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Korean Food:
Making the famous dish, Pibimpap
Making the famous dish, Pibimpap

Koreans' food is a defining element of their culture for several reasons. One is that food is directly related to Korea's environment - the country's location, its geography, and climate. Korea is a peninsula with a climate that resembles the north central region of the United States: cold winters, warm summers and long, pleasant autumns. Because the land is composed mostly of mountains and extends from the North Asian landmass into warmer seas in the south, Korea has many microenvironments. Rice, beans, and vegetables are grown in the valleys while in the mountains mushrooms and many wild plants such as bracken and bellflower are either collected or cultivated. Each region has its own dishes unique to its climate. In the mountainous northeastern part of the country, for instance, the most famous dishes have plenty of wild ferns and native roots in them. In the rice-growing valleys of the south, in the region of Chonju city, the best known dish is a large bowl of rice covered in a variety of finely sliced vegetables, meats, and a spicy sauce called Pibimpap.

Koreans eat lots of seafood. Fish from the Yellow Sea differs from those of the Eastern Sea (Sea of Japan) and those of the south coast differ from the others. Koreans are seafood connoisseurs and seek out the specialties of each region. But all Koreans eat three types of seafood all the time. One kind is a small dried sardine. Bowls of these appear at every meal, including breakfast. They're used not as a main dish but as condiments to be eaten with others. Another is dried cuttlefish. Drive along any road or street near fishing ports and you will see lines of these cephalopods hanging out to dry. Dried cuttlefish is Korea's most popular snack food and is even sold in vending machines. Seaweed is also a seafood, of the plant variety. There are several kinds that Koreans routinely eat. Seaweeds are nutritious and useful in a country that endures long winters. Babies are fed seaweed soups and traditional birthday celebrations include seaweed soup on the menu.

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Dried squid is a favorite snack
Dried squid is a favorite snack

The Importance of Preserving:

Other reasons why food is closely identified with Korean culture is historical and environmental. Until the 20th century Korea was a rural, farming society with a good deal of wild food gathering. Farmers worked hard to intensively cultivate the land. As a result, Korean food tends to be hearty, much more so than in neighboring Japan or China. A traditional Korean breakfast, for instance is not a bowl of leftover rice gruel, as in China, but a rich soup made of either beef ribs or pork intestines (tripe). Koreans eat many preserved foods because these had to be made for keeping over wintertime. Every traditional household has large earthenware pots filled with pickled vegetables (kim chee), soybean pastes, and chile pastes. Even today, apartment buildings in any city will have row upon row of preserving pots set out on apartment balconies. Dried fish, meats, and vegetables remain staples of the Korean diet and make it unique from all other Asian cuisines.

Korean cuisine is also a product of its history and location. For many centuries China dominated East Asia's culture. Writing, governmental systems, arts and foods that evolved in China were passed on to Korea and then to Japan. Rice, for instance, was first domesticated in China, as were many kinds of cabbage. Domesticated animals such as pigs, cattle, and fowl also came from China. It is not surprising that eating with chopsticks from small bowls, apparently developed in China in the Han Dynasty (about 200 B.C.-about 200 A.D.), is one way that Koreans dine. However, sit at any Korean table - cross legged at low tables - and you will find a long handled spoon set out with metal chopsticks. That's for eating the soups that appear on every table at every meal.

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Earthen jars of chili paste
Earthen jars of chili paste

Food History:

Korean food is also heavily influenced by the revolutionary changes in world cuisines that occurred after 1500 A.D. The European conquest of the Americas led to a world-wide distribution of new foodstuffs. The best example for Korea is the chile. A native to Central and South America, it was spread across the world by Portuguese and Spanish merchants. Indian and Southeast Asian cuisines without chiles are unimaginable. Nor is Korean. Chile paste are absolute staples of all Korean tables and many food preparations. Although many people think of Korean cuisine as "hot" in reality chile sauces are not loaded onto every dish but added as flavor enhancements. Like most Korean dishes, flavors and ingredients are flexible, so diners can add as much or as little flavoring as they like. Some like it hot, some do not.

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