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Vinegar, A Core Fermented Korean Food to Maintain

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What was the very first fermented food in human history: liquor or vinegar? This question is highly controversial. Some argue that stored alcoholic drinks happened to turn into vinegar and so the sour sauce started to be used for culinary purposes. On the other hand, vinegar enthusiasts say that vinegar came first, before people started making booze.
Regardless of which argument is closer to the truth, both in the east and in the west vinegar has long been seen not as a seasoning but rather as a popular remedy to treat different kinds of diseases. Since olden times people have known about the medicinal properties of vinegar and used it to speed up the metabolism, excrete all sorts of wastes from the body, control the reproduction of harmful bacteria, and - with vinegar’s high sterilizing power - prevent food poisoning.

Korean Vinegar Obtained by Fermenting Makgeolli


Vinegar is often associated with alcoholic drinks. Many countries have their own type of vinegar linked with the representative liquor - wine vinegar and French wine, malt vinegar and German beer, and black vinegar and Japanese sake. In Korea, housewives used to obtain vinegar from cheongju (refined clear rice wine) or makgeolli (unrefined cloudy rice wine), both of which are made by fermenting grains. They poured cheongju or makgeolli into gourd-shaped earthenware or a glass bottle, covered the container with the sprigs of a pine tree, and left it in a warm environment for over one week to ferment the wine. Then, a water-like clear layer appeared on top. That was vinegar. Korean housewives drained out the clear layer, poured the wine again, and repeated the procedure. This arduous process was referred to as cho kiugi (raising vinegar).

A Refreshing Taste that Stimulates Lost Appetite


When describing a dining table, Koreans use the word cheop. Cheop stands for a plate to put a side dish on. Since on the Korean table each side dish is served on a separate plate,  the number of cheop indicates the number of side dishes served on the table. For example, a three-cheop table means cooked rice accompanied by three different side dishes and a five-cheop table serves five side dishes. Ancient Korean kings usually had a 12-cheop dining table. Vinegar is indispensible at the traditional Korean dining table. Many side dishes are namul (edible greens), which are made by boiling or parboiling vegetables and greens grown in fields and mountains. They taste sour because cho-gochujang (a mixture of spicy red pepper paste, gochujang, and vinegar) is used as a seasoning. Just one taste of such a dish can restore one’s lost appetite. Also at the traditional table, there are assorted jeon (pancake) dishes made by dredging meat, fish, or vegetables with flour and egg. These jeon taste much better when dipped in cho-ganjang (soy sauce mixed with vinegar). So, it is common sense for Koreans to serve cho-gochujang or cho-ganjang onto a table of five or more cheop.

Cho-gochujang, A Charming Korean Sauce to Accompany Sashimi


Korea is one of the countries that, along with Japan, lead the world in the consumption of raw fish. Although the two countries share the tradition of catching fish alive and eating them uncooked, they use a totally different sauce for the dish. The Japanese usually use ganjang (soy sauce) while Koreans eat raw fish with gochujang (red-pepper paste) sauce. The Japanese mix soy sauce with a pungent wasabi and dip slices of raw fish slightly in the sauce. This is the widely known method of eating raw fish around the world.
Koreans, however, apply a bit different method. They use cho-gochujang, which tastes spicy, sweet, and sour. This attractive sauce is made by mixing the spicy gochujang with the proper amount of sugar and vinegar. Koreans dip slices of raw fish in this sauce, wrap the slices and the sauce in lettuce, or make bibimbap by putting cooked rice, raw fish, various vegetables, and the versatile sauce altogether. This is a unique Korean style of enjoying raw fish.

Constantly Changing, Now into Vinegar Beverages


Recently, Korean vinegar has been evolving into a new type: a beverage. Koreans traditionally have drunk persimmon vinegar, but, these days, vinegar beverages with the flavors of various other fruits, such as blueberry, pomegranate, and black raspberry (rubus coreanus), have emerged and become popular with consumers.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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