Nothing transports travelers directly into the heart of a foreign culture they are visiting like sampling the local cuisine. It is in the food that the traditions, energy, and folklore of the people come to life. And it is often an unusual or unique taste or a standout element to a culinary presentation that one is served while traveling, that stays with them long after they journey to a new land.
Korea is one such destination that offers an eclectic buffet of taste sensations to foodie travelers who are fortunate to visit. That, along with its lush and hilly countryside, centuries-old Buddhist temples, quaint coastal fishing villages, sub-tropical islands, and high-tech cities. But let’s get back to the food, which is simply scrumptious and quite diverse.
The treat of Korean temple cuisine
Consider Korean temple cuisine. This is an ecofriendly, less-is-more culinary custom originated by Korean Buddhist monks and nuns well over 1,000 years ago. Dishes are simple and consist of vegan-only ingredients packed with flavor and significance. The tradition emphasizes the importance of staying healthy; and is built on the tenants of eating only what the body needs, plus not wasting even a single grain of rice. It is the original slow food, which has thrived in the region for centuries.
Earthy, salty, spicy, crunchy, chewy, firm – Korean temple cuisine takes natural ingredients and turns them into a cornucopia of tasty and textured dishes. The seasonal, wholesome recipes include tofu stews, rice soups, and kimchi, often combining preserved vegetables with fresh, seasonal produce. The aromatic, healthy concoctions form the backbone of the diet of the locals. And they far surpass the popular, but more touristy, Korean versions of barbecue and fried chicken.
Where does one go to eat Korean temple food during their travels? A growing number of temples have opened their doors to visitors for short or long stays, as well as offering meals. In the south, Haeinsa temple specializes in Korean temple food, serving unusual dishes to guests who stay there, such as meouitang (a soup made with the herb butterbur), or songibap (a seasonal rice dish using matsutake mushrooms). In central Seoul, Jogyesa offers two-day temple stays, including three meals. Other temples offering stays with Korean temple food include Bulguksa and Golgulsa (both near Gyeongju), Ssanggyesa temple in Jirisan National Park, and Jeungsimsa (near the southwestern city of Gwangju).
For those who want to take their understanding of Korean temple food one step further, the Korean Temple Food Center, in Seoul and outside Anguk metro station, runs regular cooking classes.
What and where to eat
One of the core traditional techniques of Korean cuisine is fermentation, a metabolic process that helps food to ‘mature’ so that it can be stored for a longer period. The foods that best represent the tradition of fermentation developed in Korea include doenjang (soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), gochujang (chili paste), and jeotgal (fermented fish sauce). The fermentation can take anywhere from several months to several years to complete.
As for the sister technique of pickling and preserving, Jjangaji (Korean pickles in soy sauce) and kimchi (a traditional Korean dish made with salted and fermented vegetables) are commonly served with every meal all over the country as side dishes, known as banchan. Often, they are tailored to complement the main dish. Considering that there are about 200 types of kimchi alone, the range of vegan side dishes in Korea is vast.
Other authentic dishes to sample when visiting Korea are bibimbap (consisting of rice topped with sauteed vegetables, chili paste, and beef or other meat, sometimes with the addition of a raw or fried egg); bulgogi (thin beef slices marinated and grilled on a barbecue); and jjigae (a popular Korean stew typically made with meat, seafood or vegetables in a broth seasoned with gochujang, doenjang, ganjang, or saeujeot).
As for must-try Korean snacks, topping the list is bunsik. It can easily be found at traditional markets, street vendors, and around popular tourist attractions or shopping districts. Meaning "food made from flour," bunsik are reasonably priced Korean dishes. Some favorites are gimbap, eomuk, and tteokbokki.
Gimbap is made using rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt. Rice is placed on a sheet of laver. Strips of eggs, eomuk, carrot, seasoned spinach, and pickled radish are lined up in the middle to be rolled together into a cylinder shape, which is then cut into bite-sized pieces. It is a perfect meal option for on-the-go travelers.
Eomuk’s main ingredient is ground fish meat. It is usually skewered and boiled in radish and green onion broth. Eomuk is especially popular as a winter snack.
Tteokbokki is one of the most common food items sold by street vendors. Cylinder-shaped rice cakes with eomuk and vegetables are cooked in a spicy-yet-sweet red pepper sauce. Various fusion tteokbokki can also be found, including tteokbokki made using jjajang (black bean sauce) or with garlic toppings.
Each area within Korea has its own unique regional culinary experiences, in part because of the country’s rich and diverse geography. For those eager to explore but who prefer to have the trip coordinated for them in advance, there are many tour operators now offering culinary-themed itineraries. Intrepid Travel’s Seven-Night Real Adventure Tour, for instance, includes a visit to Busan’s bustling seafood market before sampling fresh clams at an oceanfront restaurant; a temple stay, complete with a vegan dinner and chanting meditation in Gyeongju; and a culinary master class in kimchi and hangwa (sugar cookies) in Jeonju.
Culinary dos and don’ts when in Korea
Every culture has its own dining customs and etiquette. In Korea, meals are communal, and dishes are most often shared. Good table manners are essential to keep harmony so all can savor the food, together.
Seating is traditionally based on the social ranking of the group. The younger or lower-ranked members of the group sit closer to the door, and only take their seat after the elders have taken theirs. The eldest begins the meal. So, if a local asks a visitor’s age, they mean no disrespect, they are only following their country’s cultural norms.
It is customary to start the meal by saying ‘Jal-mukkes-seub-nida’, which means ‘I will eat well’ or ‘I will enjoy this meal.’ It is a polite way of showing appreciation for the food received and the person who cooked it. Koreans dining together attempt to match each other’s eating speed, keeping pace with those around them. And, they try to finish their meal only after the eldest has finished his or her meal.
Koreans look to balance the flavors of the food offered, which can be a combination of soup/stew, rice, meat, and vegetable dishes. The spiciness is tempered with rice and soup, and the heat of meat is balanced with cooling vegetables. And when they pass dishes or glasses, they always use both hands to show respect. It is also considered rude to refill their own drink, especially for alcohol. They always pour for others at the table, and let others fill their drinks.
Lastly, Koreans finish meals gracefully by placing their chopsticks and spoon beside their bowl or plate, not on top of it. And they show their appreciation by saying ‘I ate well.’
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