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A typical Korean daily meal, Hansik is composed of a variety of dishes of seasoned vegetables, soup, stew, meat and/or fish, and rice. This was historically called "bansang" in Korean, meaning the main meal table.

In Korean cuisine, garnishes and condiments are crucial in making the dish. Seasoning is very important, for even a pinch of salt makes a big difference in the taste, and is considered a basic flavor in all cooking. After taste come shape and color, as well as the vessels that carry the food.

Unlike neighboring countries, Koreans mostly use spoons and chopsticks made of metal to eat. Spoons are not only used for eating soup, but also rice. It should also be noted, however, that while metal chopsticks are predominant in Korean society, one may also find chopsticks made of wood, plastic, or ivory in the marketplace or restaurants serving dishes from overseas. There are additional wooden chopsticks for family use, too.

Korean Table d'hote, also known as Hanjeongsik offers multi-course meals that please your appetite (left); Jeonju bibimbap is the beloved traditional dish made with rice, a mixture of various fresh vegetables, and authentic natural sauce of gochujang (photos courtesy of Jeonju City).Korean Table d'hote, also known as Hanjeongsik offers multi-course meals that please your appetite (left); Jeonju bibimbap is the beloved traditional dish made with rice, a mixture of various fresh vegetables, and authentic natural sauce of gochujang (photos courtesy of Jeonju City).

Kimchi, a pungent, fermented dish, is a mixture of various pickled vegetables such as kimchi cabbage, radish, green onion, and cucumber. It is the most popular side dish in Korea and comes in all manner of kinds and shapes. Some are made spicy with the addition of red chili pepper powder while others are served in a clear, tasty liquid. The most common kinds of kimchi are those made from cabbage and radish.

Doenjang jjigae, a soybean paste stew, is the most commonly served dish at home. Koreans used to make doenjang at home by boiling yellow beans, drying them in the shade, soaking them in salty water, and fermenting them in the sunlight. These days most people use store-bought doenjang. Together with kimchi, doenjang is noted for its anti-cancer attributes, getting top marks from modern-day nutritionists.

Other popular homemade stews include kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), dongtae jjigae (a spicy stew made with frozen pollack), dubu jjigae (tofu stew), sundubu jjigae (silken tofu stew), cheonggukjang jjigae (fermented doenjang stew), and more.

 Jeonju is also a great place to experience some of the Korean “soul foods,” including kongnamul gukbap, the Jeonju-style bean sprout soup with rice (left) and makgeolli, the rice liquor (right) (photos courtesy of Jeonju City).Jeonju is a great place to experience some of the Korean “soul foods,” including kongnamul gukbap, the Jeonju-style bean sprout soup with rice (left) and makgeolli, the rice liquor (right) (photos courtesy of Jeonju City).

In order not to miss out on protein intake, there is bulgogi, often translated as Korean-style barbecue. The name is widely applied to beef, pork, chicken, lamb, squid, and octopus. The most common form is beef bulgogi: thin slices of meat are marinated in a sauce made of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, sesame seeds, and other seasonings, and then cooked over a charcoal grill, usually at the dining table. The grilled beef slices can be eaten as they are, or wrapped in a lettuce leaf along with slices of fresh garlic, red pepper paste, or a mixture of the two, both rich in vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting substances. Galbi, literally meaning ribs, is also soaked in a marinade and roasted or grilled just like bulgogi.

Royal cuisine

When it comes to royal cuisine, surasang, reveals the beauty of Korean dishes to the fullest. Surasang was the standard meal served to the king in the morning and evening. It is composed of three tables, wonban (main table), together with gyeotban and chaeksangban. Wonban was placed right in front of the king and held rice, tang (soup), jjigae (stew), jjim (casserole), seon (steamed vegetables, tofu), and twelve other smaller side dishes of sauce and assorted vegetables, including kimchi. The other two tables held other dishes including hoe (raw fish/ beef), sinseollo (Korean hot pot), gu-i (roasted/ seasoned dishes), jeongol (a kind of stew), and other specialties of the day.

(left) Han Bok-ryeo, a recognized “Important Intangible Cultural Property” of Korea (right) Sinseonno, one of the Korean traditional recipes (Photos courtesy of the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine)

For surasang, two kinds of steamed rice -- white steamed rice and rice steamed with red beans --are prepared, together with twelve side dishes. The two soups are ox bone soup and seaweed soup. Clear stew, bean paste stew, boiled meat, and raw vegetables follow. Several kinds of kimchi, including watery dongchimi, white radish kimchi, and cabbage kimchi, all featured regularly in royal cuisine. Sauces like soy sauce, vinegar soy sauce, vinegar hot pepper paste, salted shrimp, and other seasonings were placed to the left.

The twelve dishes consisted of roasted meat, meat on skewers, fried fish, boiled slices of meat, raw vegetables, boiled vegetables, hard-boiled foods, preserved salted fish, soy-seasoned dried vegetables, roasted salted and dried fish, special side dishes, and raw fish or steamed sliced fish covered with starch. Scorched rice tea was served next to the soup.

For dessert there was rice cake or tteok made of glutinous rice, beans, and other sweet grains, a sweet rice drink called sikhye, (otherwise known as gamju), and other kinds of fruit punch ready at hand.

The king would be surrounded by court ladies in charge of testing and serving him the food during the meal time. Side dishes would be served in silverware in winter and porcelain ware in summer. Silver spoons were used year-round, as silver is effective in detecting poison in foods.

Temple food

The food served at Korea's Buddhist temples can be referred to as the health food of health foods, as it contains no meat, no artificial seasonings, and lots of greens.

Plain but deep in taste, temple meals consists of a juk (a kind of porridge), rice, soup, kimchi, and assorted vegetables, including wild greens, either boiled, broiled, roasted, or fried. It is often followed by a dessert of tteok, honey, dasik (powdered grains and pollen), han-gwa (confectionery), and tea.

There are a few characteristics of Korean temple food. First, meat is avoided at all costs except for a very few exceptions, such as sickness. Second, the five vegetables that are considered strong in smell and bring out carnal desires are omitted. These vegetables are green onions, garlic, wild rocambole, Korean leeks, and Chinese squill (such foods are regarded as health foods outside the temple). Third, the food has a medicinal value. This is where lots of herbal dishes come in. Fourth, there is no artificial seasoning. And fifth, the meal is prepared with seasonal ingredients.

Naturally, the kimchi made in the temples is mostly white, cool, and unique in taste according to its fermentation process using less salt than average. Rice itself varies in type and is cooked with either bean sprouts, fried bean curd, boiled barley, radish, millet, wheat, lotus leaf, or other wild greens.

Foreign participants experience various templestay programs (photo courtesy of Geumsan-sa Temple)Foreign participants experience various templestay programs (photo courtesy of Geumsan-sa Temple)

The temples in Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province) and Chungcheong-do (Chungcheong Province) are famous for white kimchi, bossam kimchi (wrapped-up kimchi), and gosu kimchi (lightly flavored kimchi) using pine nuts; temples in Jeolla-do (Jeolla Province) have godeulppaegi kimchi (Korean lettuce kimchi), gat kimchi (pickled mustard kimchi), and juksun kimchi (bamboo shoot kimchi) using a porridge of green perilla; and those of Gyeongsang-do (Gyeongsang Province) have pumpkin porridge, boiled barley rice, bean leaf kimchi, burdock kimchi, and sesame leaf kimchi.

The Tongdosa Buddhist Temple in Gyeongsangnam-do (South Gyeongsang Province) is reputed for its pyogo mushroom rice, gajuk (a kind of chinaberry) kimchi, gajuk salad, fried gajuk and fried glutinous mung beans; Haeinsa Buddhist Temple in Hapcheon County in the same province for its stewed eggplant, butterbur soup, pine mushroom rice, and pine leaf tea, among others; Songgwangsa Buddhist Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province) for its lotus root water kimchi, bamboo shoot kimchi, and dried and seasoned bamboo shoots; and Daeheungsa Buddhist Temple at Haenam County also in Jeollanam-do, for its dongchimi.

With the templestay ( program settling in as one of Korea’s popular tourist programs, more and more visitors are relishing their chances to learn more about another culinary gem in Korea that gives one a clear mind and spirit.

For more information, visit Korean Food Foundation at:

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