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HOME > Useful Information > Korea in Brief > Cuisine

Two foods that people have come to identify with Korea are kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, and bulgogi, a marinated meat dish. Whereas kimchi is a staple dish that is eaten at every meal, bulgogi is more like a party food in that it is generally eaten on special occasions and when dining out or entertaining guests.

Bulgogi

The word bulgogi is commonly translated as Korean barbecue, though it literally means "fire meat" as bul is "fire" or gogi is "meat". Beef is most often identified with bulgogi, but even pork, chicken, lamb, squid and octopus, for example, can be cooked bulgogi style as bulgogi, like barbecue, is a method of cooking.

For the most common beef bulgogi, thin slices of meat, usually tenderloin, are marinated in a sauce made of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, sesame seeds and other seasonings, and then cooked over a charcoal grill, usually at the table. The grilled beef slices can be eaten as are or wrapped in lettuce along with slices of fresh garlic and green pepper and a dab of soybean paste, red pepper paste, or a mixture of the two, all of which are rich in vitamins, minerals and cancer-fighting substances.

In some restaurants, bulgogi is cooked on a dome-shaped pan that is placed over a charcoal brazier or a gas range. The pan has a trough around the edge to catch the tasty juice that cooks out of the meat so that it can be eaten with one's rice.

For pork and other types of bulgogi, a little red pepper paste is usually added to the marinade. This gives the bulgogi a spicy taste and aroma.

Recently, people have been finding that bulgogi is not only tasty and healthy but also very versatile. It has been adapted to today's fast foods with some fast food chains adding bulgogi burgers to their menus and a number of well-known pizza restaurants even adopting it as one of their pizza toppings.
Kimchi

Kimchi is a pungent, fermented dish generally consisting of cabbage or turnip seasoned with salt, garlic, green onions, ginger, red pepper and shellfish. It is low in calories and cholesterol and very high in fiber. It is also very nutritious. In fact, it is richer in vitamins than apples.

In fact, 100 grams of cabbage kimchi, the most common variety, contains 492 units of vitamin A, 0.03 mg of vitamin B1, 0.06 mg of vitamin B2, 12 mg of vitamin C and 2.1 mg of Niacin, a medium-size apple weighing 130 grams contains only 50 units of vitamin A and only a trace of vitamins B1 and B2, 3 mg of vitamin C and a trace of Niacin. Kimchi also contains a number of organic acids, produced during the fermentation process, that help sterilize the digestive tract and aid in digestion. Kimchi also contains high levels of
protein, calcium and iron that are derived mainly from seafoods such as oysters, squid, shrimp and anchovies that are used for flavoring. Kimchi is a good source of fiber and, depending on the ingredients, may contain many of the nutrients and naturally occurring chemicals that can help combat cancers of the mouth, throat, lungs, stomach, bladder, colon and cervix.

Chinese cabbage, the main ingredient in the most commonly eaten kimchi, has a higher protein content than many other vegetables and a significant amount of minerals and vitamin C, and its green leaves are rich in vitamin A. Radish roots, another major ingredient, are not only rich in vitamins but also diastase, an enzyme that promotes the digestion of carbohydrates.
Watercress, which is also rich in calcium and vitamins A and C, is also used in most recipes for its rich flavor and aroma. Indian mustard leaves, which are also widely used because of their aroma, are rich in minerals, especially calcium and iron, and in vitamins A and C. Sponge seaweed, which is known to be helpful in preventing heart disease, is another common ingredient that produces a cool, crispy taste. It is especially rich in calcium and iodine and has a unique aroma.

Garlic, which is eaten in many ways including raw, is an essential kimchi ingredient as well as a mainstay of the Korean diet. It even figures in the national foundation myth. Dangun, who, according to legend, founded the Korean nation in 2333 B.C., was born of the union of a heavenly god, Hwanung, the son of the God of All and ruler of Heaven, and a bear who became a woman after eating 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort and staying out of the sunlight for 21 days. Recent studies show that garlic may help prevent stomach cancer and reduce blood cholesterol levels.

It is the red chili peppers, however, that make kimchi a truly remarkable health food and different from the ju and osinko of China and Japan that are often likened to kimchi but are basically nothing more than Chinese cabbage or radish pickled in salt. Chili peppers not only give kimchi its distinctive spicy flavor and appetizing color but also contain an element called capsicin that prevents kimchi from spoiling. It also checks the acidifying process to which vitamin C is exceptionally vulnerable and keeps the vegetables fresh so that the eater experiences the sensation of biting into fresh crispy vegetables. Capsicin also has another remarkable property that is only activated in kimchi; it can break down fats in the body. These properties and the large doses of vitamins A, B and C make peppers truly remarkable.

But chili peppers have not always been a major ingredient in kimchi. Koreans were not introduced to the chili pepper until the late 16th century or early 17th century when Portuguese traders based in Nagasaki, Japan, who, having brought it from Central America, imported it to the country.

Early historical records of kimchi making do not mention red peppers or garlic. Various spellings of the dish appear but they all share the same meaning: vegetables soaked in salt water. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, descriptions of kimchi making is in a work by Yi Gyu-bo (1168-1241), a noted literary figure during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), in which he describes the preparation of turnips for winter storage.

Regardless of when red pepper was added to kimchi, it was an epochal event in Korean culinary history. The addition of red peppers not only enhanced the taste of the otherwise salty vegetables and kept them crunchy, but also turned kimchi into a healthy, vitamin-packed food that can play a vital role in preventing disease. Of course, over the years kimchi has become even more nutritional with the addition of more and more ingredients such as carrots, pears, chestnuts, pine nuts, abalone and seaweed.

There are basically two kinds of kimchi, seasonal and winter, with numerous varieties of each. The seasonal varieties are made with whatever vegetables are available and are for short-term storage. The winter varieties, made with mostly cabbages and turnips, are for long-term storage to provide vegetables during the cold winter months.

Baechu kimchi is the most common type of kimchi. To make it, Chinese cabbages (baechu) are first trimmed, split down the middle and put in brine to soak. When they are soft, they are rinsed in cold water and drained. Meanwhile, julienne cut radish strips are mixed with a red pepper paste made of red pepper powder and water. To this are added crushed garlic, salt, thinly sliced green onions, and a variety of other seasonings, depending on the region and the cook's budget, to make stuffing. The stuffing is packed between the layers of cabbage leaves and each cabbage is wrapped with a few leaves. Finally, the cabbages are stacked in a crock, jar or other appropriate container, covered with salted cabbage leaves, pressed down firmly and covered.

The storage temperature of the gimjang kimchi, as winter kimchi is called, should be well controlled throughout the winter to prevent overfermentation and souring. The traditional way of doing this is to bury the crocks of kimchi in the ground but, because this is not always possible for urbanites, specially designed containers have come into use in recent years.

Winter kimchi is usually made in late November and early December when the weather is quite cold. At the time, women gather in groups throughout the country to turn mountains of cabbages and turnips into kimchi to feed their families throughout the cold winter months.

However, kimchi is not made in as great of quantities as it used to be. Today an urban family of five will make 20 to 30 cabbages into winter kimchi whereas in the past it would have made between 70 and 100.

In addition to being eaten as a staple side dish, kimchi is also used in a variety of cooked dishes. The most common is kimchi jjigae, a hot, fiery stew made by boiling kimchi with pork. Kimchi is also stir-fried with thin strips of pork and eaten with fresh tofu or dubu as bean curd is known in Korean. It is also dipped in a flour-based batter and fried.

To most Koreans, a meal without kimchi, no matter how lavish, is incomplete or even unthinkable. It spikes the rice, titillates the taste buds, and, perhaps, keeps the doctor away. It is an ideal health food as well as diet food and with its increasing inclusion on supermarket

shelves around the world and its designation as an official food at events such as the 1998 World Cup in France, it is fast becoming an international food to be enjoyed around the world.
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