…Korean Cuisine Makes Waves…

Around the world, Korean food is no longer seen as just “a hot and spicy dishes from an East Asian country”. After discovering a range of healthy and delicious dishes in Korean restaurants the world over, people have come to realize the diversity of Korean fare. While some ingredients and preparation techniques are similar to those found else-where, Korean cuisine truly embodies the nation’s culture. Furthermore, the many fermented dishes that are part of meals have recently gained prominence as part of the “slow food” movement, leaving little doubt that Korean flavors are making waves overseas.

The Korean government has deemed the years from 2010 to 2012 as a “Visit Korea” period. What are the must-eat dishes to sample at the numerous events taking place during this period in the country? It can be daunting to see just how many menus can hold, so a recommendation or two from those in the know can really help. A survey by a Korean newspaper last year found that foreign residents in Korea enjoyed 불고기 (barbecued beef) best, followed by 갈비 (grilled short ribs), and 비빔밥 (rice mixed with meat and vegetables).

Recently, Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) and the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MIFAFF) conducted a survey of people’s favorite dishes at Korean restaurants overseas, and the following, in order, were the top 10: 김치 (and 김치찌개), 비빔밥, 한정식 (a traditional, full-course Korean meal), 갈비, 불고기, 삼겹살 (sliced pork belly), 삼계탕 (ginseng and chicken soup), 냉면 (chilled buckwheat noodles), 해물파전 (seafood and green onion pancakes), and 떡 (rice cakes). This would suggest, then, that it’s high time people put aside their fear of unknown dishes and embraced new flavors.

Interestingly enough, those top 10 Korean dishes are not solely confined to Korean restaurants anymore, as their tastes make them popular with palates on all continents. Sick of eating processed food and quick bites in between meals, people all over the world are turning their attention to “slow food” (as opposed to fast food). That’s were 김치 and other fermented foods come in, as well as Korean barbecue, pizzas and chicken soups, all of which are becoming recognized globally. As Korean foods take up more space on people’s tables, and people give them a closer look, the subtleties of the dishes will inevitably be revealed.

SLOW AND STEADY
Visit a Korean’s home and you’re sure to come across a home appliance unique to this part of the world: the kimchi fridge. Koreans have a regular refrigerator to keep their food cool and another one to store their kimchi. Traditionally, Koreans made kimchi in the autumn and buried it underground to let it ferment. These days, however, the majority of Koreans live in apartment buildings and do not have a yard in which to bury their kimchi. Thus, the birth of the kimchi refrigerator, which recreates conditions similar to those underground, maintaining an average temperature of 1 C.

Kimchi is easily the most famous of fermented Korean food. Though cabbage is the most well known variety, kimchi made with radishes or cucumbers are also popular, all of which use the formula of mixing salt, red pepper flakes, crushed garlic, green onions, ginger, soy sauce and fermented fish together. Fermented kimchi is healthy and nutritious, as it contains a wide range of vitamins.

Other Korean fermented foods such as soybean paste (된장), 고추장 (red pepper paste) and soy sauce have been thrust into the spotlight as the perfect slow foods. The history of the term dates back to 1986, when the international slow food movement got its start in Italy. The message of the movement was to promote a return to a traditional diet. Fed up with fast and instant foods, people who used to be obsessed with speed and convenience are now returning to more natural ingredients that agree with the human body. “The slow food movement has led to a decline in American fast food, which in turn has given way to emerging slow food fromAsia,” says Jeong Hye-gyeong, a professor at Hoseo University. “New trends have seen healthier food finding its way onto the tables of people around the world. In the near future, healthy, eco-friendly foods will be the norm.”

There is no doubt that fermented foods have been a part of diets in both the East and West for millenia. Long ago, Western cultures developed wines, beers, cheeses and yogurts as their own healthy fermented food products. But when it comes to things that are “slow and patient”, nothing quite matches the variety of Korean cuisine. “There’s nothing out there like Korean food,” insists Jeong. “We have slow food like no one else. Korean soy sauces and soybean pastes are usually preserved at least one year before they’re consumed, with some aged as long as 60 years. There aren’t a lot of people who can wait that long. Koreans, however, embody slow food.”

These “slow” fermented ingredients are a fundamental part of the national cuisine – not merely an afterthought. Most meals and side dishes include a fermented ingredient. Among stews, 김치찌개 (kimchi stew) and 된장찌개 (fermented soybean paste stew) are popular. When people make 국, a basic Korean soup, with kimchi or soybean paste, salt and soy sauce are added to season it as well. Then there’s 비빔밥, which would not be complete without 고추장. Essentially, if you sit down to have a traditional Korean meal, it would be nearly impossible to avoid all the fermented foods present on the table. Korean food is, fundamentally, a hodgepodge of slow foods.

UNIVERSAL TRAITS
The top 10 Korean foods which non-natives like most have more in common than just fermentation. The ingredients that go into the dishes and how they’re made are fairly universal, as it’s common to find barbecue, pizzas, soups and noodles in dishes from other countries. Beef and pork are universal ingredients, save those nations which refrain from incorporating them in their cuisine for religious reasons. Barbecued foods and steak are popular around the world, so 불고기, 갈비, and 삼겹살 have become popular with people in other countries. People overseas enjoy Korean meat dishes not just for their familiar ingredients, but for the original recipes used to prepare the food.

As Professor Jeong explains, “Western meat dishes are simple, served rare, medium or well-done. That’s it. However, Korean meat dishes agree with foreign palates because of the many unique ways in which they’re delicately prepared.”

불고기 is made by taking thin slices of sirloin or other cuts of beef and marinating it in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, green onions, garlic, toasted sesame seeds, ginger, pepper and sesame oil. It is then fried in a pan before serving. 갈비, or sliced short ribs, is marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, green onions and pear. However, it’s different from 불고기 in that it’s grilled over a charcoal fire or braised. Additionally, the seasoning goes dep into the meat’s tissue, suffusing it with the uniquely original smells and flavors of Korean cuisine. And don’t forget about the grilled fatback of 삼겹살, which remainds many of unsmoked bacon and is also cooked in its own way. Koreans grill the slices of pork belly on a tabletop grill before wrapping it with an assortment of vegetables.

삼계탕 is a traditional Korean meal eaten by many to beat the heat of summer. Similar to the broth of chicken noddle soup, samgyetang’s health benefits are unparalleled. After removing its innards, the chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, and jujubes and then boiled for hours. Ginseng, that mysterious root whose positive effects on the human body are still being uncovered to this day, is also added, making samgyetang as much a tonic as a delicious meal. 해물파전, which resembles a pizza or pancake in appearance, is made by adding oysters, squid and clams to a mixture of chopped green onions, hot peppers and flour dough. It is then fried on a pan and eaten while still hot.

Korean traditional rice cakes, 떡, are made by steaming pounded or glutinous rice. Seasoning it with nuts, fruits and herbs makes it highly nutritious. Then there are all the different noodles, which come in a whole slew of shapes and sizes: the pasta of Italy, the rice noodles of Vietnam, the udon of Japan and the chow mein of China. Of the many kinds of Korean noodles, 냉면, buckwheat noodles seasoned with sliced cucumbers, radishes and pears, and topped with a boiled egg in a chilled broth of beef or chicken, is one of the most popular.

SEEDS OF GLOBALIZATION
A recent survey found that 60 percent of foreign residents in Korea believe Korean food has the potential to go global. One Japanese housewife loves kimchi so much, she not only has a kimchi fridge but makes her own kimchi! Perhaps the globalization of Korean food has already begun. The Korean government aims at accelerating the further globalization of the national cuisine. Indeed, the government’s bold new goal is to make the domestic fare one of the world’s five most favorite foods within a decade, and increase the number of Korean restaurants around the world from its present number, 10,000 to 40,000.

In May 2009, the government formed a “Korean Cuisine to the World” group, and a Korean Cuisine Foundation is in the works as well. Related government agencies including the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism have vowed to cooperate with civic groups to nurture the brand of Korean food.

Behind the sweeping culinary movement lie the universal traits of the cuisine and its potential to become globally recognized. It is only a matter of time before the seeds of Korean food grow into a strong, global tree. With an open mind to new cultures and an interest in following a healthy diet, people are being encouraged to join this movement to make this unique food more popular and accessible in every corner of the world.

Source : Korea People & Culture Magazine, March 2010.

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