Seoul Food

By Feffer, John | Vegetarian Times, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Seoul Food


Feffer, John, Vegetarian Times


ANCIENT KOREAN CUISINE FOR TODAY'S VEGETARIANS

Photography by Renee Comet Styling by Lisa Cherkasky

It all started with a handful of mugwort and 20 cloves of garlic. Several thousand years ago, legend has it, a she-bear survived on this "holy food" for 20 days, became transformed into a woman and bore the first Korean child. From the very beginning of Korean history, vegetarianism has been intimately connected to physical and spiritual transformations, and to this day, garlic and wild plants play vital roles in Korean cooking.

Many Western vegetarians don't get close enough to Korean cuisine to discover its holy and wholesome vegetarian secrets. Meat means hospitality in Korea, and foreign guests are usually treated to large platters of barbecued beef at special barbecue restaurants or to grilled short ribs at home. Many visitors often leave Korea with the mistaken impression that it is a country of dedicated carnivores.

"People don't realize that Korean cuisine is mostly vegetarian," says Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, author of Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, a Korean cookbook that is bringing this least-known of East Asian cuisines to new audiences in the United States. Formal vegetarianism came to Korea with Zen Buddhism and the traditional cuisine known as sorishik. To taste son'shik-the imaginative uses of tofu coupled with the beautiful preparations of mountain vegetables-you can visit a handful of restaurants in Seoul or hike up to one of the temples in the Korean mountains that serves this simple fare.

Korean cuisine relies on a great variety of piquant salads, many humble grains and innovative soybean preparations, unusual nuts such as ginkgo and acorn, and fruits such as citron and jujubes, or Chinese dates. Korean cooks also incorporate a colorful array of mountain roots and vegetables that rarely make an appearance on American tables.

These mountain vegetables, or san'che, play a central role in one of Hepinstall's most vivid memories of growing up in Korea. During the summer, her family collected san'che, putting some aside for the wintertime. On the first full moon of January-Tae Borum Nal-her mother would prepare different vegetarian dishes based on these dried vegetables, which, during storage, had become as black as tea leaves and needed soaking to remove their bitterness. With a sprinlde of wild sesame oil and soy sauce, the san'che-the aralia root (todok), broad bellflower (toraji) and fernbracken (kosari)-came to life with flavor, eaten with five-grain rice studded with red beans and black soybeans. Served thus, the vegetables are delicious, but they do have another purpose. "In winter, you lose energy," Hepinstall says. "You can revitalize your energy with mountain vegetables."

For most of their history, Koreans were vegetarian by necessity, not by choice. Korean farmers in this mostly agrarian society relied on simple meals of rice and vegetables supplemented very infrequently with meat. To survive between harvests, Koreans preserved vegetables by pickling-hence, the famous Korean kimchi. What most non-Koreans take to be kimchi-fermented napa cabbage-is in fact only one of over a hundred different varieties of kimchi.

Kimchi is not an easy dish to make. Koreans usually give over a portion of November to kimjang, the collective enterprise of kimchi-making that often brings together several generations who work many hours preparing the kimchi, which then requires several days of fermentation before eating. But some summer kimchi-such as Stuffed Cucumber Kimchi (see recipe, p. 65), which are often eaten before they start the fermentation process-are relatively simple to prepare.

Koreans are quick to tout the health benefits of kimchi. Something so packed with garlic and vitamin C-rich cabbage can't help but fortify the immune system, and the lactic acid is said to aid digestion. But Koreans feel that nearly every ingredient and every dish from their traditional kitchen has a particular effect on the body. …

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