For Love of Nature
Korean cuisine contains an enormous variety of dishes made exclusively from vegetables, broadly defined, including many not commonly eaten in other cultures, and also many dishes containing only small amounts of animal products, which can easily be omitted or removed.
For foreign visitors concerned to maintain a healthy diet Korea is both a heaven and a hell. There are a myriad healthy dishes available, but without a knowledge of the language trying to identify them can be a nightmare. In this article I shall endeavor to provide a broad account of Korean cuisine from the perspective of its health-giving qualities. It will not answer all the questions of those with specific dietary needs, but it will, I hope, help them to make wise choices and survive. I shall consider specifically the needs of vegetarians (those who eat no animal flesh) and vegans (who eat no animal products). Korean cuisine contains an enormous variety of dishes made exclusively from vegetables, broadly speaking, including many not commonly eaten in other cultures, and also many containing only small amounts of animal products, which can easily be omitted or removed.
Some Natural History
Not surprisingly early Koreans, as primitive peoples everywhere, survived largely on vegetables, fruit and nuts etc., until they learned the trick of hunting and acquired the taste for meat. Plant shoots, leaves, berries, fruit, roots, and even bark were used and found not only to be nutritious but also to have medicinal effects. In the New Stone Age some cereals were cultivated, and by the Bronze Age rice and pulses were also being cultivated. During the period known as the Ancient Three Kingdoms (3rd to 7th century AD), not only vegetables and cereals were being eaten but meat and fish had become a central part of the diet, and the basic arrangement of traditional Korean table settings had been established. During the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 AD), meat-eating declined under the influence of Buddhism and more various vegetable dishes, rice cakes and teas were developed. After the middle period of the dynasty however meat and fish dishes were revived. The Buddhist influence on the vegetarian aspects of Korean cuisine was considerable and deserves special attention.
The Buddhist Influence
Tomes could be written about Buddhist philosophy in relation to diet, but the essential credo is simple enough to grasp. True Buddhists believe that they should not kill any living creature, nor should they eat them either. In genuine Buddhist temple cuisine only a few dishes are served and the monks eat only a modest amount of food (not too much, not too little). This is most conducive to a successful contemplative life. Although only a few dishes are eaten at one time, there is in fact a large variety of Buddhist dishes available. In a survey the Temple Food Research Institute has confirmed, at the last count, the following figures: more than a dozen kinds of rice; 43 kinds of porridge; 44 kinds of soup; 31 kinds of namul (vegetable side dishes); 25 kinds of stir-fried dishes; 100 kinds of rice cakes; 8 kinds of dasik(snacks for tea); half a dozen kinds of crisps, as well as teas, jang (special sauces) and several kinds of special kimchi, made without garlic, leeks or onions. Certain spices and vegetables (such as garlic and leeks) are not used, due to their strong smell, which, it is believed, would disturb religious meditation. It is also believed that they stimulate sexual desire. None of these dishes are complex but simply include whatever vegetables are in season.
At the end of a meal monks pour water in their bowls and drink it together with the food remains. This is not for reasons of thrift, but because of the basic belief that all of nature is sacrosanct and once sacrificed to become food it should be appreciated. It must be stressed that most so-called vegetarian temple-food restaurants in Korea do not follow Buddhist cuisine and eating habits closely.
Common Vegetarian Dishes
It is possible to get by in Korea as a vegetarian by becoming familiar with certain common dishes. I can only refer to them briefly here as I have described them in detail in other articles: most namul are made from fresh or preserved vegetables with simple dressings; some soups and stews such as kimchi or bean curd jjigae and beoseot jeongol (mushroom stew); various other kinds of bean curd dishes; deep-fried dishes (twiggim) made from roots such as lotus roots and deodeok; pancakes made with potato, wheat, buckwheat or mung bean flour and containing kimchi, leeks or peppers etc.; vegetables wrapped with spicy sauce in leaves (ssam); laver, roasted, seasoned, or fried in glutinous rice batter; and many kinds of noodle and rice dishes.
Vegans will have a harder time of it in Korea. While milk and cheese are rare as ingredients (some fusion dishes now contain processed cheese), eggs are common, both as main ingredient and as a binding agent?in the rice dish bibimbap, for example), and the best advice one can give to vegetarians and vegans is to learn a few simple relevant Korean phrases. I have managed for years to avoid ingredients by the simple expedient of checking the word in a dictionary and adding the word 멷opsi?(without). So that 멺ogi eopsi뭢eans 몏ithout meat? 멺yeran eopsi?without egg) etc.
Several decades ago meat-eating was on the increase in Korea. Before that time meat had always been in short supply, but the growth of the livestock industry made it more readily available. Recently Koreans have become aware that meat causes many health problems (including obesity, various geriatric diseases, and cancer), so that many have started to avoid animal fats. They are turning again to traditional vegetarian dishes and organic foods. Advertisers have successfully taken advantage of the trend by promoting the concept of so-called Well-being?
Next month: further reflections on soups and stews.
Park Sung Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
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