Food as medicine
The culinary traditions of Korea.
By Alexa Gregori
Korea: land of mountains, forests, Communism and kimchi. Korean cuisine has a history dating back centuries. Since 300B.C., it’s been heavily influenced by the Chinese, particularly when it comes to its medicinal aspects. According to Taoist philosophy, health is a state of balance in which food choice is key and a person’s body is healthy only when the yin-yang and the five elements are in balance.
Yin and yang are energetic qualities that created the five elements—wood, fire, soil, metal and water—with matching colors—green, red, yellow, white, and black—that shape everything in the universe, including our health. Thus, a traditional Korean table includes dishes or garnishes of five colors, most of which are low in calories and full of vegetables: an ancient philosophy that preempts the modern-day recommended daily consumption of five servings of fruits and vegetables.
Korean cuisine uses herbs for their medicinal value, and many common ingredients are considered to have health benefits. For example, raw potato juice or chives are taken for an upset stomach; garlic is used to clear the blood and aid digestion; nuts are good for the skin and for pregnant women; dried red dates and bellflower roots are used for coughs and colds; and rice porridge with pine nuts—or in coastal areas, with abalone—rehydrates and strengthens the sick. Dried Pollack or fish with bean sprouts and tofu cures hangovers, while ginseng, an ancient staple believed to be energizing, is found in capsules and candies, teas and tonics.
Like Filipino cuisine, the philosophy behind Korean food is that the diner should experience a variety of complementary tastes and textures: spicy, sour, salty, sweet and bitter—a balanced harmony of flavors and colors, with rice as the core of every meal. Cooking techniques include grilling, boiling, steaming and stir-frying.
A typical Korean meal includes rice(bap),soup (guk), and pan-fried beef (bulgogi),plus four or five side dishes: kimchi, banchan and namul (seasoned vegetables) accompanied by dipping sauces.
The ubiquitous kimchi is most commonly made with napa cabbage, fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions and chili pepper. High in vitamin B, minerals, lactic acid and fiber for maintaining healthy bowels, there are endless regional varieties of kimchi, depending on availability of ingredients and the degree of spiciness. It’s served as a side dish or stirred into fried rice, soup or a hot pot. Before refrigeration, large earthenware jars of kimchi would be buried in the ground, the fermentation creating good bacteria for health and nutrition, particularly important during winter months.
Banchan is one of the unique features of Korean cuisine. Like sawsawan, these side dishes accompany the main dishes or can be eaten before the main course arrives. There are many types of banchan including kimchi, mungbean pancake, steamed beansprouts with sesame oil and mini meatballs.