Traditional Korean cuisine includes meat, rice, vegetables, tofu and the ubiquitous kimchi, cabbage pickled in garlic and chili peppers. Most meals are served with banchan, side dishes (like kimchi) that are as varied as they are numerous.
Korea's 5000 year history makes it one of the oldest Asian cultures, despite its being less familiar to Westerners than its neighbors China and Japan. Founded by Mongol tribes with shamanistic beliefs, Korea developed its own distinctive culture which became even more strongly preserved during the monarchy's era of the Hermit Kingdom. Later, under the Choson dynasty, it became known as the Land of the Morning Calm. Today, most Koreans are Confucianists or Buddhists, although the missionaries have developed a strong Christian following in the South, and also among the Korean emigrants to the US.
A peninsula thrusting between China and Japan, Korea has a terrain that can be most beautiful but also most rugged at the same time. Jagged mountains pushed up from the sea are criss-crossed by rivers and lush green grasses, hence its nickname as "the Switzerland of Asia."
Winters in the north can be harsh and severe, while the southern climate is hot and tropical. Only 20% of the land is arable, and of this half is given to rice cultivation, with spots of acreage devoted to cattle grazing. It is also a principal supplier of ginseng root, said to have medicinal properties. Korea is a peninsula set in some of the world's best fishing waters, so it is no wonder that seafood, fresh and dried, is the primary protein source for the Korean people.
Wars have had their effect on this nation, with the splitting of North and South Korea after the Korean War being the most recent result. Ages ago, Mongol invasions put it under Chinese domination in the 13th century, later to be followed by Japanese annexation from 1910 to 1945. But the physical location of Korea alone has fostered cross-cultural exchanges with China and Japan throughout history, with Korean influence keenly felt in Japan long before recent times.
Koreans themselves are a proud people. Known for their passionate tempers, they have been called "the Irish of the Orient." But they are also a happy people who love to laugh, and they maintain strong family ties. The halmoni, grandmothers, and their husbands are commonly included in their children's and grandchildren's picnics and other activities.
If you have ever awoken to a view of Korea's cloud-enshrouded mountains, walked through the green grasses or tested the waters of a fresh mountain stream, you will know why they call it the Land of the Morning Calm.
from Kate's Global Kitchen:
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This page modified January 2007
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