and flavouring for noodles. As kimchi becomes universally known, the applications for this dish become endless.
Since ancient times Koreans have made alcohols for medicine, celebrations and ceremonies. The process for alcohol making has been handed from generation to generation. Most families would have their own recipes. Alcohol in Korea was typically made from rice and referred to as Takju (unrefined alcohol) and Yakju (refined and distilled alcohol.)
Takju is a cloudy, unfiltered rice beer, which is made from rice and natural yeast. The drink called makgeolli is typically called a farmer’s alcohol and drank by commoners. Makgeolli is only 5-6% alcohol, which makes it easy to drink. It goes great with savoury pancakes such as seafood and onion pancakes or with kimchi and tofu.