From the earliest known pottery makers of 8,000 BC, through the evolution of city-states and kingdoms from scattered tribal villages and nomadic barbarians, to modern day civilization, Korea has a very rich and colorful history that spans thousands of years.
The earliest peoples of the Korean peninsula were small bands of hunter-gatherers, likely no larger than a few family groups, and were probably at least semi-nomadic in that they followed the food supplies. As the population increased, these bands formed into tribes, some of which began to settle down in certain areas where there was enough food to support them. These settled tribes began to build small villages and develop small scale agriculture. A few animals were domesticated, and the villages grew larger.
As the villages grew, both violent conflict and peaceful trade occurred. Some villages began to ally with other nearby Clans or tribes for mutual support against common enemies, while others grew into the forerunners of city-states. The increase in population in these areas led to more intensive agriculture and further domestication of food animals.
The concentration of more people also allowed for a more rapid exchange of ideas. Advances in woodworking, tool making, and pottery began to accelerate. With these advances, new ways of preparing and preserving foods began to occur. Milling of grains, cooking vessels that could be placed over fire or coals, and the discovery of salt as a preservative began to change the foods that were prepared and consumed by the people.
Over time, the allied villages and the walled towns grew into federated tribes and eventually into kingdoms. While this was happening, metalworking was discovered or introduced through trade. First bronze and later iron weapons, tools, and vessels spread throughout the peninsula. Trade with more distant people and lands began to occur, both over land and over water. This led to further changes in cooking as exotic foods and methods from far distant lands made their way into Korea.
Warfare between city-states was fairly common as one faction or another sought for greater control over and or tribute from other factions. Captured peoples were often kept as slaves and workers, while defeated enemies were incorporated into or paid tribute to the victor. This merging of tribes and city-states also melded the cuisines of the peoples involved in the conflict.
Three Kingdoms of Korea
Korean Kingdoms grew to such power that they controlled territory from the southern end of the peninsula to the south-central portions of Manchuria. Pressures from Han China to the north and east and the Lelang Commandery to the west caused shifting alliances as the different powers contended for control of the region. Before Korea broke up into following three different kingdoms, it was one single state known as Gojoseon:
Koguryo, also written as Goguryeo, is the largest of three kingdoms. It was considered as the Federation of the cities, spreading from the North Korean peninsula to Manchuria. From different researches, it seems that Koguryo was first of the three kingdoms to have real power – as it had advanced technology, culture, and political system. Due to its firm base power and strength, Koguryo became the protector of the Korean peninsula that guarded smallest Korean kingdoms against the Chinese invasion. Although Koguryo’s relationship with China was far from antagonistic, it maintained a very close relationship with China in terms of politics, economics, and religion – Koguryo even adopted Buddhism from China in the 4th century.
The kingdom established many things like it shortened its name to Goryeo or Koryo (from the name Korea) to show a connection with Korea.
Paekche, also written as Baekje, was situated in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula. It was founded as a member of the Mahan confederacy. The kingdom was a result of a succession conflict between the two sons of Goguryeo’s founder. Paekche was located in such an area that it was closely connected with China, Japan, Silla, and Koguryo. The kingdom also fought wars against these other cultures but held a strong position of the cultural intermediary between the Asian kingdoms.
It was through Paekche that Buddhism reached Japan from China, and the Chinese characters spread across the whole Asia.
Paekche was considered once a great military power on the Korean peninsula, especially during the reign of Geunchogo, but he was badly defeated by Gwanggaeto the great and declined. In the late 5th century, Goguryeo attacked Paekche due to which its capital was forced to move south to Ungjin and later south to Sabi.
In 57 B.C.E, Silla, formerly known as Seorabeol or Saro, situated in the southeast of the peninsula, expanded and unified the union of city-states known as Jinhan. Different records have different histories about Silla – according to Samguk-Sagi, Silla was the earliest-founded of the three kingdoms, while archaeological records indicate that Silla was founded in the last of three kingdoms to establish a centralized government.
The kingdom’s name was renamed from Saro to Silla in 503 C.E., and it deepened its relations with the Tang dynasty to cope with the invasions from Paekche and Goguryeo. The direct contact with Tang was made possible due to the newly-gained access to the Yellow Sea. Silla, after the conquest of Paekche and Goguryeo with its Tang allies, moved the Tang forces out of the Peninsula and took over the lands of Pyongyang (southern side).
Buddhism reached Silla as the official religion in 528. According to the Archaeological findings and unique gold metalwork found in the Kingdom of Silla, people of Silla were inspired by the northern nomadic steppes, unlike Paekche and Goguryeo where Chinese influence prevailed.
Korean Temple Cuisine
Buddhism made its way from India into Korea and was fully embraced by the most powerful kingdoms. With the spread of Buddhism, eating of meat was banned throughout much of the land, which led to the increased development of primarily vegetarian cuisine. This was the probable origin of the many small vegetable dishes that are known today as namul dishes.
The Buddhist influence began its decline with the Mongol invasions of Manchuria and Korea. Mongol rule ended the proscription against eating meat and brought many new food influences. Western trade with China filtered into Korea, and contact with other lands increased. Traders and adventurers from Korea visited other countries and brought back exotic items, foods, and animals that were introduced to the Royal houses. Eventually, contact with the west introduced the chili pepper to Korea, and Korean cuisine as it is known today began to develop.
As eating meat is strictly prohibited in Buddhism, the Korean temple food does not use any animal products except dairy products. The monks and nuns are also not allowed to use five pungent vegetables: onion, garlic, chives, leeks, and green onions – this is because the Buddhists believe that these vegetables hinder spiritual practice. Three types of food are eaten at Korean temples, i.e. natural food, preserved food, and fermented food. Here’s detailed information regarding these three types:
Prohibition of the five pungent vegetables protect the Buddhist practitioners from possible distractions during their meditation. Also, this prohibition prevents practitioners from developing an attachment to the flavor of strong spices that can later disturb their practice.
Korean temple food uses different types of mountain herbs and wild greens instead of artificial flavors that has led to the development of a vegetarian tradition. Most Korean temples are located in the mountains, which provide easy access to fresh wild roots, leaves, stems, flowers, and fruits. Unlike the general seasonings we use, Korean temple food uses natural seasonings and flavor enhancers such as mushroom powder, Jae-pi powder, perilla seed powder, kelp powder, and uncooked bean powder.
These seasonings enhance the flavor of the food and correct their nutritional imbalance – they are used when making kimchi, soup stock, and vegetable dishes.
Korea has four seasons; all kinds of vegetables and plants are available in the spring. Monks and nuns have developed various techniques to preserve food and keep these healthy plants and vegetables safe for the winter. Best Korean preserved temple food includes kimchi, Jang, Jang-a-jji, red pepper paste and soybean paste, vegetable preserved in vinegar and salt or only salt, etc.
The benefit of these preserved foods is that they can be used for a long time in the off-season, without losing all that nutritional value.
Korean temple food is entirely different from the food in the west. For example, if west’s typical fermented food is yogurt, cheese, and wine, then Kimchi, soybean paste, soy sauce, vinegar, rice punch, pine needle tea, and red chili pepper paste are Korea’s fermented food.
The process of fermentation doesn’t just add a savory flavor to the food, but it also lowers the cholesterol level, incorporates cancer-inhibiting qualities, and provides a shield against age-related diseases.
Advances in architecture and the spread of heating technology from the noble house to common homes further influenced Korean home cuisine. The increasing commoner’s use of ondol heating, a method for heating the floors of homes, changed the community style cooking areas to private home kitchen areas. Cooking vessels that could be used over the ventilation openings for wood (and later charcoal) heating systems were developed.
Modern advances such as refrigeration, the introduction of gas heating and cooking, and global trade made many more advances in cuisine possible, resulting in the incredibly rich and complex Korean cuisine of today.
According to the Chinese theories, an L-shaped ondol was common during the Goguryeo period – It provided partial heating to the room. Later, it evolved into full-room ondol in the Goryeo period. After this period was ended, the ondol was already widespread to the entire Korean peninsula.
Another word for ondol is Gudeul, which means baked stone. Ondol is also known for its health benefits, which have been documented in Korean history as well. According to a record, the king ordered the Gyeongsang provincial minister to let a person named Lee stay on the ondol for a while to ward off illness. It is also suitable for the elderly and women recovering from childbirth.
Best Korean Dishes That They Can’t Live Without
Korean cuisine is known for having some of the healthiest foods on the menu. The dishes are simple but have pungent flavors and odors. This is mainly because many Korean banchan are made by fermentation, which adds intense and savory flavors to the food items. Although, Korean cuisine has evolved due to the cultural changes, here are some dishes that are essential to the Korean heart and digestive tract:
As the name suggests, the hangover stew or salguk is a soup to chase a hangover. It is made from a beef broth, with delicious bean sprouts, cabbage, radish, and chunks of congealed ox blood. This bold stew works wonders by kick-starting one’s inactive brain in the morning after a hangover.
The fact that there are more than 100 varieties of kimchi makes this dish extra-special in Korean cuisine. This fantastic dish dates back to the Silla dynasty. If you ever go to any Korean restaurant, this beloved spicy sidekick will surely be seen in their menus. Though there are many varieties of kimchi, the most basic one is made by salting and preserving fermented cabbage, adding spice paste, garlic, ginger, pepper, and scallion. Then, finally, packing the kimchi into the jar.
Soft Tofu Stew
This is one of the most popular stews in Korean cuisine that has unexpected flavor combinations made from soft tofu, clams, and an egg in a spicy broth. It is overall a spicy stew, but the soft tofu that breaks into chunks in the stew holds the amazing taste of the clam while serving as a relief from all that spiciness.
The egg is cracked inside a pot of piping hot soft tofu stew when it’s made – this makes the egg cooked inside the stew.
Samgyeopsal, also known as grilled pork belly is a type of gui in Korean cuisine that is mixed with a spicy red chilli pepper paste and grilled and dipped in a mixture salt and sesame oil before consuming.
This is originally a Chinese dish, but the Koreans have modified it by taking the noodles and making it a bit thick – it is such an important dish for Koreans that they eat it at least once a weak.
Chinmaek is not actually a dish but a combination of two popular mundane foods: chicken and beer. The name is short for chicken and maekju (bear). This pairing makes the dish so popular that millions of Koreans eat it every weekend. Did you know that Korea has a rich history of beer making including the popular Hite beer brand.
Also known as soy sauce crab, this slightly tangy, pungent, and tantalizingly bitter dish may taste weird to the first-timers. But the South Koreans love gejang so much that they would keep eating more rice so that they can have more gejang.
Some more famous Korean foods and dishes:
The Rise of K-Pop (Korean Pop) Culture
Korean Pop, also known as K-pop is a musical genre, which is a part of the Korean wave called “Hallyu” – it originated in South Korea at the beginning of the 21st century and influenced Korea and the whole world in terms of contemporary culture, film, television industry, music, and food. Although the Korean traditions go a long way back to the ancient times, there is a massive American influence on the millennials that seems to overrule the old traditions in terms of lifestyle, food, and music.
The power of K-pop can be judged by a single song “Gangnam Style” by PSY, released in 2012. It took the online media by storm, becoming the most viewed video on YouTube back in 2017. Now, the South Korean music industry is more than a 5-billion dollar industry. To become a K-pop idol, one must have to enroll as a trainee in a top agency and work hard on his/her choreography, acting, vocals, language skills, and appearance. This wave affected the eating habits of South Koreans – they started preferring western foods and things that made them look cool.
Here are some most popular foods eaten by k-pop idols:
- Burgers and Pizza
- KBBQ (Korean BBQ)
- Fried Chicken
- Pork & Chicken Feet
Western Influence on Korean Cuisine
If you ever visit Korea, you would see various western fast food chains like Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. Westernized food has become so much common in Korea that people would prefer eating those rather than their traditional Korean food. If we compare the present of Korean cuisine with the good old days when Koreans could not imagine eating anything without red pepper powder, soybean paste, and other Korean traditional spices, we will see a drastic change in current Korean cuisine that has been mostly westernized.
Some restaurants in Korea offer a combination of Korean and western food such as kimchi pizza. The pizza is either topped with lots of vegetables and meats or just the kimchi itself. Western influence on Korean cuisine can also be seen through a well-known fusion food, Carbonara rice cake. The Korean version of this dish consists of rice cake cooked with spicy chili paste while its westernized version is much milder and acts as a stomach-soothing food.
Korean Food Culture Today
Due to drastic western influence on Korean culture, Korean cuisine has also affected profoundly. According to the stats of NSO (National Statistical Offer), the rice consumption decreased from 1985, 128.1KG per-capita annually, to 83.2KG in 2003. This is because people rush toward fast foods including processed foods and instant foods.
Since McDonald’s and other international food chains entered Korea in mid-to-late 1980s around the time of summer Olympics, the Koreans have developed special liking for fast foods. These chains of fast food have already become a significant part of modern food culture in Korea. Even though western foods are seen everywhere on the streets of the big cities, traditional Korean food culture has not removed yet. In fact, Koreans keep a successful balance between both cultures (traditional and western).
South Korean Culture VS North Korean Culture
There’s no such term as “Korean” from a Korean’s perspective. It’s either South Korean or North Korean. Since Korea got divided into two parts, there has been a lot going on in both the parts that have affected the lives and cultures of Koreans. One can clearly see a difference in terms of:
- Traditional foods
- Traditional clothing
North Korea’s cuisine comprises of classic dishes that haven’t been changed through time. While South Korea’s traditional dishes are still very popular there, but the US and other international foods have made South Korean dishes more diverse and modernized. Although both North and South Korea share the same peninsula, the climates and economic conditions are dissimilar.
North Korea has a long winter and short summer that negatively affects their agricultural production while South Korea’s got a longer growing season that ensures fresh vegetables and better-nourished livestock. Also, South Korea has significantly higher per capita income, which means they have better restaurants and are higher on the quality-food scale.
Interesting Facts about Korean Cuisine
Types of kimchi
If you know anything about Korean cuisine, you must be familiar with kimchi, which is one of the most popular dishes in Korea. But did you know that there are hundreds of varieties of Kimchi available? All of them are delicious and fun to make!
Taxes were paid by using rice
Everyone loves rice, and it has always been fundamental in Korean cooking since its cultivation. Due to its increased demand, the value of rice once became so high that people during the three kingdom period in Silla started using it as currency to pay taxes. Rice was considered as a luxury dish, and the farmers who cultivated it, couldn’t eat it.
Temple food has a fantastic touch of royal cuisine
The Korean temple food has some same food items that you can see in the royal cuisine menu in a Korean restaurant. This is because back then in the ancient times when a kitchen maid got too old, she would leave her job to work as a nun in a temple and cooked a lot of food from the royal cuisine’s menu in the temples.
A massive quantity of banchan was served
Banchan is a side dish served along with cooked Korean rice. In ancient times, the number of banchan giving during/with meals was equal to the diner’s status. Anywhere around four to twelve side dishes accompanied the main course. The more interesting fact is that the kings would have over 100 varieties of banchan on their dinner table.
Koreans use metal chopsticks
Unlike Japan, China, Thailand, and Indonesia that use wooden chopsticks, Korea uses them in metal. There are many theories linked with this interesting fact – one of them is that royal people during Paekche period started using chopsticks made of silver as a way of protecting them from getting poisoned by their enemies. Unlike wooden chopsticks, silver chopsticks would change color when absorbed in a poisonous chemical.
As a way of emulating the king, common people of Korea also began to use steel chopsticks.
Korea’s dessert was nothing like western dessert back then in the historical times
When we say dessert, sweets like ice cream, cakes, pies, and other sugary foods come in mind. However, that is not the case in Korea. Before the western influence in Korea, the dessert included fresh-cut fruits, teas, traditional cookies or rice cakes, etc.
The major takeaway from Korean history is how well they managed to preserve their culture through their food. The Korean temple cuisine still has all that food that was eaten by the monks and nuns back then in ancient times for a clear mind while practicing. The tenure of the three kingdoms from 57 BC to 668 AD brought a lot of revolutions and establishments that are still the cornerstone of Goguryeo, modern-day Korea.
From Korea’s rich history to the incredible variety of nutritious food, there are still a lot of things to talk about that we will be covering in our latest articles.