World diet’s – South Korea: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 78.72 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 43.8 male; 40.2 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 10.1 male; 4.1 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 48.0 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
Although South Korea’s culinary traditions overlap those of China and Japan to a large extent, this country does have its own distinctive cuisine, which is responsible for a very healthy population. The life span of Koreans continues to rise, most recently to 79.1 years. (Note: In this post, I’m talking about South Koreans throughout even where “South” is not specified.)
WHAT THEY EAT
Korean food bears a definite resemblance to Chinese and Japanese food. As in many Asian countries, the diet in Korea is built around starches such as rice and noodles, which accompany almost every meal. Soybean derivatives, particularly tofu, are also common. In general, though, the Koreans use less oil than the Chinese, and Korean food tends to be more heavily seasoned—especially so as you move south on the peninsula. Although the Koreans share many dishes with the Japanese—especially fish-based ones such as sashimi—and even the hibachi-style tabletop grill, Japanese food is much blander.
Like many Asians, Koreans consume very few dairy products. Butter is a rare ingredient, used only in special-occasion baked goods. You would never see butter on the dinner table in Korea. Cheese also is rare, an expensive luxury imported from abroad.
WHAT’S IN IT
Kimchi: Kimchi is the most ubiquitous food in Korea. Koreans eat this pickled vegetable dish at just about every meal, so it makes sense that they would have more than two hundred varieties. Koreans have been pickling vegetables for more than a thousand years so that the harvest will last through the long Korean winter. The traditional method of making kimchi involves placing pickled vegetables in pots and burying them in the ground to ferment.
Kimchi is often made from cabbage, but ingredients might also include green onions, radishes, powdered red chiles, garlic, even watermelon rind. It is a nutritional powerhouse, strengthening the immune system, fighting cancer, lowering cholesterol, and even slowing the aging process.1 Kimchi contains fiber and lactobacillus, a “good” bacteria that speeds digestion and may even fight cancer. When eaten regularly, these two elements can give you a sense of fullness before you even begin a meal.
Cabbage: Cabbage is a good source of fiber, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and E. It contains very little sugar and is very low in calories. Koreans eat cabbage in many different ways; most kimchi is made from this cold-weather, all-terrain vegetable.
Beverage of Choice: Tea
The people of Korea are prodigious tea drinkers. Since ginseng root is native to their land, Koreans have consumed large quantities of ginseng tea for centuries. The name of another traditional Korean tea, omijacha, means “five flavors.” These flavors are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy.Saenggangcha, or ginger tea, is a Korean tea served hot and enjoyed at cafés, while naturally caffeine-free barley tea is considered a good treatment for a cold. In Korea, as in so many other parts of Asia, there is a tea for every occasion.
Beef: Korean barbecue, prepared on tabletop charcoal grills, is popular throughout the country, although Koreans consume a great deal less beef than we do. The average American eats sixty-seven pounds of beef a year, compared to the sixteen pounds that Koreans eat.2
Garlic: Koreans eat exponentially more garlic than the residents of neighboring Asian countries. In fact, the Japanese have a pejorative term for the Koreans: the garlic eaters. Garlic has powerful nutritional properties: it can prevent cancer, fight heart disease, and thin the blood, which results in lower blood pressure. Green onions and hot peppers are often combined with garlic to produce Korea’s distinctively spicy sauces.
Lettuce: Koreans wrap their beef dishes not in bread but in lettuce leaves. Korean sashimi (which tends to be larger and chunkier than the Japanese variety) is also typically served inside lettuce leaves.
Ginseng: Ginseng root, which is grown all over Korea, is believed to have medicinal properties. In Korea, ginseng is served as a tea, with honey, or incorporated into other dishes. There is even ginseng wine.
Mushrooms: In Korea, mushrooms are typically served as banchan (tapas) or on top of stir-fried dishes such as bibimbap. Mushrooms, which consist of 80 to 90 percent water, are an extremely low-calorie food. They provide potassium, which can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of a stroke, and selenium, which can protect cells from free radicals in the environment. Shiitake mushrooms have even been used to fight cold and flu symptoms.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Sesame or Canola
Koreans use very little oil, which makes their diet naturally low in fat. When they do use it, like cooks in other Asian countries, they prefer sesame oil or canola oil.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
Fried foods are virtually unheard of in Korea. Koreans also do very little baking, since the traditional Korean kitchen stove is wood-fired and has no oven. Most Korean foods are made by boiling, blanching, braising, steaming, sautéing, stir-frying, or grilling. Barbecuing is a common method of preparing meat in Korea.
HOW THEY EAT IT
They balance their meals.
The “five flavors” approach to cooking, omijacha (see box page 82), is another trait that Korea shares with Chinese and Japanese cuisine. The most famous Korean dish, bibimbap, is an illustration of this ancient principle, with ingredients that correspond to the five elements in nature: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water and stimulate all five senses. Bibimbap, which means “stirred rice” or “stirred meal,” is a mixture of fried rice, meat, and seasoned vegetables, usually topped with a fried egg and chile pepper paste. Bibimbap also represents the principle of yin and yang, or the balance of all opposing forces in the universe. This philosophical approach to food is evident in many aspects of Korean cuisine.
HOW THEY BURN IT
Many traditional martial arts, including tae kwon do and hapkido, originated in Korea, and Koreans of all ages practice these arts of “co-ordinated grace.” Koreans also burn calories as part of their everyday life. Because many Koreans live in urban areas, they tend to much of their daily business on foot.
The Snack That’s a Meal: Banchan
Walk into any Korean restaurant, and a platter of complimentary banchan will greet you at the table. Banchan—a series of small, varied dishes—are a traditional meal starter in Korea, similar to tapas, dim sum, or mezes elsewhere in the world. Typical banchan might include small cubes of beef, noodles, pancakes, and of course kimchi. Less expensive restaurants might serve simpler fare, such as bean sprouts or pickled winter vegetables.
Breakfast: Breakfast in Korea doesn’t differ substantially from other meals; it’s just smaller. A typical breakfast includes rice, soup, and seasoned vegetables. Western-style breakfasts have become more common in recent years, however.
Lunch: For lunch, Koreans might have boiled noodles, anchovies, and sliced zucchini in a broth. Another option would be savory pancakes peppered with scallions and dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and powdered red chiles.
Dinner: Dinner is the main meal of the day in Korea and tends to be a more elaborate version of breakfast and lunch. A typical dinner might feature a pot of boiling stock, like a fondue pot. Using chopsticks, you dip meat and vegetables into the broth to cook them.
• Make the most of Mother Nature. If you live in a cold climate, learn to love winter vegetables, or learn techniques for preserving your favorite summer produce.
• Enjoy beef—just not too much of it.
• To keep your diet both interesting and healthy, get a good balance of flavors in every meal.
• Add garlic. Garlic makes everything taste better, and it’s healthy.
1. “Uniqueness of Korean Cuisine: Kimchi,” Korea Times, July 31, 2008.
2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Factors Affecting U.S. Beef Consumption” (Outlook Report No. LDPM13502, October 2005).