In 1969, Korea allowed imports of rice from the United States. In 1988, the first McDonald’s opened in Seoul.1 National surveys from 1979 to 1996 imply that child obesity has increased.2 The Korean National Nutrition Survey found that in a three year span, the Body Mass Index, or BMI jumped from 20.5% to 26.3%.3 Yet other surveys have shown that South Korea is still one of the healthiest Asian countries to date. This brings to mind what South Koreans are eating and why. Because this topic is quite large, I will separate topic into sections: South Korean Tradition and Cuisine, 20th and 21st Century South Korea Cuisine and the Nutritional Aspect of South Korean Cuisine and a last section to combine all three in a conclusion. The questions I hope to answer in this paper mainly deal with how much has the cultural connections with food changed since the arrival of Western food, if the nutritional aspect of Korea changed for better or for worse and, if Koreans can afford to trade in traditional soy products and other vegetarian sources for Western meat and dairy products without jeopardizing their health as seen in Western countries. In other words, can the Korean people—nutritionally and culturally trade in kimchi and rice for the sake of the ever-popular Big Mac and fries?
Before going any further however, I would like state that in my research, I found many contradicting surveys and charts, which will be saved for the end of this paper. This is normal when conducting scientific research. It is nearly impossible to have a 100% accurate test, with human and machine error a norm. Some tests only had 100 subjects, some 900. Some tests had only elderly people in big cities, others only had women. I will do my best to state those differences before discussing my findings—and to remind the reader that these are all general and should be not be taken as concrete, never- changing truth. Nothing can ever be proved completely. In the world of research, more tests always need to be done. There is also the discrepancy between correlational and casual studies. Correlational studies only find a relationship between two elements, not what causes the relationship. Causal, however, finds a cause. Unfortunately, many publishers will publish findings that have not been peer edited or thoroughly checked for a price, so if you don’t know what to look for in finding the real, scientific article or the one that was paid for to be published and was not edited or looked at by anyone in the science or medical field, articles can deceive you—which may be the case for me, because I am not a scientist. I also refer to South Korea as “Korea” because I did not feel there was enough information to cover North Korea as well.
Korean Tradition and Cuisine
“It is believed that the taste of Korean food is the taste of the harmonization of heaven, earth and man. As one eats kimchi, one eats the universe, and in so doing becomes part of the universe and the universe becomes part of man.”4
Although kimchi, or fermented vegetables, originally came from China, it has become known as the national dish of Korea. The Chinese invented it, but the Koreans made it their own. Before Chinese influence however, the Korean people pickled native vegetables, and “developed and mastered the techniques of salting brining and fermenting”.5 The first reference to kimchi was in the ancient text of the History of the Koryo Dynasty, or the period from 918 AD to 1392 AD, but it is speculated that kimchi was incorporated into Korean culture before that time since Chinese documents state that “cereals, fruits and vegetables were grown in Paekche and Silla as they were in China.”6 The Choson dynasty marked changes in native cuisine, the most important being the introduction of chili peppers by the Portuguese, as well as new vegetables (such as cabbage), herbs and spices. The new vegetables did not grow at first, and Koreans used radishes as the main form of kimchi, but over time the vegetables were acclimated to Korea’s land and weather. Before the introduction of chili peppers, Koreans originally used Japanese fennel or pepper in the brining process, but with the gradual use of chili peppers, they eventually linked chilies to slower spoiling rates and therefore not much salt was needed.7
Throughout the centuries, there have been a number of references to kimchi: there was yakchihi, an eggplant, cucumber and bamboo shoot-pickled concoction that was fried and simmered in soy sauce “seasoned with black pepper, garlic, and green onions.”8 The earliest Korean cookbook known, the Umsik Timibang of the 1670’s, and this cookbook brought Korea the “salt-less fermentation” method. In this method, kimchi, made of wax gourd is pickled in salt, sat on a warm floor in a jar of mustard leaves and pouring warm water over the gourd and allowing it to ferment.9 Another way of “salt-less fermentation was mentioned in the Yorok or Important Records in the same period, but in this case a radish was used, and “immersing the radish in clear water and leaving it for three to four days until a forth develops,”10 and after getting rid of the water, replacing it with new water until the radish ferments to desired stage. The year 1715 brought on categories of kimchi, such as a group preserved in salt and a group that were mainly cucumbers “stuffed with spices and herbs,”11 and as years went on kimchi references increased, along with new vegetables and ingredients and at the beginning of the 20th century, Pan Sin-Yong’s cookbook named Choson Yori Chepop was the first cookbook that gave “detailed explanation, in modern terminology, how to make kimchi.”12 This included the current kimchi, which is widely known—Chinese cabbage with chili peppers and powder.
The cultural connections of kimchi were godly. According to legend, “fermentation was a process controlled by God. If any of the ingredients were to be touched by a thing made of metal (including cutting the vegetables), God would be angry or displeased and would spoil the process.”13 Garlic, another necessary kimchi ingredient, is linked to Dangun, (the bear) the creator of Korea. In folklore he was “born of the union of a heavenly God, Hwanung, the son of the God of all and ruler of Heaven, and a bear who became a woman after eating twenty cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort and staying out of the sunlight for twenty-one days.”14
The second important food in Traditional Korea is rice. Rice is the center of every meal, and is to balance the spiciness of other dishes with something tasteless but with texture.15 Rice is a staple, and symbolizes Korean indigenousness.16 Rice is an everybody food: it was shared from the same pot, Rice comes in many forms: as glutinous rice, rice powder, rice dumplings, rice cake, rice cake soup and rice jelly. Just as kimchi does, rice has spiritual ties: Women were not to drop or waste even a grain of rice, for fear of upsetting the harmony in the kitchen and angering the Gods. Rice and beef were “affluent” in Korean fables.17 Rice cakes are associated with Chusak festival or Harvest Season festival, which were made in honor of good crops and of the spirits of the ancestors who lived in the land. Though rice is not the main ingredient in Dongji Patjuk, it is still essential. During the winter solstice, Dongji Patjuk, or red bean gruel with rice dumplings, is a popular dish that has the power to “dispel bad luck and signal good fortune for the coming year”.18 The cultural meaning behind this gruel comes from a tale called “Kongjui Patjui”, a story similar to the Western fairytale of Cinderella. The heroine, Kongjui Patjui, is orphaned and left in care of her stepmother and step-sisters. She is poorly treated by her step-family because of their jealousy toward her beauty and she is eventually drowned in a pond, but because of her good soul is brought back to life. From this story, the idea that pat (red bean) and kong (bean) are good, just as the human Kongjui Patjui, and possess great powers. The red gruel was used as offering to shrines to ward off evil, and also to gods of the house and kimchi storage areas. Donngji Patjuk was even used to mark doors to try and prevent malicious spirits from entering the house.19Another winter dish is Ogokbap, a rice dish steamed with barley, foxtail millet, and beans. Nuts such as pine nuts and walnuts were added, if found in the forests in the past as source of protein, because in some cases protein sources were scarce in the dead of winter.20 Rice cake soup with peanuts or sesame seeds is even given to the groom after the first night of marriage “for energy.”21
Marriage is the one of most important rites of passage in an adult life. The intricate six stage process of a Korean arranged marriage eventually narrowed to four with multiple tasks associated with a stage: Uihon, or marriage negotiations, Napchae, or the wedding proposal from the groom and groom’s family in the form of a letter, as well as an inquiry of the bride’s birthday and name, Nappye, or the blessing of a good match and immediate announcement to both families. The groom’s side is then to send the bride gifts along with a letter stating the date of the wedding day. During the gift receiving period, Bong Chatteok, or rice cake, is served by the bride’s family during the custom of receiving the gifts and letter of confirmation. The two layer rice cake, said to be reminiscent of husband and wife in marriage—two people—usually consists of glutinous rice, which is supposed to represent harmony in married life, red beans, which discourage evil spirits and demons from ruining a marriage, the last touches are seven jujubes (also known as Chinese dates) and chestnuts which are placed on top to the rice cake, both symbolizing “abundant progeny in marriage.”22 The jujubes and chestnuts are saved for consumption until the day before the wedding ceremony. Finally, there is Chinyeng, the actual wedding ceremony.23 The wedding feast table, or Daeryesang, is filled with foods associated with luck, fertility, longevity of life and marriage as well as fidelity. Rice, again, is served and is a symbol of wealth, while jujubes mean long life and chestnuts with chicken mean fertility. Though there are most likely variations on the foods at wedding ceremonies, according to region and availability of food, chestnuts, jujubes, white and red beans were a staple. White rice cakes were molded into dragons, typically one yellow, and the other blue. After the wedding, the new bride was brought to the groom’s house to visit and offer foods to prove her worth in cooking. This prepared food is called Pyebeck. The father in law usually received a “necklace” of Daechugoin, or jujubes, pine nuts and chestnuts wrapped in red cloth. The mother in law was given Yukpo and Pyepo, two dishes of beef and Gomyeondak, or baked chicken with vegetable sides. Often, squid was cut into rose-shapes and wrapped in blue cloth. Again, jujubes and chestnuts have the dual meaning of fertility and longevity, as well as the preservation of family line—the jujube plant is notoriously strong and is more fertile when the wind is rough, and the chestnut tree has but a single root and if re-planted will die. As with the wedding table feast, Pyebeck food varies from region to region. In Seoul, beef is cooked for both parents and along with jujubes are sides of fish eggs, boiled octopus or squid. Pickled abalone, fried walnuts or gingko nuts, raw chestnuts and lotus roots in honey are also options. In Gangwon-do, the mother in law is presented with jujubes and rice jelly while the father is offered chicken and tofu. In Jeolla-do, jujubes, pheasant and chicken wrapped red and blue cloth are a common gift. In Jejudo, there are boiled pig’s feet, and in the Gyeonysangbuk-area, rice jelly and chestnuts are given to the mother—the chestnuts are served whole, so she has something to keep her busy, and the rice jelly is to stick her mouth shut if the new bride has an overly talkative mother in law.24
Also of note is that during the 1469 to 1494 period of Seongjong, according to the King of Joseon, the number of dishes on a wedding table were not to be more than seven for royal weddings and no more than five for commoners. This brings us to the next part of traditional Korean culture: the differences between royal court and middle-class cooking.25
The feudal era of Korea marked a sharp distinction between royalty and the common folk. This is especially seen in cuisine. The cuisine of royalty was complex, with “a large variety of ingredients, along with elegant table seating, procedures and the seasonings and spices.”26 The home cooked meals of the commoners, however, were simple and generally lacked the table settings and special procedures. The main meals were breakfast and dinner, with breakfast usually the largest meal of the day. Lunch was light and simple—even its meaning in Korean means “only to lighten your heart”. This tradition was shared by both royalty and commoners: “during the days of the courts, breakfast and dinner were formal affairs, but lunch consisted of only a plain dish of noodles or rice gruel mixes with red beans, peanuts, sesame seeds and pine nuts.27 Table settings of the royal courts generally were in combinations of seven, nine and twelve (save in the case of weddings) and in the middle and lower class houses, dishes were usually three, five and seven sets. An example of a typical seven dish set would be the first dish of fried egg-coated fish, the second broiled meat or seaweed, the third soup with tofu or crab meat, the fourth codfish, the fifth salted oysters or salted shellfish, the sixth vegetables such as radish, eggplants or flowery ferns and the last dish, raw fish or meat. The royal dish sets would be similar, presumably with more spices and seasonings, but the other two dishes would by a sukiyaki beef, with a mixture of fish and beef with beef intestine and vegetables. The last dish would be dessert—wine and fresh fruit.28 Note that rice and kimchi are not considered a separate dish but are always there, perhaps like the Western bread and butter, or the Japanese rice and sukemono. Another example of the differences of royal and common dishes is Kongguksu and Kkaeguksu—Kongguksu being bean noodle soup and Kkaeguksu being sesame noodle soup. Kongguksu ingredients are noodles, beans, peanuts, salt, eggs and cucumber and this was a common middle class soup, while Kkaeguksu, the royal court soup, called for noodles, sesame seeds, chicken, fried eggs, cucumbers, ginger root, spring onion and garlic.29 The core of both soups is the same—noodles, eggs, and cucumber—but the royal courts added chicken and lots of spices to make a heartier soup.
The wedding customs—from pre-wedding gifts to the wedding feast table—have distinct use of color in the steps, whether the red cloth used to wrap chicken or the yellow rice cake dragon at the wedding feast table. Kimchi calls for the use of many spices and herbs and is used to clear the palate before going to another dish. Finally, as seen in the common seven dish set meal, all the tastes are covered: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and hot. The five colors—red, green, white, yellow and black along with the five tastes correlated with the Korean cosmology. The colors were linked to cardinal directions, and even to time and space. According to the Kimchee Cookbook, Ohunch’ae, was the best Korean dish to symbolize this relationship:
“The o part [of Ohunch’ae] of the name means five, and the hunch’ae stands for strong herbs such as scallions, garlic and chives, plants that Korean folk tradition regards as possessing the cosmic power of harmonizing and blending. At the vernal equinox, the king would grant his retainers gifts of Ohunch’ae: the herbs would be arranged with the yellow one in the middle and the green, white, read and black ones placed around it in the order corresponding east, west, south and north. The act of mixing these together and eating them represented the political concept of all the various factions on the outside being united under the king (the yellow center).”30
However, while the middle class consumed the same dish, the colors had a different meaning: the green color of chives and other vegetables represented benevolence, red was “politeness”, yellow for “fidelity,” white for “righteousness” and finally black for “wisdom”.31 Not only did these colors represent the five consistent virtues of Confucianism, but they even represented the organs of the body—green was the spleen, red was the lungs, yellow was the heart, white was the liver and black was the kidneys. It was believed that eating a good balance of all these “colors” in foods would not only keep you morally correct, but also healthy.32
The delicacy known as Dasik is another cultural icon. Dasik are “a press formed confectionary made of sesame seeds, chestnuts, mung bean flour, grain, syrup and honey”.33 The day to day trials of farming not only affected men, but affected women also, who not only prepared food and raised children, but helped their husbands in the fields. The Korean government, recognizing the hard labor and diligence of the people, decided to create a holiday to “promote healthy family life and freedom from daily burden”34 On these holidays, Dasik was made and shared not only with the family, but used as offerings to ancestors for worship. Designs on the Dasik were to symbolize the family name. The colors of Dasik matched the cardinal colors: yellow Dasik, for example, was made from pine pollen.
The spiritual connections between eating and religion are through the deceased. The deceased is said to live on through those on earth, and that what the living eat, so do the dead. People were to only eat what was local to maintain “cosmic harmony”35and the “symbolic eating of food that first has been offered in ancestor worships in ceremonies”36 or Umbok needs to consist of foods that ancestors are familiar with, so that the descent line is ensured and it was also believed that “sharing food not only promotes solidarity not only among the living, also between the ancestors and their descendents.”37 It is also important to add that during funerals, no spicy food was allowed, which suggests that Koreans cannot enjoy their food in respect of their relative or friend who has died and can no longer directly enjoy theirs.38
20th and 21st Century Korean Cuisine and the West
“As for cheese, I have yet to meet a Korean who could truthfully say that he loved cheese”—Judy Hyun, 1970
The Korean War was a time of starvation, malnutrition, and all around suffering for the Korean people. In order to survive, the Korean people found rarely used food sources to keep healthy and satiated. Muk, a common Korean dish during the war “when food was hard to find”39, was gelatin with either a dotorimuk (acorn), cheungpomuk (mung bean) or memilmuk (buckwheat) base. Either of the bases were dried, boiled in water and after congealing, was mixed with soy sauce, garlic and other seasonings. Acorn gelatin was especially common during the Korean War, and mung bean gelatin noodles were associated with special occasions. 40
Another unusual source of sustenance is flowers. Farmers would boil cabbages without taking the flowers off and “eat them as a tender and tasty side dish”. The pollen of pine trees, also used in the aforementioned Dasik, was made into caplets and was commonly consumed because of their good amounts of protein. Pumpkin flowers, blossoms, roses and rape flowers were often eaten as well, either as teas or put on pancakes. Acacia and azalea leaves and petals were the most popular flower pancakes. Even liquors, such as soju were made of apricot petals, azalea and honeysuckle.41
Though in 1969 Korea allowed rice to be imported from America, Korean cuisine had little change and little exposure to Western foods. Any exposure was from the media, and a strong sense of anti-Americanism soon followed. According to Judy Hyun, an author in the 1970s, Korea had no dairy market and said that from the latest statistics, eighty-five percent of protein intake was from fish.42 A decade later, however, anti-Americanism sentiment and statistics such as eighty-five percent of protein from fish would change drastically.43
The 1980s brought the Western fast food culture to Korea. Although the first McDonald’s in Korea was built in 1988, Korea already recognized the big yellow arches from television and other media. They had similar fast food restaurants such as McKiver’s, McDonny’s and Winner’s Burger—the latter even imitating the American McDonald’s arches by using 2 upside down arches as their logo.44 Similarly, anti-Americanism was rapidly fading and “cultural symbols associated with internationalization and globalism were rapidly gaining popularity during the preparation of the 1986 Asian games and 1988 Olympics.”45 With the new feelings of wanting to be a part of international relations, however, where were the feelings of nationalism and indigenousness to go? There was a basic vacillation between being nationalistic or globalistic. After the first McDonald’s opened in 1988 in Akudong-jong, an expensive and trendy district of Seoul, a number of conflicts occurred. Some saw the Big Mac and Apple pies as “cultural and economic treason”46, while others saw the new restaurant similar to “leisure centers, where people can retreat from the stresses of urban life.”47 The typical urban father no longer had time for his children and wife, leaving them time to enjoy the life of restaurants, malls and fast food.48 Farmers began to lose their authority and dominance over what people bought for food.
A huge debate over profits ensued. Was the goal of McDonald’s to help the Korean economy or to make America richer? Managers defended themselves, and said that the Korean business environment was “so complicated that foreigners could not hope to survive on their own,”49 thus quelling the fears of American takeover.
Though not all McDonald’s are a family-type setting and have a relaxed atmosphere, Koreans began to like the feeling of “unrelenting predictability”50 but with one significant cultural change: the employees of McDonald’s sit customers at already occupied tables to maximize space and indirectly pressure customers to eat faster so that the turnover rate will be faster. However, Korean customers generally were positive towards this method because it is considered rude to ask to sit down at an already occupied table and even more rude to sit down with no words.51 Another cultural change is that it was ok to eat alone in McDonald’s, but if you were in a Korean restaurant, you would be looked upon as lonely or anti-social.
The viewpoint of McDonald’s was different for males and females in the 1990’s. For every three men, seven women went to McDonald’s. Men saw the place as one for children, which made them feel uncomfortable. A factor of this is the custom of the husbands and fathers getting together and competing to see who would pay for the entire table—in McDonald’s you pay up front instead of receiving a bill at the end of a meal. Women, on the other side, liked McDonald’s for its safe atmosphere and prohibition of alcohol.52
After McDonald’s, the rest of the fast food chain that originated in Korea were no longer considered real American food and the restaurants began to change their menus to agree with Korean native tastes. The bulgogi burger, for example, bulgogi being Korean marinated beef or meat, was created. Uncle Joe’s Hamburger introduced kimchi into their hamburgers and this marked the hamburger from being a mere snack into a substantial meal. Although bread came to Korea in the 1800s and meat had always been part of the basic diet, the bread outweighed the meat in this case and because it had never been emphasized as part of the diet, hamburgers were thought of as snack food. At that time, Kimchi then, was still a must to make a meal a true meal. To fight the “snack food” label, McDonald’s brought out the Value Meal, which included a drink and fries to combat the idea of McDonald’s being something to munch on before the real meal with kimchi and rice.53
Although hamburgers and McDonald’s were not localized until the 21st century, other western food was not seen as a threat: instant coffee, spam and cheese to name a few. In fact spam was used as a gift in the 1990’s: it was “sliced and covered with an egg batter and fried like minced beef or pork in traditional cuisine, eaten with rice”54
In a 1992 survey using 20 to 24 year old women in Korea, it was found that out of the 300 asked, 87 women consumed the traditional breakfast of kimchi, rice, soup meat or fish, and 3 ate western bread or pastries—the rest either had something uncommon or nothing at all.55
The 21st century marked full international position in Korea, and along with it, international criticism of Korean cuisine. In 2003, an estimated four to six thousand restaurants served dishes with dog meat, even though it was illegal to do so. In 1997 however, it was deemed as socially acceptable—but for home eating, not for restaurants. The International Fund for Animal Welfare claimed that two million dogs were processed every year for the Korean industry alone. Korea has been known to purchase Canadian bear gall bladder, especially in Seoul, because it was “believed to enhance sexual energy.”56 The 2001 Gold Craze of Korea found food establishments serving food and drink sprinkled with gold dust or flakes to customers who thought that gold aided in cleaning out wastes throughout the body. This brought a backlash of public discontent with the upper class, to the point where the government took notice and banned the use gold dust and flakes on food, and only allowed them to be used for coloring and in drinks.57 According to a documentary on Korea from PBS in 2000 only fifty percent of protein intake was from fish, a thirty-five percent decrease from the 1970s. The once sacred and meaningful rites of ibaji, when the new bride cooks for her new family, as previously discussed, are now “losing much of its original meaning under the pretext of simplifying and not being bound to formalities…many people provide to traditional wedding food without understanding the meaning.”58 Ogokbap, once a good source of nutrients in the winter, has “become increasingly popular as a result of people’s growing interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”59 Finally, the “no dairy” Korea has it’s own dairy industry: according to the Namyang Dairy Corporation whose business began on March 13th, 1964 now has a 245 million income annually and according to a 2001 estimate of sales over eighty four thousand units of yoghurt was sold, over 120 thousand of milk and the other products, such as cheese and butter summed up to 136,121 units.60 However, an opinion columnist for the Korean Times wrote a scathing commentary of milk and dairy saying that “milk is the perfect nutritional drink—if you happen to be a calf” and that “milk clogs vital organs”.61 Like the different views of McDonald’s, there is a contradiction—while there are those who shun dairy, the annual income of dairy says otherwise.