The History and Culture of Food and Drink: Korea

Lois N Magner. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Historical Background

If the history of a dietary culture is, in many ways, the history of a people, then the evolution of Korea’s dietary traditions clearly reflects that nation’s turbulent history. Geography and environment play a decisive role in determining the foundation of a nation’s dietary culture, whereas complex political, economic, and social conditions and interactions with other cultures contribute to further development.

Traditional dietary strategies must balance the need for sufficient calories and specific nutrients with the need to avoid or minimize diseases associated with foods that are contaminated, spoiled, or otherwise unhealthy. An account of traditional diets should, therefore, deal with food and waterborne diseases as well as with typical foods and cooking methods. Once dietary habits and food preferences have been established, they become a central part of the culture and are highly resistant to change.

It is not uncommon, however, to find that in the course of exchanges between cultures, foreign foods have become so thoroughly adapted to local conditions that their origins are quite forgotten. In a rapidly changing and interdependent world, it is important to understand the historical background of traditional diets and the impact of modernization in order to maintain and develop dietary strategies that balance cherished traditions with new circumstances. An understanding of the traditional foods of Korea, therefore, requires a brief overview of Korean geography and history.

Korea occupies the mountainous peninsula south of Manchuria; the Yellow Sea separates Korea from mainland China to the west. Japan is only 206 kilometers (km) away across the southern Korea Straits. Because of its strategic location, Korea has a history that has been intimately linked to developments in China, Japan, and other Asian countries. The total size of the peninsula is about that of the state of New York. It was artificially divided along the 38th parallel as the result of World War II and the Korean War, with the area of the northern zone about 122,370 square kilometers (sq km) and that of the Republic of Korea about 98,173 sq km. The peninsula is approximately 1,000 km in total north-south length and 216 km wide at its narrowest point, with a rugged coastline about 17,269 km long. Korea has long been a cultural bridge and a mediator between China and Japan and often the target of their territorial ambitions and aggression. Devastated and exhausted by centuries of conflict, the “Hermit Kingdom” during the sixteenth century embarked on a policy of isolationism that kept Korea virtually unknown to the West until the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Only vague outlines of Korea’s early history have been reconstructed. Old Choson—the first of the periods of Korean history—is traditionally, but unreliably, dated from 2333 to 562 B.C. Ancient sources recall a period of settled village life in which the people cultivated the five grains, domesticated the six animal species, and harvested foods from the sea.

The Three Kingdoms period encompassed the era of Koguryo (37 B.C. to A.D. 688), Paekche (18 B.C. to A.D. 660), and Silla (57 B.C. to A.D. 935). Since the fourth century A.D., Buddhism has provided a sense of spiritual unity for the peninsula, despite conflicts among the Three Kingdoms.

The period from A.D. 618 to 935 is known as the time of Unified Silla. The Koryo dynasty lasted from 918 to 1392 and was followed by the establishment of Modern Choson under the rule of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), whose bureaucratic and administrative structures were based on Confucian principles. During the Three Kingdoms period, the adaptation of the Chinese writing system to the Korean language stimulated state-supported compilation of national histories, but none of these annals survive. Extracts from the annals compiled during the Koryo era are the oldest extant Korean historical texts.

Korean Foodways Staples

As might be predicted from what we know of Korea’s long history and the struggles of its people to maintain their independence and their unique culture, Korean dietary patterns, traditions, and customs can be described as deeply rooted and not easily changed. Some modern Korean nutritionists not very modestly proclaim that traditional Korean foods constitute the perfect diet, outstanding in nutrition, taste, appearance, and variety. In sum, Korean cuisine is said to provide a nutritious, well-balanced answer to the weight and cholesterol problems that plague the developed world. Moreover, presenting traditional foods in the proper manner is said to promote a sense of peace and well-being that enhances the stability of the family and the nation.

The Korean diet is about 70 percent carbohydrate, 13 percent fat, and 14 to 17 percent protein. The European diet, in contrast, is usually about 40 percent carbohydrate, 30 to 40 percent fat, 15 to 20 percent protein, and 10 to 15 percent sugar. Scientific studies of traditional Korean foods, however, find both good and bad aspects. On the positive side, by combining and mixing a variety of materials, Korean cooks have been able to balance the nutritional qualities of available foods. On the other hand, traditional foods and seasonings provide a very high salt intake. Rice is regarded as the staple food, and other foods are described as subsidiary. Of course, although rice may satisfy hunger, it is not a complete food, and essential elements must be added to the diet to avoid malnutrition. Korea’s famous fermented vegetable preparations, known as kim-chee, almost invariably accompany each meal.

The traditional arts of cooking and presentation are said to be fundamental aspects of Korean culture; the proper preparation of food is considered a noble art as well as a science. Although it is difficult to precisely analyze and describe the special “Korean taste,” preserving special dietary traditions and transmitting them to future generations is highly valued. Beyond nostalgia, Korean nutritionists are also concerned with the scientific analysis of the many components of the Korean diet and methods of preparation.

Historically, Korean food components and methods of preparation have been adapted to the four distinct seasons of the year and the different regions. Seasonal and regional adaptations bring out the best tastes in available foods and provide the balance needed to supply the body’s nutritional requirements. Food etiquette is inextricably linked to food preparation and presentation, which is expressed in terms of rules for the placement of food on the table and rules for facing the table. Although the original Korean low food table, around which diners sit on the floor, has been largely displaced by Western-type tables and chairs, the etiquette of food presentation has not been forgotten.

Generally, the traditional Korean diet features three meals a day in which the foods are divided into two parts: the main dish or staple food—almost invariably boiled rice—and subsidiary foods or side dishes, such as soup, bean curd, cooked meat or fish, cooked vegetables, and fermented vegetables. Proper meal planning dictates diversity in methods of preparation and ingredients. The simplest meal has three side dishes, whereas more elaborate meals are characterized by an increasing number of side dishes. An ordinary everyday meal might consist of a serving of rice and soup for each person and a series of shared side dishes. The table setting shows a clear distinction between the main and the subsidiary dishes. For rituals and festivals, the table setting becomes more elaborate and includes a variety of appetizers, soups, noodles, vegetables, rice cakes, pastries, and beverages.

The evolution of Korea’s traditional grain-based diet required the development of farming techniques as well as tools for hulling and pulverizing the grains. The evolution of the house, the kitchen, and the utensils for cooking, serving, and eating food was also part of this process. Cereals, such as millet and sorghum (kaoliang), were cultivated in Korea from about 2000 B.C. Excavations at ancient sites have yielded stone farming tools and the remains of different kinds of millet. Millet is probably the only grain native to the whole peninsula, but rice has long been the most important component of the Korean diet, with short-grain rice ultimately the favorite staple.

Rice was introduced from China, perhaps as early as 2000 B.C., although, according to some accounts, a Chinese nobleman brought rice to Korea in 1122 B.C. Though small in area, the Korean peninsula has an extremely varied climate, so other cereals predominated in regions not suited to rice farming. In southern areas, rice was the mainstay, whereas millet was the staple grain in the north. Barley was introduced to Korea earlier than wheat, but the exact date is unknown. Barley was grown mainly in the southeastern region, where it was consumed as a staple in combination with rice. Wheat was not cultivated until about the first or second century A.D. It was probably introduced into Korea from China around the first century, but it has never been considered a staple. Even in the 1930s, the area devoted to wheat farming was only about half that occupied by barley.

During the Three Kingdoms era, Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla all engaged in land-reform policies, expanded irrigation systems, and actively encouraged the propagation of improved iron farming implements. Rice became the staple food of Paekche, whereas the people of Silla still depended on barley, and millet remained as important as rice in Koguryo. During the Unified Silla period, further developments in land use and farming techniques led to significant increases in rice production. But other important crops, in addition to barley, millet, and sorghum, were soybeans, red beans, mung beans, and buckwheat. Policies that increased farming productivity and land use were of primary importance to the government of Koryo. Rice reserves were maintained for emergency use, and the price of grain was regulated in order to increase rice production.

The soybean, a legume, is the most widely eaten plant in the world and is used in many forms, especially in China, Korea, and Japan. With only slight exaggeration, the ancients called the soybean a treasure-house of life, well suited to sustain, restore, and enrich the soil and the human body. The nutritious quality and versatility of the soybean make it an important part of the diet in areas like Korea, where adults do not drink milk and dairy products are not used. Soybeans can be eaten fresh, dried, ground, fermented, sprouted, or processed into bean curd and various pastes and sauces. Both soybeans and mung beans yield bean sprouts, a good source of vitamin C.

The soybean is also an excellent source of oil, although sesame oil is a favorite component in Korean cooking, and both toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil are important flavoring agents. Many different kinds of vegetables, fruits, and nuts have been part of the Korean diet since ancient times, among them radishes, turnips, lotus roots, taro, leeks, lettuce, green onions, garlic, cucumbers, eggplants, pears, peaches, chestnuts, pine nuts, and hazelnuts. In addition, there are wild plants, such as bamboo shoots, ferns, mushrooms, ginseng, and the broad bellflower obtained from the mountains and fields. During the Koryo era, radishes and pears were especially grown for the preparation of kim-chees that were said to be superior in taste to the fermented vegetables of the Three Kingdoms period. Vegetable leaves were also used as wrapping for little packages of rice or meat.

Agricultural techniques developed further during the Choson era, and practical farming manuals, stressing methods appropriate to Korea, were written during this period. The Yi dynasty actively encouraged an expansion of the trade in exotic foreign drugs and foods that had begun during the Koryo era. For example, the great king Sejong (reigned 1418-50) supported attempts to grow orange and grapefruit trees in several provinces in order to determine whether these fruit trees could be established in Korea. These and other experiments made it possible for Korean farmers to cultivate various foreign plants and trees.

New Foods

Somewhat later, important foods from the Americas, including chilli peppers, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, maize, and tomatoes, were introduced. The sweet potato reached Korea from Japan in 1763 with an official returning from a diplomatic mission. Originally regarded as a famine-prevention food, it eventually became a popular part of the diet. The white potato was introduced by way of China about 1840. It proved well suited to cultivation in the northern regions.

Chilli peppers and tobacco were brought to Korea about the time of the devastating war with Japan known as the Hideyoshi Invasion (1592-8). But today it is impossible to imagine Korean food without chilli peppers, which constitute the main seasoning in most Korean dishes, especially in kim-chee and hot soybean paste.

One of the early names for the plant was “Japanese mustard,” because the Japanese had acquired knowledge of the chilli pepper, and probably its seeds as well, from Portuguese Catholic priests. King Sonjo (reigned 1567-1608) made numerous requests to Japan and even to China in attempts to obtain the seeds. Unwilling to lose their monopoly, however, the Japanese claimed that the pepper plant could grow only in foreign tropical areas, and that even if seeds could be obtained, they would not necessarily grow in Korea. They also claimed that the foreigners who sold peppers always boiled the seeds so that they would be useless in attempts to grow new plants. The Korean king countered that various other plants and animals that had been brought to Korea from foreign lands had flourished, and after the difficulties in obtaining the seeds had finally been overcome, the pepper plant was easily adapted to Korea.

Some authorities thought that chilli peppers contained a powerful poison, but the new food quickly became widely used as a seasoning and even was sold in winehouses, where drinkers added it to liquor for a sensation of hotness. Presumably, given the eager acceptance of chilli peppers, Korean cuisine had not been bland before their arrival. And, in fact, Koreans had previously used a hot spice from China, which was probably similar to the Sichuan peppercorn. The ancients thought that pepper was valuable in the cure of fever, whereas modern admirers of the chilli pepper claim that its active agent strengthens the stomach, offers protection against dysentery, and prevents the oxidation of fats.

Cooking and Eating

Bowl-shaped earthenware pots were used for cooking in Korea from the beginning of the farming period. But steaming was thought to improve the quality of the food, and earthenware steamers for cooking grains have been found in Bronze Age shell mounds that date from 1000 to 300 B.C. Koguryo wall paintings in third-century tombs depict food cooked in an earthenware steamer. The kinds of food cooked in the steamer apparently included five-grain rice (a mixture of rice, millet, soybeans, red beans, and barley or sorghum), steamed rice cakes, and glutinous rice cakes. Sauteed rice cakes or sorghum pancakes were also consumed. Cast-iron kettles for rice cooking did not become common until the later part of the Three Kingdoms era, and the traditional chinaware and brassware used for serving foods developed during the Choson period. One interesting example is a special large dish with nine compartments that was used to hold an assortment of side dishes placed in the individual compartments. Wealthy people used this dish for outdoor meals and picnics.

Ideas about the ideal configuration of the house reflect the importance of the kitchen and the proper handling of rice. According to custom and classical texts, the house with the most auspicious configuration was one that faced south and had a mountain behind it. The mountain protected the house from the northeasterly winter winds and the sun could shine into the front of the house. The kitchen would be located to the west so that when the rice was scooped out of the pot, the flat wooden spoon faced the inside of the house. If the kitchen faced east, the spoon would face the outside; this was thought likely to bring bad fortune.

A unique aspect of Korean table manners is that Koreans, unlike the other peoples of East Asia, use spoons for soup and rice and came to believe, unlike the Chinese, that it was rude to bring bowls up to their mouths. In the northern parts of the Korean peninsula, where staple foods included millet and barley, it was found that the grains of these cereals (especially when mixed with nonglutinous rice) were not easily managed with chopsticks. Thus, bronze spoons as well as chopsticks have been found in fifth- and sixth-century royal tombs.

Bronze spoons from the Unified Silla Kingdom (618-935) differed in shape from spoons found in China in that they were bent, thin, and long, and were apparently used together with chopsticks in sets (the shape of Korean chopsticks is also different from those of the Chinese and Japanese). Silver spoons were used at court and by the ruling class. In addition to being elegant, silver was supposed to detect poison in food.

The short-grain sticky rice favored in Korea can readily be picked up with chopsticks, but the use of the spoon is essential in dealing with the ubiquitous soups, stews, and porridgelike preparations found at almost every meal. Another important utensil is the chori, a bamboo strainer used to separate rice from sand and stones. Because the chori sifts good from bad it has been used as a symbol of good fortune.

It was during the Choson period that Confucianism came to exert a profound impact on political and moral standards, family structure, rituals, and ceremonies. Under the influence of Confucian ideals, the rules concerning food for the extended family and for ceremonial occasions became increasingly strict and rigid. Some concept of the most elaborate cuisine of this time period can be obtained through studies of the foods prepared in the palaces of the kings of Choson. Although the rituals and regulations governing royal cuisine were not common knowledge, some aspects of the art of royal cuisine influenced the dietary culture of the ruling class and diffused beyond the palace walls.

By the end of the Choson period, the art of royal cooking was on the verge of disappearing, and in 1970, when only one former palace chef still remained alive, royal cuisine was designated a major cultural property. Chef Han Hi-san, who had served King Kojong, King Sunjong, and Queen Yun, was awarded the title of Human Cultural Property of Royal Cuisine in 1971. After Han died, Professor Hwang Hye-song, who had studied with Chef Han, inherited the title. Hwang published many books on Korean cooking, established a research institute for royal cuisine, and held exhibitions to bring royal cuisine to the attention of the general public.


A grain-based diet need not be bland or totally monotonous, even when boiled rice remains the single most important component. Thus, cereals were also made into gruel, noodles, and dumplings. Well-cooked porridge-like dishes, especially those made of millet, are still considered particularly nourishing and appropriate to the needs of the sick. Another simple, nourishing ancient food product called misu karu was made by washing, drying, roasting, and pounding cereal grains into a fine powder that could be mixed with water and used as an instant food. The roasted flour of assorted grains was useful for travelers, students, and others who needed a simple, ready-to-eat food.

Noodles and dumplings are such an ancient and popular part of the traditional Korean diet that, like China, Italy, Japan, Germany, and France, Korea also claims to have invented pasta (Korea has not, however, asserted this claim as passionately as Italy).

Dumplings and noodles have been made from rice and barley and prepared by boiling, steaming, or frying. They were usually served as main dishes for lunch or on special occasions. Noodles were considered especially appropriate for birthdays because they are a symbol of long life. Various kinds of noodles were made of wheat, buckwheat, rice, soya, or mung beans. Steamed wheat-flour buns were first brought from China and also became very popular for festive occasions.

Many different kinds of rice cakes and pancakes have been associated with holidays and festivals ever since the Koryo period. Steamed rice cakes were made with regular or glutinous rice and flavored with chestnuts, honey, jujubes, sorghum, and mugwort. Rice cakes, flavored with mugwort leaves or flowers, are a specialty of the southern provinces, and many therapeutic virtues have been attributed to mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris),which is also known as moxa. Moxa is supposed to increase the user’s level of energy and ward off disease. Mugwort is dried and used in making moxa for cauterization (moxibustion) and other medicines. Rice cakes made with mugwort paste are traditionally served at the Tano festival.

Mugwort figures prominently in the foundation myth of Old Choson. According to ancient sources, the King of Heaven, leader of the gods of wind, rain, and clouds, ruler of grains of all kinds, who presided over life, disease, punishment, and goodness and evil, established his Holy City at the summit of Mount Taebaeksan. The god was approached by a bear and a tiger who beseeched him to make them human. The god gave them each a stick of moxa and 20 cloves of garlic and told them to eat them and avoid the sun for 100 days. The tiger failed to follow these instructions, but the bear did and became a woman. The god married her and she had a son called Tan-gun, the founder of Old Choson. Thus, both moxa and garlic were regarded as powerful drugs and foods in early times.

Among the most treasured traditional Korean foods are those associated with holidays, ceremonies, and seasons. Traditionally, Korean women prepared special dishes for folk holidays according to the lunar calendar. During the Choson period, with the rise of Confucianism, great attention was paid to rituals attached to holidays, including the preparation of foods thought to supply nutrition appropriate to each season. Such foods were a part of the ceremonies that expressed the hope of good harvests and harmony within the family and the village. Special holiday foods are often described as particularly nourishing and are said to encourage harmony between man and nature. Among these are rice cake soup, dumpling soup, cakes made of glutinous rice, rice cakes steamed on a layer of pine needles, five-grain rice, rice gruel prepared with red beans, sweet rice beverages, and seasoned dried vegetables. Cooking methods and ingredients have varied with regional customs, products, and increasing modernization.

The custom of making a red bean porridge with small dumplings of glutinous rice to mark the winter solstice has been practiced since the Koryo era, and sharing this dish with neighbors has also been part of the tradition. Eating certain foods on holidays was said to prevent different kinds of misfortune: For example, consuming red bean porridge on the day of the winter solstice was supposed to ensure good health, prevent colds, and drive away ghosts.

Five-grain rice and nine kinds of vegetables are typical holiday fare for the first full moon of the lunar year; rice cake soup was eaten on New Year’s Day; crescent-shaped rice cakes were prepared for the second lunar month; azalea flower pancakes for the third lunar month; and grilled wheat cakes for the sixth lunar month. In the heat of mid-July, holiday foods that included chicken broth with ginseng, red dates and glutinous rice, and croaker stews were thought to revive the appetite and ward off illness. Foods appropriate to the August harvest moon festival have included taro soup, wine, rice cakes, and new fruits such as pears and persimmons.

Food and flower customs expressed the theme of seeking harmony with nature and incorporating its beauty in delicacies. A document from the Choson period describes an especially fragrant delicacy made by boiling together apricot petals, melted snow, and white-rice porridge. It was customary to go on “flower outings” several times a year, and while admiring the beauty of the flowers, participants would eat foods that incorporated them, such as chrysanthemum pancakes, chrysanthemum wines, chestnut balls, and citron tea.

Different kinds of rice cakes still retain symbolic value. For the ceremonial feast on a child’s 100th day of life, steamed rice cakes represent purity and cleanliness; glutinous rice cakes, coated with mashed red beans, represent endurance; rice cakes steamed on a layer of pine needles represent generosity; and stuffed rice cakes represent intelligence. Collectively, the ceremonial foods represent longevity, purity, and divinity. At the feast held for a child’s first birthday, there are, in addition to rice cakes, cakes made with cinnamon bark, steamed rice balls rolled in colored powders, and even a steamed, layered, rainbow rice cake that represents the parents’ hope that the child will enjoy a wide range of accomplishments.


Because Korea is surrounded by the sea on three sides and has many large rivers, its supply of seafood has been plentiful and varied. The remains of abalone, clams, oysters, snails, mackerel, pike, shark, and sea urchins have been found in ancient shell mounds. Different kinds of seaweed were also harvested, dried, and prepared in various ways. For example, seaweed can be made into paper-thin sheets, called laver, which are usually seasoned with hot sauce and wrapped around small portions of rice, vegetables, and meat. Seaweed soup is still considered essential for women recovering from the birth of a baby. At the ceremonial feast held when the baby is 100 days old, the mother again eats seaweed soup.

By the Three Kingdoms period, shipbuilding skills had been highly developed, so that many kinds of seafoods could be harvested. The challenge of storing highly perishable aquatic animals led to the development of methods for preserving them by fermentation. Fresh shrimp, fish, and other seafoods were salted and allowed to ferment. Pickled fish were often added to winter kim-chee.

During the Choson period, fishing techniques were further developed, fisheries became significant enterprises, and the production of herring, anchovies, pollack, codfish, and croakers increased rapidly. So, too, did the production of seaweed, and particular kinds were cultivated and processed on offshore islands.

All these products of the sea were dried, salted, or fermented and sold throughout the peninsula. Some were regarded in China as valuable medicines and desirable exotics. Chinese physicians were very interested, for example, in the properties of a certain mollusk that was eaten by the people of Silla; the medical men thought that a soup made from this mollusk and seaweed would cure “knotted-up breath.”


Although geographic conditions in Korea were not suitable for livestock farming, cows, pigs, and hens were raised on a small scale, and, thus, some meat also entered the diet. Wild game could be found in the mountains, and the Koguryo people were known as skillful hunters of pheasants, roe deer, and wild boar. The people of Silla kept semiwild livestock on nearby islands. Cattle, hens, pigs, horses, and oxen were raised by the people of Paekche.

During the early Koryo period, when the influence of Buddhism was especially strong, kings and commoners alike generally refrained from eating meat, but pickled fish and shellfish were often served as side dishes. By the middle of the Koryo period, cattle were being raised on Cheju Island, and those whose religion and finances permitted it ate beef, pork, lamb, chicken, pheasant, and swan meat. Wealthy people might have their meats cooked whole, but cooking thinly sliced pieces of meat became popular during this time. Among the favorite meat dishes of the Koryo period were roasted ribs and bone and tripe soup. Significant changes in dietary customs developed during the Choson era, including increased (and perhaps guilt-free) consumption of beef, pork, chicken, and pheasant.

Fermented Food and Drink

Korea’s famous pickled cabbage, kim-chee, has probably been an important side dish since agriculture began, but the first appearance of the word “kimchee” occurred in the collected poems of Lee Kyu-bo (1168-1241), an eminent Koryo poet. Fermented vegetables were essential parts of the diet during the long, harsh Korean winter, when fresh vegetables were not available. Kim-chee is said to retain all the nutrition of almost any fresh vegetable.

Making kim-chee for the winter was a major annual event for each household. Traditionally, relatives and neighbors took turns helping each other, sharing the ingredients and the freshly made kimchee. Originally, kim-chee contained only simple vegetables, but eventually a large number of regional and seasonal variations evolved, including those flavored with fermented seafoods, such as shrimp, anchovies, cuttlefish, crabs, and oysters. When hot chilli peppers were introduced in the middle of the Yi dynasty, the method of making this traditional food underwent substantial changes and improvements.

Although kim-chee is eaten as an essential side dish throughout the year, different ingredients and methods of preparation are associated with the changing seasons and different regions. Almost all varieties include Chinese cabbage, radishes, red pepper, and garlic. Salted shrimp provides the special flavor characteristic of the kim-chee preferred by residents of Seoul; salted anchovy is used in southern regions, and various kinds of fish are favored in northern regions, but the art of making kim-chee can be applied to an almost endless variety of basic ingredients, spices, and flavorings. Even the stems of the sweet potato vine can be turned into kim-chee.

Today, except for rice, kim-chee is the most important and popular food in the Korean diet. Another interesting fermented food, however, is made from a mixture of chopped fish, rice, radishes, and malt. This preparation is said to ward off indigestion, especially during festivals when overindulgence is likely to occur. Similar health-promoting benefits have been ascribed to kim-chee. There is no doubt that it is a good source of vitamins, including ascorbic acid, which protects against scurvy. Kim-chee is also said to regulate body fluids and intestinal fermentation, prevent constipation, and stimulate the appetite. Certainly, fermented foods add taste, texture, and important nutrients to the bland main dish of rice and other grains. They are said to provide the five different tastes: sweet, salty, hot, sour, and bitter.

In addition, wine and soy sauce are important products of fermentation. The production of alcoholic beverages from fermented grains probably developed during the early stages of farming. Similarly, soy sauce and hot soybean pastes, made by processing soybeans, have long been used as seasonings and condiments that contribute to the characteristic flavor of Korean foods. Techniques for making wine and soy sauces became highly advanced in the Three Kingdoms period, but the art of making soybean paste was revolutionized by the addition of the hot chilli pepper. Soy sauce and hot soybean pastes are still indispensable seasoning agents in Korean cooking. Koreans consider Japanese soybean sauces excessively sweet in comparison to their own, which they characterize as salty, light, simple, and refreshing. Each household traditionally prepared soy sauce and soybean pastes in the spring or autumn and stored them in large earthenware jars on special terraces. Recent health claims have been made for soy sauces: It is suggested that they not only prevent the oxidation of dietary fats but also contain anticancer factors.

Various kinds of rice wine were made during the Koryo period, including several that served for medicinal purposes. Other wines derived from sources as diverse as roots, barks, irises, chrysanthemums, and bamboo leaves. Many of these were made at home -an important task for the housewife. Farmers and laborers traditionally drank rice wine from a gourd before and after meals and with their midmorning snack to wet the throat and clear away the kim-chee aftertaste.

Exactly when techniques for the distillation of hard liquor were imported into Koryo is unknown. However, records of the time of King Kongmin, who reigned from 1351 to 1374, suggest that hard liquor was already being used and misused. During the twentieth-century Japanese occupation (1910-45), Japanese wines, grape wines, and Western liquors gradually became popular. After liberation from Japan in 1945, Western liquor and beer became widely available, and cocktails and mixed drinks were commonly served at social functions, especially in the cities.

Hot Beverages

In Korea, hot beverages have been collectively referred to as ch’a, or tea. Green tea, made of dried tea leaves steeped in hot water, was introduced to Korea in the eighth century by a Buddhist monk from China. Ancient Chinese texts associated tea with Taoist philosophy and referred to tea as the elixir of immortality. Tea plants and the seeds of tea bushes arrived from China in the ninth century. At first, tea drinking was associated primarily with Buddhist temples, the court, and the aristocracy. Drinking the beverage was said to soothe the mind and refresh the spirit while cleansing and improving the body. But it soon became popular among the common people as well, and offerings of tea and tea-drinking ceremonies were part of all national rites. Buddhist temples operated large tea plantations and sponsored tea-brewing competitions.

With the establishment of the Yi dynasty, the custom of tea drinking declined among members of the upper class, who were now professing Confucianism. The Choson government denounced Buddhism and levied high taxes on tea plantations. Alcoholic beverages, such as rice wine, generally took the place of tea in official ceremonies. But despite government repression, tea drinking remained popular, and people cultivated small tea gardens near their homes. Buddhist monks and nuns also continued to drink tea, which was always included in offerings to the Buddha, and men of letters associated tea drinking with artistic endeavors and the contemplation of nature.

The opinions of tea-loving scholars, monks, and poets profoundly influenced Korean culture, especially those of the Buddhist monk and scholar Ch’o Ui (1786-1866), who is credited with reviving interest in the rituals and traditions of tea drinking. In his Eulogy to Oriental Tea (1837), Ch’o asserted, among other things, that Korean tea was superior to Chinese tea in taste, fragrance, and medicinal virtues.

In addition to green tea, other such drinks, made from barley, corn, rice, sesame seeds, ginseng, ginger, cinnamon bark, citron, quince, dates, pears, strawberries, cherries, watermelon, and peaches, are also popular. Even the pollen of pine tree flowers can be mixed with honey and made into a sweet tea. Sweet beverages based on honey or fruits are often accompanied by rice or barley cakes. Indeed, many pastries were developed as accompaniments for tea, including fried honey cookies, fried cookies made from glutinous rice, small cakes made with green tea, and candied fruits.

Another important traditional beverage is the scorched-rice tea served with everyday family meals. It is made by pouring water over the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot in which the rice was cooked. Boiling this rice with water creates a fragrant drink, and rice that is not consumed with the meal can also be mixed with this tea. Making such a beverage also has the virtue of making it easier to clean the spoon, rice bowl, and rice kettle.

Since the 1940s, coffee has become very popular in Korea, but King Kojong, who reigned from 1864 to 1906, appears to have been the first Korean king with the coffee-drinking habit. He was introduced to coffee by the Russian consul general in Seoul. In 1898 Kojong’s enemies tried to murder him along with the crown prince by putting poison in their morning coffee. Fortunately, Kojong noticed a peculiar odor and did not drink his coffee. The prince was not so observant, but he vomited the tainted brew before it could do him significant harm.

Famine and Food-Related Disease


Ancient sources refer to famines and epidemics, floods, severe droughts, and grasshoppers that consumed all the grain. Early agricultural societies were very vulnerable to crop failures and famines. The importance of agriculture in the early Three Kingdoms period is reflected in references to Paekche kings punished for crop failures by removal from the throne, or even by death.

Other sources mention the Koryo relief system and the efforts made by these kings to deal with famines and epidemics. Warehouses were established in various provinces and opened as needed to ward off mass starvation. Government officials were charged with aiding and feeding the poor, and they provided a set measure of millet per day per person. During the Choson period, food reserves were maintained for use during natural disasters and for famine relief. To prepare for famine years, farmers were ordered to gather various edible roots, flowers, fruits, and leaves. Texts written in the sixteenth century describe hundreds of different kinds of foods that could be stored for famine relief. In order to disseminate such information to the general population, books on famine relief were written in the Korean alphabet, the script for the people, rather than in scholarly Chinese characters. Other texts provided discussions of the relationship between diet and health.

Food-Related Disease

Thirteenth-century texts dealing with traditional Korean medicine describe food poisoning that was variously attributed to the consumption of domestic animals, fish, crabs, mushrooms, alcohol, medicines, and miscellaneous chemicals. Given the age-old problem of contaminated food and water, it is not surprising that dysentery was historically one of Korea’s more common diseases, to which even members of the royal family fell victim.

Despite the many virtues ascribed to kim-chee, including those of preventing everything from scurvy to dysentery, the symptoms of some vitamin deficiency diseases seem to have been described in early Korean medical texts. One recurrent condition suggests the possibility of beriberi. The symptoms described included swelling of the lower limbs, followed by swelling of the heart and stomach, difficulty in urination, weakness in the feet, and dizziness. However, early accounts are vague, and the symptoms of beriberi are not easily differentiated from those of other diseases.

According to Koryo sources, the Chinese apparently believed that beriberi could be cured by wearing shoes made from the skin of a remarkable fish found in Korea. The skin of this fish was said to be similar to that of the cow. Beriberi was probably rare in Korea, when compared to other parts of Asia, because few Koreans subsisted on a thiamine-deficient polished white rice diet. But the disease was noted among Japanese living in Korean cities because the Japanese were more likely to consume polished rice. During World War II, polished rice became more common in Korea, and beriberi was sometimes observed even in villages. Scurvy and pellagra seem to have been rare, but anemia was not uncommon, and symptoms that suggest rickets, including a condition referred to as “turtle chest,” appear in the pediatric sections of ancient medical texts. Classic descriptions of “gentle wind” disease probably refer to osteomalacia, a form of adult rickets. In modern Korea, osteomalacia, a gradual deformation of improperly calcified bones, is fairly common among older women.

Parasitic infections are widespread in Asia, and presumably always have been, but ancient texts are too ambiguous to provide specific diagnostic clues as to the agents involved or the specific sources of infection, although various herbal remedies were prescribed to remove parasites. Gastritis seems to have been the major disease in the category of digestive disorders, but symptoms are also described that suggest gastric ulcers, intestinal disorders, and parasitic infestations.

Paragonimiasis (or pulmonary distomiasis) is caused by infection with members of the genus Paragonimus, and references to a disorder characterized by rusty-brown mucus are suggestive of this disease, which could have been acquired by eating contaminated raw crabmeat or other seafoods. The developing parasites lodge in the lungs and cause an intense inflammatory reaction that results in the production of the rusty-brown sputum.

Other parasites were still widespread in the early twentieth century. Infestation with flukes was generally caused by eating raw fish and crustaceans contaminated with the lung fluke (Paragonimus westermani), the liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis), or the intestinal fluke (Metagonimus yokogawai). Until recent times, contaminated food and water were also a constant source of intestinal diseases such as bacillary and amebic dysentery. The custom of drinking tea or water boiled in the rice kettle provided some protection, as did the use of kim-chee instead of fresh vegetables. Noting that Korean patients recovered from dysentery more easily than Japanese patients, early-twentieth-century medical missionaries advised the latter to eat kim-chee.

Nutritional Status Today

The history of disease in twentieth-century Korea illustrates the remarkable impact of improved sanitary conditions, public-health measures, land reform, and economic development. Despite the devastation caused by World War II and the Korean War, and the repatriation of millions of Koreans from Manchuria, China, and Japan, many epidemic and endemic diseases have been virtually eliminated.

Since land reform policies were put in place in 1948, South Korean agricultural policy has encouraged the development of small, intensively worked farms. This policy was vindicated by the achievement of self-sufficiency in rice production and an increased food output that has kept pace with population growth. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have among the world’s highest per-acre rice yields. Because much of the peninsula is mountainous and unsuitable for farming, agricultural development policy has focused on maximizing yields by means of high-yield crop varieties. Today, genetic engineering is seen as a principal means of increasing crop yields.

In addition, in the 1960s, South Korea embarked on a vigorous and highly successful program of economic development, and since 1962 the Korean economy has grown at one of the fastest rates in the world. In a remarkably short period of time, South Korea’s traditionally agrarian society has undergone a major structural transformation, and the country has become one of the key industrialized nations of the Pacific Rim.

Since the late 1940s, numerous studies of the nutritional status of the South Korean people have addressed the question of shortages in the quantity and quality of the food supply. Most of these investigations reached the same general conclusions, despite some relatively minor regional differences. Overall, the traditional South Korean diet is high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fats. Studies of the state of nutrition in Korea undertaken in 1946 found that over 90 percent of foods consumed came from plant sources.

When similar studies were conducted in the 1960s, the proportion of grains consumed had been somewhat reduced. Rice, however, remained the main food, which may reflect a reaction to years of food rationing and shortages during the Japanese occupation. But rice shortages from 1960 to 1975 led the government to establish rice conservation measures, such as the increased production of wheat, the importation of American surplus foods, and attempts to create two “rice-free days” each week, during which, as a patriotic duty, wheat products would be eaten instead of rice. Bread was used in school lunches, restaurants were ordered to use wheat-flour foods, and a nationwide mass communication campaign was launched to encourage the consumption of wheat products. Although resistance to these attempts to change dietary habits was quite strong, at least students and some white-collar workers seem to have adopted the custom of eating bread for breakfast. Nevertheless, Korea remains primarily a rice-eating culture.

Although self-sufficiency in rice production was attained in the 1980s, imports of wheat products and maize were still essential. In fact, increased demand for wheat flour, used in bread and instant noodles, reflects a significant change in South Korean dietary patterns. Beef imports have also increased, whereas the production of traditional cattle has decreased. Fish and other seafoods have become increasingly important sources of protein.

In general, the intake of animal protein has significantly increased since the 1970s, and the growth in the amount of protein consumed was accompanied by a threefold jump in fat intake between 1962 and 1982. Consumption of beef and pork increased about two times; chicken consumption increased almost five times, and the use of milk and other dairy products also increased about five times. Although the intake of some minerals, particularly calcium, increased significantly, that of iron did not, and many Korean women have exhibited symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia. Investigations of infant and child nutrition in different regions during the 1970s led nutritionists to urge mothers to increase the use of eggs, fish, and vegetables as supplemental foods. One problem with the typical Korean diet is a very high intake of salt and hot chilli peppers; these factors appear to be linked to high blood pressure and a high incidence of gastroenteritis and stomach cancer. Researchers report that the use of great amounts of salt becomes habitual for South Koreans prior to reaching 6 years of age.

It is interesting to note that studies of nutritional status and dietary patterns conducted in the 1960s indicated that at that point, despite changes associated with rapid industrialization, many people had maintained traditional food habits. Indeed, the Korean dietary pattern seems to have been remarkably stable from the early beginnings of Korean history to the end of the Yi dynasty and beyond. Researchers have found little evidence of changes in the basic ingredients and cooking methods used by Korean families other than an increase, in urban areas, in the consumption of dairy products such as butter and cheese.

Between 1970 and 1990, however, the combination—already mentioned—of urbanization, modernization, industrialization, socioeconomic development, and the influence of Western culture wrought significant changes in the typical South Korean diet. In addition, factors such as the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the expansion of the fast-food industry, and the influence of mass media have helped accelerate such changes. South Korean nutritionists predict that in coming years, the pattern of food consumption in South Korea will involve a continuing decrease in the amount of grains used and an increase in the consumption of foods of animal origin. Consequently, they urge the development of a national health and nutrition policy that will focus on the prevention of the kinds of diseases associated with these new dietary patterns. Since the 1970s, the pattern of major diseases and causes of death in South Korea has become that of the Western world, whereby cardiovascular diseases, circulatory problems, and stroke are the most important killers. Those who value Korea’s unique historical culture warn against losing the harmony and balance encapsulated in the traditional dietary culture and etiquette of the table.