Korean cuisine has evolved through centuries of social and political change. Originating from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions in the Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria, Korean cuisine has evolved through a complex interaction of the natural environment and different cultural trends.
- Condiments and seasoning
- Fish and seafood
- Medicinal foods
- Dog meat
- Ginseng chicken soup samgyetang
- Soups and stews
- Anju side dishes accompanying alcoholic beverages
- Nonalcoholic beverages
- Alcoholic beverages
- Regional and variant cuisines
- Buddhist cuisine
- Vegetarian cuisine
- Ceremonial food
- Street food
- Three Kingdoms period
- Goryeo period
- Joseon period
- Colonial period to Modern period
- Royal court cuisine
Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables, and meats. Traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes (반찬; banchan) that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Kimchi is almost always served at every meal. Commonly used ingredients include sesame oil, doenjang (fermented bean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, pepper flakes, gochujang (fermented red chili paste) and cabbage.
Ingredients and dishes vary by province. Many regional dishes have become national, and dishes that were once regional have proliferated in different variations across the country. Korean royal court cuisine once brought all of the unique regional specialties together for the royal family. Meals are regulated by Korean cultural etiquette.
Grains have been one of the most important staples of the Korean diet. Early myths of the foundations of various kingdoms in Korea center on grains. One foundation myth relates to Jumong, who received barley seeds from two doves sent by his mother after establishing the kingdom of Goguryeo. Yet another myth speaks of the three founding deities of Jeju Island, who were to be wed to the three princesses of Tamna; the deities brought seeds of five grains which were the first seeds planted, which in turn became the first instance of farming.
During the pre-modern era, grains such as barley and millet were the main staples and were supplemented by wheat, sorghum, and buckwheat. Rice is not an indigenous crop to Korea, and millet was likely the preferred grain before rice was cultivated. Rice became the grain of choice during the Three Kingdoms period, particularly in the Silla and Baekje Kingdoms in the southern regions of the peninsula. Rice was such an important commodity in Silla that it was used to pay taxes. The Sino-Korean word for "tax" is a compound character that uses the character for the rice plant. The preference for rice escalated into the Joseon period, when new methods of cultivation and new varieties emerged that would help increase production.
As rice was prohibitively expensive when it first came to Korea, the grain was likely mixed with other grains to "stretch" the rice; this is still done in dishes such as boribap (rice with barley) and kongbap (rice with beans). White rice, which is rice with the bran removed, has been the preferred form of rice since its introduction into the cuisine. The most traditional method of cooking the rice has been to cook it in an iron pot called a sot (솥) or musoe sot (무쇠솥). This method of rice cookery dates back to at least the Goryeo period, and these pots have even been found in tombs from the Silla period. The sot is still used today, much in the same manner as it was in the past centuries.
Rice is used to make a number of items, outside of the traditional bowl of plain white rice. It is commonly ground into a flour and used to make rice cakes called tteok in over two hundred varieties. It is also cooked down into a congee (juk), or gruel (mieum) and mixed with other grains, meat, or seafood. Koreans also produce a number of rice wines, both in filtered and unfiltered versions.
Legumes have been significant crops in Korean history and cuisine according to earliest preserved legumes found in archaeological sites in Korea. The excavation at Okbang site, Jinju, South Gyeongsang province indicates soybeans were cultivated as a food crop circa 1000–900 BCE. They are made into tofu (dubu), while soybean sprouts are sauteed as a vegetable (kongnamul) and whole soybeans are seasoned and served as a side dish. They are also made into soy milk, which is used as the base for the noodle dish called kongguksu. A byproduct of soy milk production is okara (kongbiji), which is used to thicken stews and porridges. Soybeans may also be one of the beans in kongbap, which boil together with several types of beans and other grains, and they are also the primary ingredient in the production of fermented condiments collectively referred to as jang, such as soybean pastes, doenjang and cheonggukjang, a soy sauce called ganjang, chili pepper paste or gochujang and others.
Mung beans are commonly used in Korean cuisine, where they are called nokdu (녹두, literally "green bean"). Mung bean sprouts, called sukju namul, are often served as a side dish, blanched and sautéed with sesame oil, garlic, and salt. Ground mung beans are used to make a porridge called nokdujuk, which is eaten as a nutritional supplement and digestive aid, especially for ill patients. A popular snack, bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) is made with ground mung beans and fresh mung bean sprouts. Starch extracted from ground mung beans is used to make transparent cellophane noodles (dangmyeon). The noodles are the main ingredients for japchae (a salad-like dish), and sundae (a blood sausage) or a subsidiary ingredient for soups and stews. The starch can be also used to make jelly-like foods, such as nokdumuk and hwangpomuk. The muk have a bland flavor, so are served seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil and crumbled seaweeds or other seasonings such as tangpyeongchae.
Cultivation of azuki beans dates back to ancient times according to an excavation from Odong-ri, Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, which is assumed to be that of Mumun period (approximately 1500-300 BCE). Azuki beans are generally eaten as patbap, which is a bowl of rice mixed with the beans, or as a filling and covering for tteok (rice cake) and breads. A porridge made with azuki beans, called patjuk, is commonly eaten during the winter season. On Dongjinal, a Korean traditional holiday which falls on December 22, Korean people eat donji patjuk, which contains saealsim (새알심), a ball made from glutinous rice flour. In old Korean tradition, patjuk is believed to have the power to drive evil spirits away.
Condiments and seasoning
Condiments are divided into fermented and nonfermented variants. Fermented condiments include ganjang, doenjang, gochujang and vinegars. Nonfermented condiments or spices include red pepper, black pepper, cordifolia, mustard, chinensis, garlic, onion, ginger, leek, and scallion (spring onion).
In antiquity, most meat in Korea was likely obtained through hunting and fishing. Ancient records indicate rearing of livestock began on a small scale during the Three Kingdoms period. Meat was consumed roasted or in soups or stews during this period. Those who lived closer to the oceans were able to complement their diet with more fish, while those who lived in the interior had a diet containing more meat.
Beef is the most prized of all, with the cattle holding an important cultural role in the Korean home. Beef is prepared in numerous ways today, including roasting, grilling (gui) or boiling in soups. Beef can also be dried into jerky, as with seafood, called respectively yukpo and eopo.
The cattle were valuable draught animals, often seen as equal to human servants, or in some cases, members of the family. Cattle were also given their own holiday during the first 'cow' day of the lunar New Year. The importance of cattle does not suggest Koreans ate an abundance of beef, however, as the cattle were valued as beasts of burden and slaughtering one would create dire issues in farming the land. Pork and seafood were consumed more regularly for this reason. The Buddhist ruling class of the Goryeo period forbade the consumption of beef. The Mongols dispensed with the ban of beef during the 13th century, and they promoted the production of beef cattle. This increased production continued into the Joseon period, when the government encouraged both increased quantities and quality of beef. Only in the latter part of the 20th century has beef become regular table fare.
Chicken has played an important role as a protein in Korean history, evidenced by a number of myths. One myth tells of the birth of Kim Alji, founder of the Kim family of Gyeongju being announced by the cry of a white chicken. As the birth of a clan's founder is always announced by an animal with preternatural qualities, this myth speaks to the importance of chicken in Korean culture. Chicken is often served roasted or braised with vegetables or in soups. All parts of the chicken are used in Korean cuisine, including the gizzard, liver, and feet. Young chickens are braised with ginseng and other ingredients in medicinal soups eaten during the summer months to combat heat called samgyetang. The feet of the chicken, called dakbal (닭발), are often roasted and covered with hot and spicy gochujang-based sauce and served as an anju, or side dish, to accompany alcoholic beverages, especially soju.
Pork has also been another important land-based protein for Korea. Records indicate pork has been a part of the Korean diet back to antiquity, similar to beef.
A number of foods have been avoided while eating pork, including Chinese bellflower (doraji, 도라지) and lotus root (yeonn ppuri, 연뿌리), as the combinations have been thought to cause diarrhea. All parts of the pig are used in Korean cuisine, including the head, intestines, liver, kidney and other internal organs. Koreans utilize these parts in a variety of cooking methods including steaming, stewing, boiling and smoking. Koreans especially like to eat grilled pork belly, which is called samgyeopsal (삼겹살).
Fish and seafood
Fish and shellfish have been a major part of Korean cuisine because of the oceans bordering the peninsula. Evidence from the 12th century illustrates commoners consumed a diet mostly of fish and shellfish, such as shrimp, clams, oysters, abalone, and loach, while sheep and hogs were reserved for the upper class.
Both fresh and saltwater fish are popular, and are served raw, grilled, broiled, dried or served in soups and stews. Common grilled fish include mackerel, hairtail, croaker and Pacific herring. Smaller fish, shrimp, squid, mollusks and countless other seafood can be salted and fermented as jeotgal. Fish can also be grilled either whole or in fillets as banchan. Fish is often dried naturally to prolong storing periods and enable shipping over long distances. Fish commonly dried include yellow corvina, anchovies (myeolchi) and croaker. Dried anchovies, along with kelp, form the basis of common soup stocks.
Shellfish is widely eaten in all different types of preparation. They can be used to prepare broth, eaten raw with chogochujang, which is a mixture of gochujang and vinegar, or used as a popular ingredient in countless dishes. Raw oysters and other seafood can be used in making kimchi to improve and vary the flavor. Salted baby shrimp are used as a seasoning agent, known as saeujeot, for the preparation of some types of kimchi. Large shrimp are often grilled as daeha gui (대하구이) or dried, mixed with vegetables and served with rice. Mollusks eaten in Korean cuisine include octopus, cuttlefish, and squid.
Korean cuisine uses a wide variety of vegetables, which are often served uncooked, either in salads or pickles, as well as cooked in various stews, stir-fried dishes, and other hot dishes. Commonly used vegetables include Korean radish, napa cabbage, cucumber, potato, sweet potato, spinach, bean sprouts, scallions, garlic, chili peppers, seaweed, zucchini, mushrooms and lotus root. Several types of wild greens, known collectively as chwinamul (such as Aster scaber), are a popular dish, and other wild vegetables such as bracken fern shoots (gosari) or Korean bellflower root (doraji) are also harvested and eaten in season. Medicinal herbs, such as ginseng, reishi, wolfberry, Codonopsis pilosula, and Angelica sinensis, are often used as ingredients in cooking, as in samgyetang.
Medicinal food (boyangshik) is a wide variety of specialty foods prepared and eaten for medicinal purposes, especially during the hottest 30-day period in the lunar calendar, called sambok. Hot foods consumed are believed to restore ki, as well as sexual and physical stamina lost in the summer heat. Commonly eaten boyangshik include ginseng, chicken, black goat, abalone, eel, carp, beef bone soups, pig kidneys and dog.
Dog meat is far less popular today than it used to be, being viewed largely as a kind of health tonic rather than as a diet staple, especially amongst the younger generations who view dogs as pets and service animals. That said, historically the consumption of dog meat can be traced back to antiquity. Dog bones were excavated in a neolithic settlement in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province. A wall painting in the Goguryeo tombs complex in South Hwanghae Province, a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates from 4th century AD, depicts a slaughtered dog in a storehouse.
The Balhae people enjoyed dog meat, and the Koreans' appetite for canine cuisine seems to have come from that era.
Koreans have distinguished Chinese terms for dog ("견; 犬", which refers to pet dogs, feral dogs, and wolves) from the Chinese term ("구; 狗") which is used specifically to indicate dog meat. "Hwangu" has been considered better for consumption than "Baekgu" (White dog) and "Heukgu" (Black dog).
Around 1816, Jeong Hak-yu, the second son of Jeong Yak-yong, a prominent politician and scholar of the Joseon dynasty, wrote a poem called Nongga Wollyeongga (농가월령가). This poem, which is an important source of Korean folk history, describes what ordinary Korean farming families did in each month of the year. In the description of the month of August the poem tells of a married woman visiting her birth parents with boiled dog meat, rice cake, and rice wine, thus showing the popularity of dog meat at the time (Ahn, 2000; Seo, 2002). Dongguk Sesigi (동국세시기), a book written by Korean scholar Hong Seok-mo in 1849, contains a recipe for Bosintang including a boiled dog, green onion, and red chili pepper powder.
According to one survey conducted in 2006, dog meat was the fourth most commonly consumed meat in South Korea.
Ginseng chicken soup (samgyetang)
Samgyetang is a hot chicken soup to boost your energy in the hot summer season. It is made with a young whole chicken stuffed with ginseng, garlic and sweet rice. Samgyetang is a Koreans' favorite energizing food and it is common to have it on sambok (삼복) days — Chobok (초복), Jungbok (중복) and Malbok (말복) — which are believed to be the hottest days in Korea.
According to the survey conducted by chosun.com, foreigners considered samgyetang as one of the best health foods for summer because of the good taste and nutrition.
Korean foods can be largely categorized into groups of "main staple foods" (주식), "subsidiary dishes" (부식), and "dessert" (후식). The main dishes are made from grains such as bap (a bowl of rice), juk (porridge), and guksu (noodles).
Many Korean banchan rely on fermentation for flavor and preservation, resulting in a tangy, salty, and spicy taste. Certain regions are especially associated with some dishes (for example, the city of Jeonju with bibimbap) either as a place of origin or for a famous regional variety. Restaurants will often use these famous names on their signs or menus (i.e. "Suwon galbi").
Soups and stews
Soups are a common part of any Korean meal. Unlike other cultures, in Korean culture, soup is served as part of the main course rather than at the beginning or the end of the meal, as an accompaniment to rice along with other banchan. Soups known as guk are often made with meats, shellfish and vegetables. Soups can be made into more formal soups known as tang, often served as the main dish of the meal. Jjigae are a thicker, heavier seasoned soups or stews.
Some popular types of soups are:
Stews are referred to as jjigae, and are often a shared side dish. Jjigae is often both cooked and served in the glazed earthenware pot (ttukbaegi) in which it is cooked. The most common version of this stew is doenjang jjigae, which is a stew of soybean paste, with many variations; common ingredients include vegetables, saltwater or freshwater fish, and tofu. The stew often changes with the seasons and which ingredients are available. Other common varieties of jjigae contain kimchi (kimchi jjigae) or tofu (sundubu jjigae).
Kimchi refers to often fermented vegetable dishes usually made with napa cabbage, Korean radish, or sometimes cucumber, commonly fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions, and chili pepper. There are endless varieties with regional variations, and it is served as a side dish or cooked into soups and rice dishes. Koreans traditionally make enough kimchi to last for the entire winter season, as fermented foods can keep for several years. These were stored in traditional Korean mud pots known as Jangdokdae although with the advent of refrigerators, special Kimchi freezers and commercially produced kimchi, this practice has become less common. Kimchi is packed with vitamin A, thiamine B1, riboflavin B2, calcium, and iron. Its main benefit though is found in the bacteria lactobacilli; this is found in yogurt and fermented foods. This bacteria helps with digestion. South Koreans eat an average of 40 pounds of Kimchi each year.
Noodles or noodle dishes in Korean cuisine are collectively referred to as guksu in native Korean or myeon in hanja. While noodles were eaten in Korea from ancient times, productions of wheat was less than other crops, so wheat noodles did not become a daily food until 1945. Wheat noodles (milguksu) were specialty foods for birthdays, weddings or auspicious occasions because the long and continued shape were thought to be associated with the bliss for longevity and long-lasting marriage.
In Korean traditional noodle dishes are onmyeon or guksu jangguk (noodles with a hot clear broth), naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), bibim guksu (cold noodle dish mixed with vegetables), kalguksu (knife-cut noodles), kongguksu (noodles with a cold soybean broth), japchae (cellophane noodles made from sweet potato with various vegetables) and others. In royal court, baekmyeon (literally "white noodles") consisting of buckwheat noodles and pheasant broth, was regarded as the top quality noodle dish. Naengmyeon with a cold soup mixed with dongchimi (watery radish kimchi) and beef brisket broth was eaten in court during summer.
Banchan is a term referring collectively to side dishes in Korean cuisine. Soups and stews are not considered banchan.
Gui are grilled dishes, which most commonly have meat or fish as their primary ingredient, but may in some cases also comprise grilled vegetables or other vegetable ingredients. At traditional restaurants, meats are cooked at the center of the table over a charcoal grill, surrounded by various banchan and individual rice bowls. The cooked meat is then cut into small pieces and wrapped with fresh lettuce leaves, with rice, thinly sliced garlic, ssamjang (a mixture of gochujang and dwenjang), and other seasonings. The suffix gui is often omitted in the names of meat-based gui such as galbi, the name of which was originally galbi gui.
Jjim and seon (steamed dishes) are generic terms referring to steamed or boiled dishes in Korean cuisine. However, the former is made with meat or seafood-based ingredients marinated in gochujang or ganjang while seon is made with vegetable stuffed with fillings.
Hoe (raw dishes): although the term originally referred to any kind of raw dish, it is generally used to refer to saengseonhweh (생선회, raw fish dishes). It is dipped in gochujang, or soy sauce with wasabi, and served with lettuce or perilla leaves.
Jeon (or buchimgae) are savory pancakes made from various ingredients. Chopped kimchi or seafood is mixed into a wheat flour-based batter, and then pan fried. This dish tastes best when it is dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and red pepper powder.
Namul may be used to refer to either saengchae (생채, literally "fresh vegetables") or sukchae (숙채, literally "heated vegetables"), although the term generally indicates the latter. Saengchae is mostly seasoned with vinegar, chili pepper powder and salt to give a tangy and refreshing taste. On the other hand, sukchae (숙채) is blanched and seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped garlic, or sometimes chili pepper powder.
Anju (side dishes accompanying alcoholic beverages)
Anju is a general term for a Korean side dish consumed with alcohol. Some examples of anju include steamed squid with gochujang, assorted fruit, dubu kimchi (tofu with kimchi), peanuts, odeng/ohmuk, sora (소라) (a kind of shellfish popular in street food tents), and nakji (small octopus). Soondae is also a kind of anju, as is samgyeopsal, or dwejigalbi, or chicken feet. Most Korean foods may be served as anju, depending on availability and the diner's taste. However, anju is considered different from the banchan served with a regular Korean meal. Jokbal is pig's leg served with saeujeot (salted fermented shrimp sauce).
All Korean traditional nonalcoholic beverages are referred to as eumcheong or eumcheongnyu (음청류 飮淸類) which literally means "clear beverages". According to historical documents regarding Korean cuisine, 193 items of eumcheongnyu are recorded. Eumcheongnyu can be divided into the following categories: tea, hwachae (fruit punch), sikhye (sweet rice drink), sujeonggwa (persimmon punch), tang (탕, boiled water), jang (장, fermented grain juice with a sour taste), suksu (숙수, beverage made of herbs), galsu (갈수, drink made of fruit extract, and Oriental medicine), honeyed water, juice and milk by their ingredient materials and preparation methods. Among the varieties, tea, hwachae, sikhye, and sujeonggwa are still widely favored and consumed; however, the others almost disappeared by the end of the 20th century.
In Korean cuisine, tea, or cha, refers to various types of herbal tea that can be served hot or cold. Not necessarily related to the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, they are made from diverse substances, including fruits (e.g. yujacha), flowers (e.g. gukhwacha), leaves, roots, and grains (e.g. boricha, hyeonmi cha) or herbs and substances used in traditional Korean medicine, such as ginseng (e.g. Insam cha) and ginger (e.g. saenggang cha).
While soju is the best known liquor, there are well over 100 different alcoholic beverages, such as beers, rice and fruit wines, and liquors produced in South Korea as well as a sweet rice drink. The top-selling domestic beers (the Korean term for beer being maekju) are lagers, which differ from Western beers in that they are brewed from rice, rather than barley. Consequently, Korean beers are lighter, sweeter and have less head than their Western counterparts. The South Korean beer market is dominated by the two major breweries: Hite and OB. Taedonggang is a North Korean beer produced at a brewery based in Pyongyang since 2002. Microbrewery beers and bars are growing in popularity after 2002.
Soju is a clear spirit which was originally made from grain, especially rice, and is now also made from sweet potatoes or barley. Soju made from grain is considered superior (as is also the case with grain vs. potato vodka). Soju is around 22% ABV, and is a favorite beverage of hard-up college students, hard-drinking businessmen, and blue-collar workers.
Yakju is a refined pure liquor fermented from rice, with the best known being cheongju. Takju is a thick unrefined liquor made with grains, with the best known being makgeolli, a white, milky rice wine traditionally drunk by farmers.
In addition to the rice wine, various fruit wines and herbal wines exist in Korean cuisine. Acacia, maesil plum, Chinese quince, cherry, pine fruits, and pomegranate are most popular. Majuang wine (a blended wine of Korean grapes with French or American wines) and ginseng-based wines are also available.
Traditional rice cakes, tteok and Korean confectionery hangwa are eaten as treats during holidays and festivals. Tteok refers to all kinds of rice cakes made from either pounded rice (메떡, metteok), pounded glutinous rice (찰떡, chaltteok), or glutinous rice left whole, without pounding. It is served either filled or covered with sweetened mung bean paste, red bean paste, mashed red beans, raisins, a sweetened filling made with sesame seeds, sweet pumpkin, beans, jujubes, pine nuts or honey). Tteok is usually served as dessert or as a snack. Among varieties, songpyeon is a chewy stuffed tteok served at Chuseok. Honey or another soft sweet material such as sweetened sesame or black beans are used as fillings. Pine needles can be used for imparting flavor during the steaming process. Yaksik is a sweet rice cake made with glutinous rice, chestnuts, pine nuts, jujubes, and other ingredients, while chapssaltteok is a tteok filled with sweet bean paste.
On the other hand, hangwa is a general term referring to all types of Korean traditional confectionery. The ingredients of hahngwa mainly consist of grain flour, honey, yeot, and sugar, or of fruit and edible roots. Hangwa is largely divided into yumilgwa (fried confectionery), suksilgwa, jeonggwa, gwapyeon, dasik (tea food) and yeot. Yumilgwa is made by stir frying or frying pieces of dough, such as maejakgwa and yakgwa. Maejakgwa is a ring-shaped confection made of wheat flour, vegetable oil, cinnamon, ginger juice, jocheong, and pine nuts, while yakgwa, literally "medicinal confectionery", is a flower-shaped biscuit made of honey, sesame oil and wheat flour.
Suksilgwa is made by boiling fruits, ginger, or nuts in water, and then forming the mix into the original fruit's shape, or other shapes. Gwapyeon is a jelly-like confection made by boiling sour fruits, starch, and sugar. Dasik, literally "eatery for tea", is made by kneading rice flour, honey, and various types of flour from nuts, herbs, sesame, or jujubes. Jeonggwa, or jeongwa, is made by boiling fruits, plant roots and seeds in honey, mullyeot (물엿, liquid candy) or sugar. It is similar to marmalade or jam/jelly. Yeot is a Korean traditional candy in liquid or solid form made from steamed rice, glutinous rice, glutinous kaoliang, corn, sweet potatoes or mixed grains. The steamed ingredients are lightly fermented and boiled in a large pot called sot (솥) for a long time.
Regional and variant cuisines
Korean regional cuisines (Korean: hyangto eumsik, literally "native local foods") are characterized by local specialties and distinctive styles within Korean cuisine. The divisions reflected historical boundaries of the provinces where these food and culinary traditions were preserved until modern times.
Although Korea has been divided into two nation-states since 1948 (North Korea and South Korea), it was once divided into eight provinces (paldo) according to the administrative districts of the Joseon Dynasty. The northern region consisted of Hamgyeong Province, Pyeongan Province and Hwanghae Province. The central region comprised Gyeonggi Province, Chungcheong Province, and Gangwon Province. Gyeongsang Province and Jeolla Province made up the southern region.
Until the late 19th century, transportation networks were not well developed, and each provincial region preserved its own characteristic tastes and cooking methods. Geographic differences are also reflected by the local specialty foodstuffs depending on the climate and types of agriculture, as well as the natural foods available. With the modern development of transportation and the introduction of foreign foods, Korean regional cuisines have tended to overlap and integrate. However, many unique traditional dishes in Korean regional cuisine have been handed down through the generations.
Korean temple cuisine originated in Buddhist temples of Korea. Since Buddhism was introduced into Korea, Buddhist traditions have strongly influenced Korean cuisine, as well. During the Silla period (57 BCE – 935 CE), chalbap (찰밥, a bowl of cooked glutinous rice) yakgwa (a fried dessert) and yumilgwa (a fried and puffed rice snack) were served for Buddhist altars and have been developed into types of hangwa, Korean traditional confectionery. During the Goryeo Dynasty, sangchu ssam (wraps made with lettuce), yaksik, and yakgwa were developed, and since spread to China and other countries. Since the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhist cuisine has been established in Korea according to regions and temples.
On the other hand, royal court cuisine is closely related to Korean temple cuisine. In the past, when the royal court maids, sanggung, who were assigned to Suragan (hangul: 수라간; hanja: 水剌間; the name of the royal kitchen), where they prepared the king's meals, became old, they had to leave the royal palace. Therefore, many of them entered Buddhist temples to become nuns. As a result, culinary techniques and recipes of the royal cuisine were integrated into Buddhist cuisine.
Vegetarian cookery in Korea may be linked to the Buddhist traditions that influenced Korean culture from the Goryeo dynasty onwards. There are hundreds of vegetarian restaurants in Korea, although historically they have been local restaurants that are unknown to tourists. Most have buffets, with cold food, and vegetarian kimchi and tofu being the main features. Bibimbap is a common vegan dish. Menus change with seasons. Wine with the alcohol removed and fine teas are also served. The Korean tea ceremony is suitable for all vegetarians and vegans, and began with Buddhist influences. All food is eaten with a combination of rather slippery stainless steel oval chopsticks and a long-handled shallow spoon called together sujeo.
Food is an important part of traditions of Korean family ceremonies, which are mainly based on the Confucian culture. Gwan Hon Sang Je (관혼상제; 冠婚喪祭), the four family ceremonies (coming-of-age ceremony, wedding, funeral, and ancestral rite) have been considered especially important and elaborately developed, continuing to influence Korean life to these days. Ceremonial food in Korea has developed with variation across different regions and cultures.
For example, rituals are mainly performed on the anniversary of deceased ancestors, called jesa. Ritual food include rice, liquor, soup, vinegar and soy sauce (1st row); noodles, skewered meat, vegetable and fish dishes, and rice cake (2nd row); three types of hot soup, meat and vegetable dishes (3rd row); dried snacks, kimchi, and sweet rice drink (4th row); and variety of fruit (5th row).
In South Korea, inexpensive food may be purchased from pojangmacha, street carts during the day, where customers may eat standing beside the cart or have their food wrapped up to take home. At night, pojangmacha (포장마차) become small tents that sell food, drinks, and alcoholic beverages.
Seasonal street foods include hotteok, and bungeoppang, which are enjoyed in autumn and winter. Gimbap (김밥) and tteokbokki (떡볶이)are also very popular street food.
Dining etiquette in Korea can be traced back to the Confucian philosophies of the Joseon period. Guidebooks, such as Sasojeol (士小節, Elementary Etiquette for Scholar Families), written in 1775 by Yi Deokmu (이덕무; 李德懋), comment on the dining etiquette for the period. Suggestions include items such as "when you see a fat cow, goat, pig, or chicken, do not immediately speak of slaughtering, cooking or eating it", "when you are having a meal with others, do not speak of smelly or dirty things, such as boils or diarrhea," "when eating a meal, neither eat so slowly as to appear to be eating against your will nor so fast as if to be taking someone else's food. Do not throw chopsticks on the table. Spoons should not touch plates, making a clashing sound", amongst many other recommendations which emphasized proper table etiquette.
The eldest male at the table was always served first, commonly served to them in the men's quarters by the women of the house. Women usually dined in a separate portion of the house after the men were served. The eldest men or women always ate before the younger family members. The meal was usually quiet, as conversation was discouraged during meals. In modern times, these rules have become lax, as families usually dine together now and use the time to converse. Of the remaining elements of this decorum, one is that the younger members of the table should not pick up their chopsticks or start eating before the elders of the table or guests and should not finish eating before the elders or guests finish eating.
In Korea, unlike in China, Japan and Vietnam, the rice or soup bowl is not lifted from the table when eating from it. This is due to the fact that each diner is given a metal spoon along with the chopsticks known collectively as sujeo. The use of the spoon for eating rice and soups is expected. There are rules which reflect the decorum of sharing communal side dishes; rules include not picking through the dishes for certain items while leaving others, and the spoon used should be clean, because usually diners put their spoons in the same serving bowl on the table. Diners should also cover their mouths when using a toothpick after the meal.
The table setup is important as well, and individual place settings, moving from the diner's left should be as follows: rice bowl, spoon, then chopsticks. Hot foods are set to the right side of the table, with the cold foods to the left. Soup must remain on the right side of the diner along with stews. Vegetables remain on the left along with the rice, and kimchi is set to the back while sauces remain in the front.
The manner of drinking alcoholic drinks at dining is significant in Korean dining etiquette. Each diner is expected to face away from the eldest male and cover his mouth when drinking alcohol. According to Hyang Eum Ju Rye (향음주례; 鄕飮酒禮), the drinking etiquette established in Choseon Dynasty, it is impolite for a king and his vassal, a father and his son, or a teacher and his student to drink face to face. Also, a guest should not refuse the first drink offered by host, and in the most formal situations, the diner should politely refuse twice a drink offered by the eldest male or a host. When the host offers for the third time, then finally the guest can receive it. If the guest refuses three times, drink is not to be offered any more.
In the Jeulmun pottery period (approximately 8000 to 1500 BCE), hunter-gatherer societies engaged in fishing and hunting, and incipient agriculture in the later stages. Since the beginning of the Mumun pottery period (1500 BCE), agricultural traditions began to develop with new migrant groups from the Liao River basin of Manchuria. During the Mumun period, people grew millet, barley, wheat, legumes and rice, and continued to hunt and fish. Archaeological remains point to development of fermented beans during this period, and cultural contact with nomadic cultures to the north facilitated domestication of animals.
Three Kingdoms period
The Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE – 668 CE) was one of rapid cultural evolution. The kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE) was located in the northern part of the peninsula along much of modern-day Manchuria. The second kingdom, Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE), was in the southwestern portion of the peninsula, and the third, Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE), was located at the southeastern portion of the peninsula. Each region had its own distinct set of cultural practices and foods. For example, Baekje was known for cold foods and fermented foods like kimchi. The spread of Buddhism and Confucianism through cultural exchanges with China during the fourth century CE began to change the distinct cultures of Korea.
During the latter Goryeo period, the Mongols invaded Goryeo in the 13th century. Some traditional foods found today in Korea have their origins during this period. The dumpling dish, mandu, grilled meat dishes, noodle dishes, and the use of seasonings such as black pepper, all have their roots in this period.
Agricultural innovations were significant and widespread during this period, such as the invention of the rain gauge during the 15th century. During 1429, the government began publishing books on agriculture and farming techniques, which included Nongsa jikseol (literally "Straight Talk on Farming"), an agricultural book compiled under King Sejong.
A series of invasions in the earlier half of the Joseon caused a dynamic shift in the culture during the second half of the period. Groups of silhak ("practical learning") scholars began to emphasize the importance of looking outside the country for innovation and technology to help improve the agricultural systems. Crops from the New World began to appear, acquired through trade with China, Japan, Europe, and the Philippines; these crops included corn, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and squash. Potatoes and sweet potatoes were particularly favored as they grew in soils and on terrains that were previously unused.
Government further developed agriculture through technology and lower taxation. Complex irrigation systems built by government allowed peasant farmers to produce larger crop volumes and produce crops not only for sustenance but also as cash crops. Reduced taxation of the peasantry also furthered the expanded commerce through increasing periodic markets, usually held every five days. One thousand such markets existed in the 19th century, and were communal centers for economic trade and entertainment.
The end of the Joseon period was marked by consistent encouragement to trade with the Western world, China and Japan. In the 1860s, trade agreements pushed by the Japanese government led the Joseon Dynasty to open its trade ports with the west, and to numerous treaties with the United States, Britain, France, and other Western countries.
The opening of Korea to the Western world brought further exchange of culture and food. Western missionaries introduced new ingredients and dishes to Korea. Joseon elites were introduced to these new foods by way of foreigners who attended the royal court as advisers or physicians. This period also saw the introduction of various seasonings imported from Japan via western traders and alcoholic drinks from China.
Colonial period to Modern period
Japan colonized Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Many of the agricultural systems were taken over by the Japanese to support Japan's food supply. Land changes resulting from the Japanese occupation included combining small farms into large-scale farms, which led to larger yields. Rice production increased during this period to support the Japanese Empire's war efforts. Many Koreans, in turn, increased the production of other grains for their own consumption.
Meals during the Japanese occupation were quite varied. Koreans usually ate two meals a day during the cold seasons, and three during the warm seasons. For the lower classes, satiety, rather than quality, was most important. Those in even lower economic levels were likely to enjoy only a single bowl of white rice each year, while the remainder of the year was filled with cheaper grains, such as millet and barley. For the Korean middle and upper classes during the occupation, things were quite different. Western foods began emerging in the Korean diet, such as white bread and commercially produced staples such as precooked noodles. The Japanese occupational period ended after the defeat of Japan during World War II.
The country remained in a state of turmoil through the Korean War (1950–1953) and the Cold War, which separated the country into North Korea and South Korea. Both of these periods continued the limited food provisions for Koreans, and the stew called budae jjigae, which makes use of inexpensive meats such as sausage and Spam, originated during this period.
At this point, the history of North and South Korea sharply diverged. In the 1960s under President Park Chung Hee, industrialization began to give South Korea the economic and cultural power it holds in the global economy today. Agriculture was increased through use of commercial fertilizers and modern farming equipment. In the 1970s, food shortages began to lessen. Consumption of instant and processed foods increased, as did the overall quality of foods. Livestock and dairy production was increased during the 1970s through the increase of commercial dairies and mechanized farms. The consumption of pork and beef increased vastly in the 1970s. Per-capita consumption of meat was 3.6 kg in 1961 and 11 kg by 1979. The result of this increased meat consumption brought about the rise of bulgogi restaurants, which gave the middle class of South Korea the ability to enjoy meat regularly. Meat eating continued to rise, reaching 40 kg in 1997, with fish consumption at 49.5 kg in 1998. Rice consumption continually decreased through these years, with 128 kg consumed per person in 1985 to 106 kg in 1995 and 83 kg in 2003. The decrease in rice consumption has been accompanied by an increase in the consumption of bread and noodles.
Royal court cuisine
Collectively known as gungjung eumsik during the pre-modern era, the foods of the royal palace were reflective of the opulent nature of the past rulers of the Korean peninsula. This nature is evidenced in examples as far back as the Silla kingdom, where a man-made lake (Anapji Lake, located in Gyeongju), was created with multiple pavilions and halls for the sole purpose of opulent banquets, and a spring fed channel, Poseokjeong, was created for the singular purpose of setting wine cups afloat while they wrote poems.
Reflecting the regionalism of the kingdoms and bordering countries of the peninsula, the cuisine borrowed portions from each of these areas to exist as a showcase. The royalty would have the finest regional specialties and delicacies sent to them at the palace. Although there are records of banquets predating the Joseon period, the majority of these records mostly reflect the vast variety of foods, but do not mention the specific foods presented. The meals cooked for the royal family did not reflect the seasons, as the commoner's meals would have. Instead, their meals varied significantly day-to-day. Each of the eight provinces was represented each month in the royal palace by ingredients presented by their governors, which gave the cooks a wide assortment of ingredients to use for royal meals.
Food was considered significant in the Joseon period. Official positions were created within the Six Ministries (Yukjo, 육조) that were charged with all matters related to procurement and consumption of food and drink for the royal court. The Board of Personnel (Ijo, 이조) contained positions specific for attaining rice for the royal family. The Board of Rights (Yejo) were responsible for foods prepared for ancestor rites, attaining wines and other beverages, and medicinal foods. There were also hundreds of slaves and women who worked in the palace that had tasks such as making tofu, liquor, tea, and tteok (rice cakes). The women were the cooks to the royal palace and were of commoner or low-born families. These women would be split into specific skill sets or "bureau" such as the bureau of special foods (Saenggwa-bang, 생과방) or the bureau of cooking foods (Soju-bang, 소주방). These female cooks may have been assisted by male cooks from outside the palace during larger banquets when necessary.
Five meals were generally served in the royal palace each day during the Joseon period, and records suggest this pattern had existed from antiquity. Three of these meals would be full meals, while the afternoon and after dinner meals would be lighter. The first meal, mieumsang (미음상), was served at sunrise and was served only on days when the king and queen were not taking herbal medicines. The meal consisted of rice porridge (juk, 죽) made with ingredients such as abalone (jeonbokjuk), white rice (huinjuk), mushrooms (beoseotjuk), pine nuts (jatjuk), and sesame (kkaejuk). The side dishes could consist of kimchi, nabak kimchi, oysters, soy sauce, and other items. The porridge was thought to give vitality to the king and queen throughout the day.
The sura (수라) were the main meals of the day. Breakfast was served at ten in the morning, and the evening meals were served between six and seven at night. The set of three tables (surasang, 수라상), were usually set with two types of rice, two types of soup, two types of stew (jjigae), one dish of jjim (meat stew), one dish of jeongol (a casserole of meat and vegetables), three types of kimchi, three types of jang (장) and twelve side dishes, called 12 cheop (12첩). The meals were set in the suragan (수라간), a room specifically used for taking meals, with the king seated to the east and the queen to the west. Each had their own set of tables and were attended by three palace servant women known as sura sanggung (수라상궁). These women would remove bowl covers and offer the foods to the king and queen after ensuring the dishes were not poisoned.
Banquets (궁중 연회 음식) were held on special occasions in the Korean Royal Palace. These included birthdays of the royal family members, marriages, and national festivals, including Daeborum, Dano, Chuseok, and Dongji. Banquet food was served on individual tables which varied according to the rank of the person. Usually banquet food consisted of ten different types of dishes. Main dishes were prepared based on the seasonal foods. Main dishes of the banquet included sinseollo, jeon, hwayang jeok, honghapcho, nengmyun and mulgimchi. A typical banquet ingredient was chogyetang (chicken broth with vinegar), which was prepared with five different chickens, five abalones, ten sea cucumbers, twenty eggs, half a bellflower root, mushrooms, two cups of black pepper, two peeled pine nuts, starch, soy sauce and vinegar. Yaksik was a favorite banquet dessert.