Ingredients and dishes vary by province. There are many significant regional dishes found in these countries provinces that have become both national and regional. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated in different variations across the country in the present day. The Korean royal court cuisine once brought all of the unique regional specialties together for the royal family. Meals taken both by the royal family and Korean citizens have been regulated by etiquette unique to Korea.
The cuisine is largely based on rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables, and meats. Traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes (banchan) that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Every meal is accompanied by numerous banchan. Kimchi, a fermented, spicy vegetable dish is usually served at every meal. Korean cuisine usually involves heavy seasoning with sesame oil, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, and gochujang (red chili paste).
Following the Three Kingdoms period is the Unified Silla period, during which Silla unified most of the southern region of Korea, while the Northern region was unified by refugees from Goguryeo, renaming the region Balhae. These cultures adhered to the beliefs of Buddhism with a moderate level of peaceful coexistence. During the tenth century, however, both cultures began to erode and were eventually unified under the Goryeo dynasty, which drew much of its culture from an admiration of the Song Dynasty of China. It was this dynasty that introduced the peninsula to the Western world and it is from the word "Goryeo" that the country's modern name of "Korea" was derived.
During the Goryeo period, in the thirteenth century, the Mongols invaded Korea. Although there was a vast loss of life in Korea, many of the traditional foods found today in Korea have their origins in the Mongol invasion, such as mandu, grilled meat dishes, noodle dishes, and the use of seasonings such as black pepper.
Agricultural innovations were vast during this time period, such as the invention of the rain gauge during the fifteenth century. During 1429 the government began publishing books on agriculture and farming techniques, which included Nongsa jikseol (hangul: 농사직설; hanja: 農事直說; literally "Straight Talk on Farming"), an agriculture book compiled under King Sejong.
A series of invasions from in the earlier half of the Joseon period caused a dynamic shift in the culture during the second half of the period. It was during the second half of the period that groups of sirhak (실학, practical learning) scholars began to emphasize the importance of looking outside the country for innovation and technology to help improve the agricultural systems. it was also during this time that the government reduced the taxation of the peasantry, who were in turn able to grow commercial development by way of increasing the periodic markets, usually held every five days. One thousand of these markets existed in the 19th century and were the centers for economic trade and entertainment in communities.
The government continued to promote the agricultural industry. The government promoted complex irrigation systems, which allowed peasant farmers to produce larger crop volumes and in turn they were able to not only produce crops for sustenance, but also for cash crops. It was during the latter half of the Joseon period when crops from the New World through trade with China, Japan, Europe, and the Philippines began to appear; these crops included corn, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and squash. Potatoes and sweet potatoes were particularly favored as they grew in soils and on terrains that were previously unused.
The end of the Joseon period was marked by consistent encouragement for the country to trade with the Western world, China, and Japan. The 1860s marked a number of unfair trade agreements between the Western world and different Asian countries including China and Japan. Following suit, the Joseon Dynasty was forced to open its trade ports with the west by the Japanese government, and they entered into a number of unfair treaties with the United States, Britain, France, and other Western countries.
The opening of Korea to the Western world brought a number of cultural food exchanges. Western missionaries introduced numerous foods to Korea. Additionally, the Joseon elites were introduced to these new foods by way of foreigners that attended the royal court as advisers or physicians. This period also saw the introduction of various seasonings imported from Japan and alcoholic drinks from China.
Meals during the Japanese occupation were monotonous. Koreans usually ate two meals a day during cold seasons, and three during warm seasons. Meals were more important for fulfillment rather than quality. Those in the lower economic levels were likely to only enjoy a single bowl of white rice each year, while the remainder of the year was filled with meals of cheaper grains like millet and barley. Western food began emerging into the Korean diet, such as white bread and commercially produced staples such as instant noodles began to appear as well. The Japanese colonial period ended after the defeat of Japan during World War II.
The country continued to exist in turmoil through the Cold War, which separated the country into North Korea and South Korea, as well as the Korean War (1950-1953). Both of these periods continued the limited food provisions for Koreans, and the stew called budae jjigae, which makes use of inexpensive meats such as hot dogs and Spam, originated during this period. It would not be until the 1960s under President Park Chung Hee that industrialization would come to Korea, when the country would regain its economic and cultural power held in the global economy today. Agriculture was increased through use of commercial fertilizers and modern farming equipment. It would not be until the 1970s that food shortages would lessen. Instant and processed foods increased as did the over all quality of foods. Livestock and dairy production was increased during the 1970s through the increase of commercial dairies and mechanized farms.
The consumption of pork and beef increased vastly in Korea in the 1970s. The per-capita consumption of meat was 3.6 kilograms in 1961, which increased to 11 kilograms per person in 1979. The result of this increased meat consumption brought about the increase of bulgogi restaurants which gave the middle class of South Korea the ability to enjoy meat regularly. The consumption of meat rose to 40 kilograms in 1997, while fish consumption was 49.5 kilograms in 1998. Rice consumption had continually decreased through the years with 128.1 kg consumed per person in 1985 to 106.5 kg in 1995 and 83.2 kg in 2003. The decrease in rice consumption has lead to an increase in consumption of bread and noodles.
During the pre-modern era, grains such as barley and millet were the main staples and were supplemented by wheat, sorghum, and buckwheat. Rice is not an indigenous crop to Korea, and it is likely that millet was the preferred grain before rice was cultivated. Rice became the grain of choice during the Three Kingdoms period, particularly in the kingdoms of Silla and Baekje in the southern regions of the peninsula. Rice was such an important commodity in Silla, that it was used to pay taxes. The Sino-Korean word for tax is a compound character that utilizes the character for the rice plant. The preference for rice escalated into the Joseon period when new methods of cultivation and new varieties emerged that would help increase production.
As rice was prohibitively expensive when it first came to Korea, it is likely that the grain was mixed with other grains, nuts, or berries in order to "stretch" the rice; this is still done in dishes such as boribap (rice with barley) and kongbap (rice with beans). White rice, which is rice with the hull removed, has been the preferred method of eating rice since its introduction into the cuisine. The most traditional method of cooking the rice has been to cook it in an iron pot called a sot (솥) or musoe sot (무쇠솥). This method of rice cookery dates back at least to the Goryeo period, and sot have even been found in tombs from the Silla period. The sot is still used today, much in the same manner it was in the past centuries.
Rice is used to make a number of items, outside of the traditional bowl of plain white rice. Rice is commonly ground into a flour and used to make rice cakes called tteok, of which there are over two-hundred varieties. Rice is also cooked down into a congee (called juk in Korean), or gruel (called mieum in Korean) and mixed with other grains, meat, or seafood. Koreans also produce a number of rice wines, both in filtered and unfiltered versions.
Fish and shellfish have always been a major part of Korean cuisine because of the oceans bordering the peninsula. Evidence from the 12th century illustrates that commoners consumed a diet mostly of fish and shellfish such as shrimp, clams, oysters, abalone, and loach, while sheep and hogs were reserved for the upper class.
Both fresh and saltwater fish are popular and are served raw, grilled, broiled, dried, and served in soups and stews. Common grilled fish include mackerel, hairtail, croaker, and Pacific herring. The fish is generally salted as Jeotgal and grilled either whole or in fillets and served with rice. Fish is often dried naturally in order to prolong storing periods and enable shipping over long distances. Fish commonly dried include yellow corvina, anchovies (myulchi) and croaker.
Shellfish are often used in stock and soup preparations. Raw oysters are used in the preparation of kimchi to aid in the fermentation process and as a flavoring. Salted baby shrimps are used as a seasoning agent known as saeujeot (새우젓) for the preparation of some types of kimchi. Large shrimp are often grilled as daeha gui (대하구이) or dried, mixed with vegetables and served with rice. Mollusks eaten in Korean cuisine include octopus, cuttlefish, and squid.
Beef is the most prized of all meats, with the cattle itself holding an important cultural role in the Korean home. The cattle were regarded as servants and seen as an equal to human servants. Cattle were also given their own holiday during the first 'cow' day of the lunar New Year. The importance of the cattle does not suggest that Koreans ate an abundance of beef, however, as pork and seafood were more likely consumed on a more regular basis as the cattle also served as beasts of burden. The Buddhist ruling class of the Goryeo period forbade the consumption of beef. The Mongols dispensed with the ban of beef during the 13th century and they promoted the production of beef cattle. This increased production continued into the Joseon period when the government encouraged both increased quantities and quality of beef.
Today beef remains a protein for special occasions or for those that can afford it more often in the upper economic classes. It has only been in the latter part of the 20th century that on a whole, people in Korea have been able to eat beef. Beef is prepared in numerous ways today including roasting or grilling (gui), boiling in soups, or drying (yukpo, 육포).
Pork has also been another important land based protein for Korea. Records indicate that pigs have been a part of the Korean diet back to antiquity, similar to cattle rearing. Pigs were pen raised early in Korean culture, with pigs in special pens being raised on the Cheju Island. The pigs on Cheju Island were raised in pens built around raised privies which held human excrement which these pigs consumed. These pigs were considered a delicacy and were known as Ddong dwaeji (똥돼지).
A number of foods have been avoided while eating pork including Chinese bellflower (doraji, 도라지) and lotus root (yeonn ppuri, 연뿌리) as the combinations have been thought to cause diarrhea. Blood taken from the pig's tail is thought to have medicinal properties. All parts of the pig are used in Korean cuisine in a variety of cooking methods including steaming, stewing, boiling, and smoking.
The consumption of dog meat in Korea dates back to antiquity. The primary dog breed raised for meat, the nureongi (누렁이), differ from those breeds raised for pets which Koreans may keep in their homes. Dog meat is usually consumed during the summer months and is either roasted or prepared in soups. The most popular of these soups is gaejang-guk, a spicy stew meant to balance the body's heat during the summer months, this is thought to ensure good health by balancing one's gi, or vital energy of the body. A 19th century version of gaejang-guk explains the preparation of the dish by boiling dog meat with scallions and chili powder. Variations of the dish contain chicken and bamboo shoots. The dish is still popular in Korea during the summer months, but is not as widely consumed as other meats.
Soups are a common part of any Korean meal. Unlike other cultures, in Korean culture, soup is served as part of the main course rather than at the beginning or the end of the meal. Soups known as guk (국) are often made with meats, shellfish and vegetables, formal soups known as tang are prepared with meats offered at ancestral rites, and jjigae are a thicker, simple soup or stew.
Korean soups can be split into four categories. The first category, clear soups or called malgeunguk (맑은국), are flavored with ganjang. Small amounts of long boiled meat may be added to the soup, or seafood both fresh and dried may be added, or vegetables may be the main component for the clear soup. The second category, known as tojangguk (토장국) are seasoned with doenjang. Common ingredients for tojang guk include seafood such as clams, dried anchovies, and shrimp. For a spicier soup, gochujang is added.
The third category of soups is gomguk (곰국), and they are made from boiling beef bones or cartilage. Originating as a peasant dish, all parts of the cow are used including tail bones, leg-bones and rib-bones with or without meat attached, are boiled in water to extract fat, marrow, and potassium to create a milky-white soup. Some versions of this soup may also use the cow's head and intestines. The only seasoning generally used in the soup is salt. The final category of soup is naengguk (냉국), which are cold soups generally eaten during the summer months to cool down the diner. A light hand is usually used in the seasoning of these soups usually utilizing ganjang and sesame oil.
Stews are referred to as jjigae and are often a shared side-dish. Jjigae is often both cooked and served in the glazed earthenware pot (ttukbaegi, 뚝배기) in which it is cooked. The most common version of this stew is doenjang jjigae which is a stew of soybean paste, with many variations, common ingredients include vegetables, saltwater or freshwater fish, and tofu. The stew often changes with the seasons and which ingredients are available. Other common varieties of jjigae contain kimchi (kimchi jjigae) or tofu (sundubu jjigae).
Kimchi (김치): vegetables (usually Napa cabbage, daikon, or cucumber) commonly fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions, and chilli pepper. There are endless varieties, and it is served as a side dish or cooked into soups and rice dishes. Koreans traditionally make enough kimchi to last for the entire winter season, although with refrigerators and commercial jarred kimchi this practice has become less common.
The eldest male at the table was always served first, commonly served to them in the men's quarters by the women of the house. Women usually dined in a separate portion of the house after the men were served. The eldest men or women always ate before the younger family members. The meal was usually quiet, as conversation was discouraged during meals. In modern times these rules have become lax, as families usually dine together now and use the time to converse. One remaining element of this decorum is that the younger members of the table should not pick up their chopsticks before the elders of the table.
In Korea, unlike in China and Japan, the rice bowl is not lifted from the table when eating from it. There are rules which reflect the decorum of sharing communal side-dishes; rules include not picking through the dishes for certain items while leaving others that the diner does not desire, the spoon being used should be clear of other food particles, and finally that one should not reach across the table for the side-dishes as they should request them to be passed. Diners should also cover their mouths with a hand when using a toothpick.
The table setup is important as well, and individuals place setting moving from the diner's left should be as follows: rice bowl, spoon, and chopsticks. Hot foods are set to the right side of the table, with the cold foods to the left. Soup must remain on the right side of the diner along with stews. Vegetables remain on the left along with the rice, and kimchi is set to the back while sauces remain in the front.
Reflecting the regionalism of the kingdoms and bordering countries of the peninsula, the cuisine borrowed portions from each of these areas to exist as a showcase. The royalty would have the finest regional specialties and delicacies sent to them at the palace. Although there are records of banquets pre-dating the Joseon period, the majority of these records mostly reflect the vast variety of foods, but do not mention the specific foods presented. The meals cooked for the royal family did not reflect the seasons as the commoner's meals would have. Instead their meals varied day-to-day with significant variations. Each of the eight provinces was represented each month in the royal palace by ingredients presented by their governors which gave the cooks a wide assortment of ingredients to utilize for royal meals.
Food held a very important place in Joseon period, official positions were created within the Six Ministries (Yukjo, 육조) that were charged with all matters related to procurement and consumption of food and drink for the royal court. The Board of Personnel (Ijo, 이조) contained positions specific for attaining rice for the royal family. the Board of Rights (Yejo) were responsible for foods prepared for ancestor rites, attaining wines and other beverages, and medicinal foods. There were also hundreds of slaves and women who worked in the palace that had tasks such as making tofu, liquor, tea, and tteok (rice cakes). The women were the cooks to the royal palace and were of commoner or low-born families. These women would be split into specific skill sets or "bureau" such as the Bureau of special foods (Saenggwa-bang, 생과방) or the Bureau of cooking foods (Soju-bang, 소주방). These female cooks may be assisted by male cooks from outside the palace during larger banquets when necessary.
Five meals were generally served in the royal palace each day during the Joseon period, and records suggest this pattern had existed from antiquity. Three of these meals would be full meals, while the afternoon and after dinner meals would be lighter. The first meal, mieumsang (미음상), was served at sunrise and was served only on days when the king and queen were not taking herbal medicines. The meal consisted of rice porridge (juk, 죽) made with ingredients such as abalone (jeonbokjuk), white rice (huinjuk), mushrooms (beoseotjuk), pine nuts (jatjuk), and sesame (kkaejuk). The side dishes could consist of kimchi, nabak kimchi, oysters, soy sauce, and other items. The porridge was thought to give vitality to the king and queen throughout the day.
The sura (수라) were the main meals of the day, breakfast was served at ten in the morning and the evening meals were served between six and seven at night. The set of three tables (surasang, 수라상), were usually set with two types of rice, two types of soup, two types of stew (jjigae), one dish of jjim (meat stew), one dish of jeongol (a casserole of meat and vegetables), three types of kimchi, three types of jang (장) and twelve side dishes, or called 12 cheop (12첩). The meals were set in the suragan (수라간), a room specifically used for taking meals, with the king seated to the east and the queen to the west. Each had their own set of tables and were attended by three palace servant women known as sura sanggung (수라상궁). These women would remove bowl covers and offer the foods to the king and queen after ensuring that the dishes were not poisoned.
All Korean traditional non-alcoholic beverages are referred to as eumcheongnyu (음청류 ). According to historical documents regarding Korean cuisine, 193 items of eumcheongnyu are recorded. Eumcheongnyu can be divided into the following categories: cha (차, tea), tang (탕, boiled water), jang (장, fermented grain juice with sour taste), suksu (숙수), galsu (갈수, thirst water), hwachae (화채, fruit punch), sikhye (식혜, sweet rice drink), sujeonggwa (수정과, persimmon punch), milsu or kkulmul (밀수, 꿀물, honeyed water), jeup (즙, juice) and milk by their ingredient materials and preparation methods. Among the varieties of eumcheongnyu, cha, hwachae, sikhye, and sujeonggwa are still widely favored and consumed; however, tang, jang, suksu, and galsu had almost disappeared by the end of the 20th century.
While soju (소주) is the best known liquor, there are well over 100 different alcoholic beverages such as beers, rice and fruit wines, and liquors produced in South Korea. The top-selling domestic beers (the Korean term for beer being maekju) are lagers, similar to others found in Europe and Asia. The South Korean beer market is dominated by the three major brands: Cass, Hite, and OB. Taedonggang (대동강) is a North Korean beer which is based in Pyongyang since 2002.Microbrewery beers and bars are growing in popularity after 2002.
Soju is a clear spirit which was originally made from grain especially rice, and is now also made from sweet potatoes. Soju made from grain is considered superior (as is also the case with grain vs. potato vodka). Soju is around 22% ABV and is a favorite beverage of hard-up college students, hard-drinking businessmen, and blue-collar workers.
Yakju is a refined pure liquor fermented from rice, with the best known being cheongju. Takju is a thick unrefined liquor made with grains, with the best known being makkoli (막걸리), a white, milky rice wine traditionally drunk by farmers.
In addition to the rice wine, various fruit wines and herbal wines exist in Korean cuisine. Acacia, maesil plum, Chinese quince, cherry, pine fruits, and pomegranate are most popular. Majuang wine (a blended wine of Korean grapes with French or American wines) and ginseng-based wines are also available.
Many Korean banchan rely on fermentation for flavor and preservation, resulting in a tangy, salty, and spicy taste. Certain regions are especially associated with some dishes (for example, the city of Jeonju with bibimbap) either as a place of origin or for a famous regional variety. Restaurants will often use these famous names on their signs or menus (i.e. "Suwon galbi").
Romanization of Korean words may vary widely, with g/k (eg galbi/kalbi), j/ch, d/t and b/p often used interchangeably.
Gui (grilled dishes) are grilled dishes, which most commonly have meat or fish as their primary ingredient, but may in some cases also comprise grilled vegetables or other vegetarian ingredients. At traditional restaurants, meats are cooked at the center of the table over a charcoal grill, surrounded by various banchan and individual rice bowls. The cooked meat is then cut into small pieces and wrapped with fresh lettuce leaves, with rice, thinly sliced garlic, ssamjang (a mixture of gochujang and dwenjang), and other seasonings. The suffix gui is often omitted in the names of meat-based gui such as galbi, whose name is originally galbi gui.Jjim (찜) and seon (선) (steamed dishes) are generic terms referring to steamed or boiled dishes in Korean cuisine. However, the former is made with meat or seafood-based ingredients marinated in gochujang or ganjang while seon is made with vegetable stuffed with fillings.
Hoe (hö 회) (raw dishes): although the term originally referred to any kind of raw dish, it is generally used to refer to saengseonhoe (생선회, raw fish dishes). It is dipped in gochujang, mustard sauce, or soy sauce with wasabi, and served with lettuce or perilla leaves (깻잎).
Jeon (or buchimgae) are savory pancakes made from various ingredients. Chopped kimchi or seafood is mixed into a wheat flour-based batter, and then fried in an oiled pan. This dish tastes best when it is dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and red pepper powder.
Namul may be used to refer to either saengchae (생채, literally "fresh vegetables") and sukchae (숙채, literally "heated vegetables"), although the term generally indicates the latter. Saengchae is mostly seasoned with vinegar, chili pepper powder, and salt to give a tangy and refreshing taste. On the other hand, sukchae (숙채) literally means "heated vegetables" and is parboiled and seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped garlic, or sometimes chili pepper powder.
Kong Jang Sweet and sticky soyabeans
In South Korea, snack food may be purchased from street carts during the day, where customers may eat standing beside the cart or have their food wrapped up to take home. At night, many streets are filled with small tents that sell inexpensive foods, drinks, and alcoholic beverages. Seasonal snacks include patbingsu, a refreshing iced treat eaten in the summer, and warm soup, gimbap, hotteok, and bungeoppang, which are enjoyed in the fall and winter.