Friday, October 19, 2012

The Stories Behind Korean Food

When my in-laws decided to make a two hour detour from a trip back home the other day to visit a town that was famous for Deokkgalbi, I have to admit I was none too impressed and sceptical of the difference there would be in the quality of the food just because a city or town is famous for it.  It sounded like annoying Korean logic at work again. 

Maybe I have been living here too long, but I think I am starting to sympathise and understand this point of view on food.  I started to be turned around by a trip to Jeonju the other day with my mother, who was visiting for a couple of weeks.  Jeonju is famous for bibimbap, and it has to be said their bibimbap is mighty good, without doubt the best I have had.

Now everytime I go to a different city I enquire with my wife as to what food they are famous for (I am sounding like a Korean, I know) and I try to sample it.  Here is just a short list of famous foods from different cities:

Jeonju (Jeollabukdo) - Bibimbap
Uijeongbu (Gyeonggido and site of big US army base) - Budae Jiggae
Busan (Gyeongsanamdo) - Fish cake
Chuncheon (Gangwondo) - Dakgalbi
Damyang (Jeollanamdo) - Doekkgalbi
Mokpo/Naju (Jeollanamdo) - Hongeo (highly aged and fermented fish, below), which is the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted.
Gyeongju (North Gyeongsanamdo) - Bread
Geumsan (Chungcheongnam-do) - Ginseng
Eumseong (Chungcheongbuk-do) - Red chili peppers
Sokcho (Gangwondo) - Oechingho Sundae

I am sure there are a whole lot more, indeed whenever I visit a certain area with my wife and her family I am told of the different speciality foods. 

Apparently, during the Joseon dynasty these speciality foods from all over Korea were often brought together for Kings to eat.  In fact, the higher the position in Joseon society, the more side dishes - from all corners of Korea - you were entitled to eat.

It is not just where the food comes from but also the stories behind them that can be so interesting and shows what a deep connection with their food they have in Korea.  Although I am highly sceptical of some of their supposed properties, the stories of their creation and their history can sometimes be quite interesting.

Have you ever been given some bibimbap (Doshirak) in a metal box in a galbi restaurant that you had to shake?  The story behind this  is that parents used to give these to their children for school lunch and put them in their bags.  As they walked to school and ran around all the ingredients would all mix up and this is the reason it is sometimes still served this way in some restaurants.

I always wondered about the Korean fascination with spam and cheap processed meat.  It seems a strange combination with most of their other quite natural and healthy food.  Budae Jiggae is a spicy soup with spam and cheap little frankfurters in it and I learned of its origin the other day.  It is obvious when you think about it, it is from American soldiers and their rations during and after the Korean War.  The Americans brought lots of this processed meat with them and the Koreans used it, adding it to many foods.  This why Budae Jiggae is famous in Uijeongbu, which is a big US army area.

The story of some of their slightly less palatable sounding foods also shares a similar logic.  Koreans do tend to use just about all of the meat on animal that they can, any plant or vegetable, and anything that crawls on the ocean floor.  Chicken feet, pig's intestine, pig spine (Gamjatang, left), dog, Hwae (raw and sometimes still moving sea creatures, below), and sundae (various inner organs of a pig or cow) are all still quite popular, with the exception of dog which is becoming less and less popular as time goes by (it is the older population that mainly eats this).  Like the processed meat they probably would not have chosen to use these things if they had had the choice, but life - until very recently - has always been quite a testing experience in Korea with their harsh winters, boiling hot summers and with the Korean War still fairly fresh in their history.  Put quite simply, 'beggars can't be choosers', and most people were very poor especially at the time of the Korean War.  They had no choice but to adapt and make the most out of their sources of food.

I am a vegetarian in England but in Korea I choose not to be because of the difficulty in finding vegetarian options, and eating everything that Koreans put in front of you is a good way of getting them to like you, especially the in-laws.  The good thing about my meat eating in Korea is that I get to try these foods (with the exception of dog) and the fact is that the Koreans have done such a good job of making them edible that they are very often delicious.  You can find yourself trying all sorts of odd delicacies that sound disgusting but end up being extremely tasty.  Chicken feet is my personal favourite.

These are the the few stories that I am aware of, but I would be fascinated to learn some more as a man who attaches quite a high importance to food.  Korean culture is extremely rich in the food department and is one of the aspects of living in Korea I really do enjoy.


  1. I'd like to interject that Goesan-gun in Chungcheongbuk-do is the place for chili's, they even have an annual chili festival! Eumseong comes second :D

    1. I'm a southern fairy not my area, thank you for the correction!