Major staple and nonstaple foods
The Korean people ate boiled cereals as their staple food since they put main stress on crop production.
In the early days of their civilizations humans lived on various foods according to their natural surroundings and productivity.
Those in the mountainous areas hunted animals for food, while those along the rivers and seas eating shellfish and fish for staple foods.
With the growth of crop cultivation in the post-Neolithic era, cereals took major places in diet in the form of boiled cereals, congees and cereal cakes.
Though foods made of cereals have become staple foods, they vary according to nations.
From olden times bread was a major food in European countries, but the Koreans had boiled cereals as a staple food in everyday diet and rice cake as a special food.
Such a dietary custom had been carried forward from ancient times and middle ages to contemporary days, becoming a tradition of the Korean nation.
Among a wide variety of nonstaple foods, major ones are soups, soybean paste and sauce, and kimchi.
Korean people never excluded soups, soybean paste and sauce, and kimchi for their everyday meals, though other kinds of nonstaple foods were occasionally served.
Traditionally they highly prized bean paste soups, and boiling stew in bean paste served in earthen vessel was a sight unique to Korean meals.
Kimchi is another indispensable food.
In the feudal Joson dynasty holiday feasts included a variety of meat foods, rice cakes and other special dishes, and refreshing kimchi and bean paste soups were a must on the table.
For this reason, kimchi, soybean paste and sauce, and soups became widely known even to foreign countries as specialities of Korea.
Custom of having meals on a table in an underfloor-heated room
It is a traditional dietary custom of the Korean people to set foods on a table and enjoy meals in a warm underfloor-heated room with all family members.
From ancient times the Korean people lived in wooden houses with beams built on a floor-heating device, which are similar to present rural houses.
Previous stoves warmed half-underground shacks to a certain degree, but they were not enough for warm houses built on the gound.
So the Korean ancestors built kitchen ranges inside houses and introduced floor-heating system to use heat without waste in warming rooms and living in comfort.
In Koryo and feudal Joson dynasties underfloor-heating systems were disseminated throughout the country, and the custom of having meals on a table in a warm room was passed on through generations.
Habit of eating three meals a day
In the earliest stage of human history people wandered from place to place in groups and had irregular meals when they found food.
But, after the Neolithic Period, when a productive life, involving sedentary agriculture and domesticated animal raising, became predominant with the clan as the unit, they could store up a certain amount of the produce.
So they got rid of the habit of wandering in search of food, and settled down in a certain place and led a regular life. They slept at home, got up in the morning and had breakfast, went to work, and returned home when it got dark to have supper.
And in the course of this, they acquired a habit of eating meals at proper intervals, for instance, in the morning and in the evening, or in the morning, in the middle of the day and in the evening.
Such an eating habit was good for health promotion of the people, as it alleviated the burden of the stomach, and was suitable for labour and daily life.
The custom of having three meals a day was first recorded in the days of the Three Kingdoms.
History of the Three Kingdoms tells that a king of Silla had meals two or three times a day and a huge amount of rice, liquor and meat were consumed.
There are several records of the eating habit in the documents of Koryo and feudal Joson dynasties.
According to them, during the days of Koryo there lived a man named Hwang Su in the Walled City of Pyongyang, and his family ate from the same pot. He had delicious dishes prepared and served his parents three times a day, and then ate with all other family members. And during the days of feudal Joson dynasty a government official had three meals every day.
Of the three meals breakfast and supper were considered important, so they included newly prepared boiled cereals, soups and several side dishes. And lunch was comparably light, with either the dishes spared at breakfast or noodles.
The custom of managing dietary life assiduously and frugally
The Korean people traditionally managed their dietary life assiduously and frugally.
It is seen in the old documents that the people from the Koguryo period economized on food and held wedding and other ceremonies in a simple way.
It has also been regarded as one of good traits for women to keep their kitchens clean and utensils unstained, glossy and long-lasting.
An old record shows that in Ancient Joson, the first state of Korea, even poor peasants got necessary bowls for food, which tells the origin of the traditional custom of the Korean people to manage their life clean and assiduously.
Traditionally the Korean women wore kerchiefs and white aprons when cooking in the kitchen.
It is proved by the mural painting of a woman in attendance found in the Anak Tomb No. 2 of Koguryo and that of a woman in dress and an apron seen in the Kamsin Tomb.
Wearing a kerchief and an apron while cooking food is good for preventing hair falling, ensuring hygienic safety and convenient activities and also good in appearance.
The fact that the Koreans wore kerchiefs and aprons from several thousand years ago eloquently proves the high cultural level of the Korean nation.
The custom of preparing foods variously and deliciously
A Korean saying goes, “A hundred dishes are prepared with radish,” which means even one ingredient can be processed to make various and tasty foods.
Korean women prepared a variety of foods, including staple and non-staple foods, sweet foods and beverages, and processed one ingredient into several dishes with different tastes.
They developed such cooking methods as boiling, stewing, sauteing, frying, steaming, parboiling and roasting, and applied the method of fermentation to preparing soy sauce and bean paste, pickled fishes and kimchi. A number of local dishes were also created.
That’s why the food processing skill has become one of important criteria for women’s personality.
Manners of respecting the elders and treating them well
From olden times the Korean people have regarded it as their natural duty to respect their parents and other elderly persons and treat them well.
Such good manners are manifested in serving the seniors with food first.
In serving rice, soup and side dishes in bowls, the seniors were the first to be served, and delicious dishes were prepared on the table for them.
In particular, old people were served with foods on a separate table so that they could eat slowly, and they took it for granted to take spoons and chopsticks before the young people.
Delicious and rare dishes were first served to the old.
Housewives paid close attention to preparing fine dishes for the seniors in consideration of their tastes and health conditions.
Beautiful manners of the Korean people who made sincere efforts to serve their parents with foods in difficult living conditions are seen in many old historical documents, and among them is a story about Ondal, a man of Koguryo who faithfully supported his blind mother.
Trait of Sharing Food with Neighbours
From olden times the Koreans have shared dishes with their neighbours and served their guests with hospitality.
When they prepared a special dish, they would share it with their neighbours or invite guests to taste it together.
When a family was going to have a feast, the whole neighbourhood helped them and shared feast food altogether.
It was their custom to enjoy holidays together with neighbours, sharing holiday dishes with them.
And when there was a family in difficulty or in mourning, they visited them with prepared dishes.
It was another beautiful trait of the Korean people to serve guest with hospitality.
An old book compiled in the 13th century read that people travelled without taking food and even strangers were treated with warm hospitality and free of charge.
The Korean people welcomed any guests and served them by preparing delicious dishes.
When having a meal with a guest, the host took up spoon and chopsticks before his guest and placed delicious and rare dishes near the latter. And he refrained from finishing his meal before the guest to let him have his fill. A cup of clean water was prepared for the guest to rinse the mouth after meal.
The beautiful trait of the Korean people to welcome guests and serve them with warm hospitality gave a deep impression on foreign visitors.
Characteristics of the Korean Eating Utensils and their Excellence
The Korean nation, which has lived as a homogenous nation in the same land from olden times and waged the struggle to transform the nature, has developed various eating utensils by displaying creative wisdom and talent.
The Korean eating utensils are diverse in kind and form.
They are sorted into several groups, for instance, those used in cooking, eating and serving food, carrying and storing food, tables and so on.
Their shapes vary according to what they are used for, and, even when they are of the same kind they may vary in size and shape according to age and sex of the users.
And the quality of materials and shapes of vessels also vary according to foods and seasons.
Brass or earthen vessels of different shapes are widely used to contain foods and keep them warm or hot. Ceramic and brass vessels are used for serving refreshments, and white small porcelain bowl is used for serving kimchi.
Vessels made of different materials are used for serving food of the same kind according to seasons. For instance, brass bowls are used for serving boiled rice in winter and ceramic bowls in summer.
The Korean eating utensils are made to ensure scientific accuracy, hygienic safety and practical utility.
First of all, they are made to be convenient and stable.
For example, pots are thick at the bottom and covered with lids to conserve heat. They are made of clay, bronze, stone, metal and other materials to be good-looking and solid. They are also handled carefully and handed down to younger generations.
Sinsollo, a cooking brazier for its namesake traditional Korean food, is made of brass or nickel, so it is light and solid. It is used not only as a vessel for serving food but also as a brazier to be suitable for self-cooking.
Korean spoons and chopsticks are widely known across the world as the most practical and hygienic eating utensils.
And food vessels are convenient to use and have lids to ensure hygienic safety.
Pansanggi, a typical set of dishes for a table in Korea, is composed of a variety of vessels for serving boiled rice and other side dishes, and they are all covered with lids and vary in size according to foods.
This proves clearly that the Korean nation has valued traditional eating utensils and made effective use of them.
The Korean eating utensils are also very artistic as well as practical.
They are beautiful in shape. For example, various components of food vessels and storing containers are well harmonized and beautifully shaped. And some vessels, such as saucers and links for kettle lids, are made so artistically and formatively.
The Korean eating utensils represent unique and beautiful taste of the nation for colour.
Ceramic vessels that are widely used in everyday diet are jade-green in colour and look subtle, clear and refreshing.
For white-coloured vessels, they are greyish white, milky white, pure white or bluish white, giving refined, refreshing and soft feelings.
Traditional eating utensils are also decorated with various beautiful patterns.
Ten things which are said to represent longevity were much used in patterns, and inlaying, lacquering, mother-of-pearl inlaying were widely employed.
Such patterns and decorative methods are very vivid, emotional, clear, simple and elegant.
The Korean eating utensils are world-famous as Korean-style craftwork for their colours rich in national identity, unique and beautiful decoration, and formal beauty which are well blended.
The Korean eating utensils have a long history of development.
Already in the Neolithic era the Koreans had prepared utensils for various purposes, such as for cooking, eating and storing. Earthenware was used for boiling or steaming, and storing foods, and spoons and chopsticks made of bone were also used.
The practice of using eating utensils was carried forward to later periods in which brass, lacquered and jade vessels, tables, cups, tables and other utensils were widely used. In the days of the Three Kingdoms essential items of the kitchenware took clear shape.
During the periods of Palhae, Later Silla, Koryo and feudal Joson dynasties the manufacturing technology of the Korean eating utensils attained a high level of development, and they were highly appreciated in the neighbouring countries for their practical and artistic features and excellence in terms of scientific accuracy and hygienic safety.
High level of development of the eating utensils in Korea is attributable to the excellent artistic talent and creative wisdom of the Korean people and also material and technological conditions for their manufacturing.
The intelligent and talented Korean people have created their unique custom of table setting and developed it through a long history.
Traditional table-setting custom of Korea differs a little by regions and social classes, but it is generally classified into three categories-for daily diet, for ceremonial feasts and for royal court.
The table setting for daily diet included those for breakfast, lunch and supper, which was prepared as a table for one person, or that for two to four people, or a round table for several people.
Usually a one-person table was set for the senior people with high social standings, and young people with low social standings sat at the same table.
When preparing a round table setting, boiled cereals and soup were served separately for every persons and other side dishes in the same bowls and plates. And farmers’ families ate boiled cereals from the same bowl put in the middle of the table, with their own soup bowls.
Tables were set specially for ceremonial feasts, in celebration of birthday and wedding, and in memory of the dead.
Tables for ceremonial feasts were prepared in accordance with certain rules.
They included fruits, rice cakes, fried wheat-flour cakes, jerked and boiled meats, pancakes, grills and various kinds of foods which were heaped up on dishes. And that for the 60th birth anniversary was set with higher heaps of foods to show filial affection for the parents.
As a whole, the feast tables were prepared to be good-looking and splendid.
When setting a table in memory of the dead, clean vessels with simple decorations, long necks or high bases were used.
Tables for royal court included those for daily meals and light refreshments of the royal family, for ceremonial feasts on holidays and birthdays of royal family members, and for foreign envoys.
The custom of table setting of Korea has been created in accordance with its people’s dietary life, way of living in the floor-heated rooms, courteous table manners, and usage of eating utensils, so it has several specific features.
First, the custom of preparing food on the table has a long history and is diverse in kind.
The long history of the custom is evidenced by the fact that a wooden table was discovered in an ancient remains and it was similar in size to an individual table of later periods.
Second, the table setting is suitable for dwelling conditions of Korea.
Foreigners had meals sitting on the chairs at a table, but the Korean people placed foods on a low table and sat on the under-heated floor to have meals.
Third, most of the foods and sauces are set on the table at the same time.
Such a custom was formed so that people could have dishes according to their likings and tastes.
Fourth, the table is decorated flamboyantly.
Colourful sprigs were fixed on the rice cakes, or rice cakes were piled up to form beautiful flower patterns.
Fifth, the table setting reflects beautiful customs of Korean people to respect the elderly and the seniors and treat them with all sincerity.
It finds expression in the fact that the old and senior people were given tables separately and served with delicacies on a priority basis.
Custom of wearing apron while cooking
The Korean women always wear aprons when they prepare foods in the kitchen.
Some tombs of Koguryo dating back over 2 000 years still preserve mural paintings of women clad in dress and apron.
It proves that the custom of women to wear apron for cooking has been established from long ago and handed down through generations up to present.
Aprons were worn only in kitchen, and they were taken off after cooking or when greeting guests.
In Korea an apron is otherwise called haengjuchima, which has its origin in the battle of the fortress on Mt Haengju in the days of the Imjin Patriotic War.
At that time women in the fortress on Mt Haengju carried stones in their aprons to the soldiers fighting against the 30 000-strong Japanese troops encircling the fortress, thus contributing greatly to the victory in the battle. Since then, women’s aprons were also called haengjuchima.
The custom of wearing apron shows that Korean women always keep themselves clean and neat.
Custom of valuing boiled cereals and their bowls
The Korean people have eaten boiled cereals as the main staple food, and thus paid much attention to cooking them and handled rice bowls with great care.
Every family had bowls for each member.
The Korean people prepared rice bowls for children on the occasion of their first birthday. For the breakfast that day, they boiled polished rice, filled the bowl with boiled rice, and served it with seaweed soup and a new set of spoon and chopsticks.
The rice and soup bowls and a set of spoon and chopsticks prepared on the firth birth anniversary were used until the child reached the age of five to nine, and replaced with bigger ones afterwards.
The rice bowl was a must-gift for not only the celebration of first birthday but also the wedding ceremony.
A bride should prepare as wedding presents a set of tableware, such as rice and soup bowls, spoons and chopsticks, for the couple, and among them other table utensils may be excluded excepting rice and soup bowls, spoons and chopsticks.
Those utensils the bride had brought as wedding presents were kept throughout the life, and the custom is being carried forward until today.
The Korean women fixed rice bowls for individual family members, cleaned them and piled them on the shelf, and used them at meals.
The custom of treating guests cordially
It is the beautiful trait of the Korean people to treat guests with warm hospitality.
Jewangungi, an old book compiled in the 13th century, read that people travelled without taking food and no household left their doors closed, which proves the trait of treating guests with warm hospitality had been established long ago.
The Korean people welcomed any guests and served them by preparing delicious dishes, however difficult they felt in living.
When having a meal with a guest, the host took up spoon and chopsticks before his guest and placed delicious and rare dishes near the latter.
And he refrained from finishing his meal before the guest to let him have his fill. The beautiful trait of the Korean people to welcome guests and serve them with warm hospitality gave a deep impression on foreign visitors.
A foreigner who travelled Korea in the late 18th century said in favour of the Korean people’s kind nature and warm hospitality in the following vein: The Korean people accorded warm hospitality to the travellers from the first day of their stay to the last. It is hard to find elsewhere in the world such people as the Koreans with attractive nature.
Manner of setting dishes on a table in a polite and convenient way
There are differences between the nations in the way and form of setting tables.
From olden times the Korean people set foods on a small dining table, took the table to the dining place and ate meals.
When setting foods on either a big, round table or an exquisite, large and square table, foods were carried on a tray. However, the Korean people mainly set foods on a small table.
In the past setting the table and carrying foods were mostly undertaken by women. So they always kept themselves neat and clean and placed dishes and spoons and chopsticks for the convenience of the diners.
The Korean people have courteous table manners.
They wash their hands clean before having meals and assume a proper posture at table.
When several people eat together, they do not rummage or scratch dishes, and are careful not to drop food on the table.
It is polite to take a mouthful of food each time, chew fully, with mouth shut, and not to have another mouthful without swallowing the previous one.
Juice of kimchi and soup are taken with a spoon, being careful not to make a noise.
Alien matters in the mouth, such as grit and fish bone, are spat on a tissue paper or a napkin, wrapped in them and thrown away. When coughing or sneezing, it is polite to turn the head and cover the mouth with either hands or a handkerchief.
It is impolite to dish out the remaining foods on others and talk during the meal.
After finishing a meal, spoon and chopsticks are placed on the right side. But they refrain from putting down their spoons and chopsticks on the table before elders finish their meal, and put them in the soup bowls and wait.
When the whole family members finish the meal, the table is cleared.
Traditional Drinks and Their Excellence
Traditional drinks of Korea that reflect the wisdom and talent of the Korean people have been created and developed through a long period of time.
They boast excellent tastes, medicinal properties, processing methods, varieties and usage.
They retain characteristics of ingredients well to give unique flavour.
For example, honeyed juices that are made with fresh fruits taste refreshing, light and fragrant.
Traditional drinks are also free from astringent, bitter and other impure tastes, so they have exhilarating aftertastes.
That’s why they are very popular among not only Koreans but also foreigners.
And their high medicinal values are very beneficial to health promotion and longevity.
Generally, they are made of ingredients with medicinal properties, including insam, barley, Schizandra chinensis, fruit of Crataegus pinnatifida and matrimony vine.
Insam tea of Korea is very famous for its remarkable functions of relieving fatigue, lowering blood pressure, acting against cancer, and preventing and treating gastric ulcer. It is effective in promoting mental functions and enhancing resistance to disease.
Traditional drinks of Korea are widely known across the world as excellent tonics.
They are also made with scientific accuracy.
The Korean people applied scientific principles to the manufacturing of traditional drinks from long ago, and exerted a considerable influence on the development of drinks of the neighbouring countries.
Typical traditional drinks include sujonggwa (honeyed juice with dried persimmon, pine nuts and cinnamon), sikhye (sweet rice drink), hyangsolgo (boiled pear preserved in honey), hwachae (honeyed juice with fruit), and kamju (sweet drink prepared with rice and malt).