Korean food – regions, history and tradition

April 6, 2016 3:00 pm
Korean food – regions, history and tradition

Korean food is influenced heavily by a mixture of ancient traditions, the natural environment, social trends and religion.

It is spicy and diverse and has evolved over time to produce globally recognised dishes, such as kimchi, that are heralded for their health benefits.


North and South Korea form a peninsula that extends from the north-eastern border of China into the ocean, parallel to Japan. Korea’s cuisine is inspired by the agriculture and the seas surrounding it, namely the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. South Korea’s fertile plains are perfect for growing rice, a staple grain that accompanies most meals, and the seas are rich with tasty seafood like king crab and squid.

Food is the best medicine

Many Koreans hold the ancient belief that food is the best medicine. This philosophy has not died out over time, and it is widely believed that health and sickness directly relate to the food that we eat.

This thought system has helped to develop traditional Korean medicine, reinforcing its fundamental principle – that medicine should only be used after food has failed. The benefit of food to one’s health is a common topic of conversation, and it is quite usual to find ingredients such as wild vegetables in traditional medicines.


The philosophy of Eumyangohaeng explains the reasoning behind the ‘food is medicine’ belief. It posits five elements make up the universe, and it is only when these elements are in balance that the body is healthy.

This philosophy is catered for on the traditional Korean table by including five garnishes in a variety of colours (red, green, white, yellow and black) that are there to represent the elements.

Popular ingredients

Korean food is often spicy: typical ingredients are soy sauce, red pepper paste, bean paste, garlic, green onion and ginger. Rice is a common accompaniment to meals, and while the sides are mainly vegetable-based, seafood and meats like beef and chicken are used in a lot of the country’s favourite dishes, including bibimbap and bulgogi.

Temple Food

Buddhist temples in Korea are renowned for their temple food, and the offerings tend to vary from temple to temple. For instance, Tongdosa temple, located in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang province, is known for its dureup muchim (sauteed shoots of the woody plant Aralia elata), and nokdu chalpyeon (a mung bean rice cake) and pyeogobap (shiitake mushroom rice).

Haeinsa, located in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang province, is famous for its kimchi (a popular fermented cabbage dish) variation sangchu bulttuk kimchi (lettuce kimchi, sliced pan-fried aubergine and sautéed coriander leaves).

Ceremonial Food

Since the adoption of the Confucian philosophical system during the Choseon dynasty (1392-1910), ceremonial food has been a big part of Korean cultural cuisine.

For instance, during a traditional Korean wedding ceremony, a daeryesang table laden with rice wine, rice cakes, chestnuts and jujubes (a Korean candy that varies from being hard to gummy-like, depending on region) is put between the bride and groom, and the happy couple use the wine to toast each other.

During a funeral, a hot and spicy soup-style beef dish called Yukgaejang is commonly served, with the belief that the red chilli pepper with which it is flavoured will protect the guests from ghosts and spirits.

Favourite Korean dishes

A hugely popular dish with high nutritional value (it’s packed with vitamin A, thiamine B1, riboflavin B2, calcium, and iron). Kimchi is made from salted white cabbage, kimchi paste (garlic, chilli powder, spring onion, radish and ginger), fish sauce and differing types of seafood, all of which is left to ferment for several days before it is then ready to eat.

Minced beef, fried egg and seasonal vegetables mixed into cooked rice. This dish is so popular that there is a festival in Seoul named after it.

This Korean-style porridge is made of various grains (like rice, buckwheat, barley or millet) and vegetables or meat and seasoned with soy sauce. It is usually served to people with digestive problems or children.

Bulgogi is a meat dish made by shredding or slicing beef, marinating it in a sweet soy sauce and then grilling it. Its popularity has increased since its adoption by fast food restaurants who are now serving bulgogi-style burgers.

The Korean food scene is growing in the UK and if you have not yet sampled some authentic cuisine from the likes of London’s Kimchee restaurant or some of the Korean street food which is widely available in cities all over the UK, then you are missing out.

Want to learn more about Asian food? Have a read through our latest blog posts.


Image credit:

Korean temple food by Richy! at flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons