Seoul, South Korea

A Trip Through South Korean Food Culture

Kimchi! South Korean food culture has a rich history and vibrant presence beyond the delicious fermented red cabbage, isn’t it? Therefore, today’s post will be all about South Korean food culture with side dishes of history, eating customs, and lots of other information to feed you and get you going about South Korea

I know that due to the distinctively delectable taste of the South Korean food, you must have a separate food tour to your itinerary for visiting South Korea. While talking about South Korean food culture, you have to know that, along with being unique and diverse, the food in South Korea is also cheap. So, the locals love to eat outside their homes in places such as Jongno-gu, Hongdae, Insadong, and Myeong-dong, etc. 

A Brief View of South Korean Food Culture
A Brief View of South Korean Food Culture

Not only among tourists, but South Korean food has been steadily rising to fame and has its own place as the most popular South Korean food in America. From not just Kimchi but bibimbap, barbecue, kimbap, to renowned sauce crab, raw beef, various soups, and hot pots, the South Korean food list goes on and on. Thus, it is only natural to learn about the South Korean food culture alongside its nationalistic features in eating etiquette and habits, for you to better understand and appreciate South Korean food culture. 

South Korean Food Culture and History

From the early eight thousand B.C., when we came to know about the existence of pottery makers to the evolution of kingdoms and states and cities through the nomadic barbarians and dispersed tribal villages to the current civilization, Korea has a colorful history that has extended thousands of years. 

In Korean foreland, the earliest people that are known to exist are the hunter-gatherers the were perhaps small groups of families and semi-nomadic as they followed the supply of food. The small groups turned into tribes because of the increased population and they began to settle down in particular parts of the country, especially around food sources. These settled tribes then formed villages and focussed on agriculture and domesticating animals. 

Historical Facts

As the villages developed, both peaceful trade and violent conflict happened. Some of these villages started to form allies with other tribes or clans while others became forerunners of the city-states. The areas displayed intensive agriculture and more domestication of various animals as the population increased furthermore. With the increasing number of people, different concepts and ideas seem to increase too. 

Advancements in ideas led to the rapid application of toolmaking, pottery, and woodworking, which in turn accelerated the new ways of preserving and preparing food in Korea. The making of diverse cooking vessels that could be worked on coal and fire progressed the way of preparing food. The discovery of salt as a preservative for food changed the way they made food and became a vital part of South Korean food culture and has remained so to this day. 

Earthenware Jars and Crocks in South Korean Food Culture
Pottery Skills in Earthenware Crocks Credit:

As liberated tribes transformed into kingdoms and trade with distant people and land began to occur on land and sea, it’s not just different ways to work-the metals or other pottery making skills that made-its transition to the land of South Korea, but also the process of cooking exotic dishes made its way into the South Korean food culture. Wars among tribes, kingdoms, and city-states were a common endeavor, so the merging of two tribes or the intertwining of different people at the same place inevitably led to the blended cuisines of the people that were parts of the dispute.

Temple Cuisine in Korea

South Korean Temple Food in South Korean Food Culture
Korean Temple Food
Credit: Wikipedia

From India, Buddhism traveled to Korea, and the kingdoms completely embraced it. With the expansion of the religion, the population refrained from eating meat as it was banned and instead grew fond of more vegetables. The probable origin of the namul dishes can be found in this tradition of consuming vegetarian cuisine. 

When the Mongols invaded Korea and Manchuria, the impact of Buddhism began to recede. The ruling of the Mongols influenced the South Korean food culture profusely as the ban on the consumption of meat ended. The Western trade with China and other lands developed the Korean cuisine due to the adventurers and traders who introduced different meats and exotic meals to the Royalties. Subsequently, the connection with the West brought Chilli Pepper to Korea and the journey to modern South Korean food recipes began. 

There are no animal products except dairy goods in the temple foods in South Korea as Buddhism prohibits the eating of meat. The nuns and the monks also do not use five pungent vegetables in the belief that they are going to hinder their spiritual process. Those vegetables include green onion, onion, chives, garlic, and leeks. At a Korean temple, there are three types of food that are consumed, such as,

Fermented Food

Fermented Soybean Paste
Fermented Soybean Paste

South Korean food culture facts dictate that the Korean temple food is different from that of the food of the West. When we think of fermented Western food, we think of wine, yogurt, and cheese whereas, in Korea, they’re replaced by Kimchi, red chili pepper paste, soy sauce, soybean paste, and rice punch. The method of fermentation not only just adds a savory taste but also assimilates cancer-inhibiting elements, lowers your cholesterol level, and you can also have a guard against any age-related diseases. 

Natural Food

The prohibition of the five pungent vegetables has led to detachment to the strong spices that we use daily to season our food in the Buddhist temples as they believe these spices and vegetables will distract them during their meditation. 

As the temples are mostly situated in the mountains, it is easy for the practitioners to use natural herbs and wild greens in their vegetable cuisine. Korean temple food utilizes the flowers, stems, wild roots, fruits, and leaves of the mountain. The natural flavor enhancers and seasonings like kelp powder, perilla seed powder, mushroom powder not only increase the flavor of the food but also rectify the imbalance. 

Preserved Food

Sun Woo directs the visitor program at Jinkwansa, a Buddhist temple outside Seoul famous for preserving the art of Korean temple food. Behind her are giant jars filled with fermented soybeans.
Sun Woo directs the visitor program at Jinkwansa, a Buddhist temple outside Seoul famous for preserving the art of Korean temple food. Behind her are giant jars filled with fermented soybeans.
Credit: NPR

Many vegetables grow in the spring and the monks and nuns of the Buddhist temples have great ways and techniques to preserve these plants and vegetables fresh to use in the winter. The best Korean food in the temples involves vegetables preserved in salt or salt and vinegar along with soybean paste, red chili pepper paste, Jang-a-jii, kimchi, Jang, etc. The advantages of these preserved foods lie in the longevity of the use of these foods in the off-seasons without missing all the nutritional properties.

Ondol Kitchen in South Korean Food Culture

Progression in heating techniques and architecture from the houses of the nobles to the commoners have affected South Korean cuisine immensely. The increasing utilization of ondol heating, which is a process of heating the floors, community-style cooking in the private kitchen areas. Many cooking vessels were constructed because of the use of the heating system and its ventilation for wood and charcoal.

Ondol Kitchen in South Korean Food Culture
Ondol Kitchen in South Korean Food Culture
Credit: Pinterest

According to Chinese records, there was an L-shaped ondol to produce partial heat in a room during the times of Goguryeo. After the ending of this period, the entire peninsula of Korea was acquainted with ondol cooking. Gudeul or baked stones is another name for Ondol which is famous for its health benefits. According to the documented history of Korea, the cooking processes are also appropriate for women who are recovering from childbirth and elderly.

North Korea Versus South Korea Food Culture

Since the separation happened in 1945, from the perspective of a Korean, there is either North or South Korean food culture. Therefore, till now, we have been talking about Korean food culture as it was not divided. It includes South Korean food culture too. 

Though there are similarities in the cuisines, there are numerous differences as well. The North Korean food culture consists of traditional classic dishes that remain the same over time. On the other hand, South Korean cuisine, while holding onto the conventional dishes that are popular all over the world, the US and other nations have given their own touch too, making modernized, fusion versions of South Korean cuisine.

Even though they share the same foreland, the economic background and climate are different from each other. While South Korea produces fresh vegetables and well-nourished live-stock due to the longer growing season, North Korea has longer winters than their summer, which has a negative influence on their agriculture. Even so, the per capita income in South Korea is better than in North Korea, which ensures higher quality food and restaurants. 

Contemporary South Korean food culture has both been influenced and influenced international cuisine, as proven in Kimchi Pizza. If you want to know more about Korean food and cultural history, visit here.

Characteristics of South Korean Food Culture

To start with the features of South Korean food, it might be overwhelming for us to absorb it all. So, I am going to divide it into three parts, such as features, habits, and etiquette. As far as features or characteristics go, South Korean food is beneficial for your beauty and health.

Features of South Korean Food Culture

A Meal of Rice, Bibimbap, Vegetables in South Korean Food Cuture
  • The primary food in South Korea is rice, which is accompanied by many side dishes created with vegetables, meat, and fish, which conjure a balanced daily diet. Fried rice, steamed rice, and porridge complement their meal. South Koreans are also used to pasta made of buckwheat or wheat.
  • Hot and spicy food equals delectable South Korean cuisine. Apart from using hot chili-like paprika, raw chili, jalapenos, they also use various vegetables along with garlic and ginger, which are the main features of South Korean food that help in increasing physical strength.
  • Soybean paste and soy sauce are other main features of South Korean food, where the fermented soybean paste is used as a base for most of the dishes.
  • “Good food is good medicine” is the mantra they follow even in modern South Korean dishes. In South Korea, many dishes are created with healing ingredients and promote this viewpoint.
  • If you order a traditional South Korean meal in a restaurant, the side dishes will be free, even when you are adding extra. The tradition comes forth from the sentiment of providing rich ingredients to your guests.    

Eating habits in South Korean Food Culture

  • Side dishes and rice are served with a spoon, while South Koreans use chopsticks to serve other side dishes. The basic etiquette dictates that while you’re using one or the other, you should keep the other on the dining table instead of in your utensil. 
A Typical Korean Homestyle Table setting
A Typical Table Setting in South Korean Food Culture
  • While you are eating in South Korea, you have to remember that they usually use stainless steel chopsticks and spoons and they are placed on the right side of your food vertically. Furthermore, the chopsticks should be on the right while the spoon should be on the left side.
  • South Koreans, especially the elderly don’t hold their bowl of food by hand as they keep it on the table, maybe because most of the utensils are from stainless steel as they transport heat easily and it is inconvenient to hold them by hand. Though the younger generation holds the rice or soup bowl by hand if the food is too far away.

Etiquette of Eating In South Korean Food Culture

  • The habit of respecting their elders is deeply rooted as Confucianism had founded the South Korean Society and Culture. Therefore, it is impolite to start eating before the seniors begin to eat at your table. Smoking and drinking in front of the elderly are also disrespectful. If you ought to drink with an elderly person, you have to present your hand to that person while drinking with your left hand. 
Soju or Beer in South Korean
Soju in South Korea
Credit: wikipedia
  • South Korea is very well-known for its drinking culture. It is polite to pour others’ empty glasses instead of filling yours. If you need your glass filled, just raise your glass with both hands holding it and someone will fill it.
  • The basic etiquette of consuming South Korean meals is to not share your chopsticks with anyone. 

Top 3 Famous South Korean Food Culture

Tea in South Korean Food Culture

South Korean Food Culture is incomplete with its tea. In the Chronicles of the Three kingdoms, it has been mentioned that Korea was the first place where tea was introduced. South Koreans are tea drinkers by heart even now, as there are various tea shops and clubs that are scattered throughout the nation which help tea play a vital role in South Korean culture.

Street Food in Seoul, South Korean Food Culture
Street Food In Seoul, South Korea

South Korean Street Food

South Korean street food is irresistible. From savory to sweets, from snacks to full meals, you can find it all on the streets of South Korea. It is not unheard of that tourists have a full meal out of only eating street food like pancakes, gimbap, dumplings or Mandu, fried chicken that is amongst the most popular dishes in South Korea. You can find these dishes anywhere in Seoul, South Korea, but its neighboring city, Hongdae, has the best-fried chicken with beer or, as they call it, Chimaek. 

Desserts in South Korean Food Culture

South Korean food culture has some of the most mouth-salivating desserts for every occasion, such as Bingsu, Hotteok, Dasik, Gotgamessan, and many more. They are very appealing with their colorful presentation and served as refreshments with their tea.

Top 3 Places to Visit in South Korea for Mouth-Watering Food

Though you can probably fill your belly with delicious street food, these three places that I am going to mention now are mandatory for your successful trip to the South Korean Food Culture.

Balwoo Gongyang, Seoul, South Korea
Balwoo Gongyang, Seoul, South Korea
  • Balwoo Gongyang: Though it can be a bit of a stretch to call the food Buddhist temple food, but the food in this restaurant in Seoul is purely vegetarian and organic. The menu varies from week to week, yet there are some popular dishes available all the time, such as stuffed lotus, bellflower salad, and shiitake broth.
  • Gomanaru: In the Baekje-dynasty castle in Gonju, this restaurant will cover your table with all the traditional food like seared duck meat, spicy crab, soybean broth, grilled fish, and other twenty-four side dishes with as many leaves as you can eat. The food is inexpensive and delish and, with a little more money, you can have edible flowers too.
  • Geon: You’ll find your high expectation of food here as the high chef was designated as the “National Cultural Treasure.” Since the 1910, ate here who complimented the chef, the restaurant has been moved to Gangnam where you can eat like a king at the banquet option.

At last, we are at the end of our trip to South Korean food culture. But, there are so many things to know, see and experience. I have come across this, blog where you can find information about the top ten great South Korean dishes. Check that out. Until then, travel well, be well. 

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