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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. 

Kimchi and pork soup (KimchiJjigae)

Kimchi and pork soup (KimchiJjigae)

Soup is always part of a Korean meal and is also considered a great remedy for a cold.

TIP: Cook and serve it in a cast iron or clay pot and serve it with steamed rice.


½ lb. pork
2 cups traditional kimchi
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp chili paste
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 cups water
4 shiitake mushrooms (optional)
12 oz. medium or soft tofu
2 green onions


1. Cut pork into bite-sized pieces. Slice kimchi into small pieces and save the juice.

2. In a pot, stir together sesame oil, pork, chili paste and garlic. Cook over medium heat until pork is almost cooked through.

3. Add kimchi, some kimchi juice and 3 cups of water, and boil.

4. Slice up mushrooms, tofu and onions. Add to soup and lower heat to simmer until tofu is heated through (about two minutes). Serve immediately with rice.

Serves 3 to 4.

[About the chef]

In 2001, Korean chef Jang Bae Jang moved his family from Jonju City in South West Korea to Manila. Two years later, he and his wife, Young Ran Seo, opened a restaurant called Jang GaNae (Jang’s Place) on Escriva Drive in Ortigas with a menu offering a mix of Japanese and Korean food—but now it’s purely and authentically Korean. Chef Jang makes no allowances for Filipino tastes, and has never altered or indigenized his recipes in any way.

Chef Jang buys a few Korean specialties, such as chili paste and soy bean paste, from the local Korean grocer. The U.S. beef is imported, but most of his ingredients are sourced at Farmers Market in Cubao, which he visits every morning at 4 a.m. When asked if Chef Jang also cooks at home, his daughter Jasmine laughs softly. Jang cooks for the customers, she says, but the home kitchen is her mother’s domain and only she may cook for the family.


Fancy a bowl of bulgogi or bibimbap? Get recipes for Chef Jang’s versions of these in the November issue of HealthToday, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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