Food, Farming and Genetics in Korea

Korea has a 5000 year history of food and farming. How much can a nine-year old and her mother learn on a two week visit to this land of miracles?


For the first few nights we stayed in a tiny room in a traditional Korean house called a "Hanok" house. There is a courtyard that everyone shares that the owners have filled with lots of stuff including a rabbit named Mimi. In this quiet place, one can imagine ancient times before the rebirth of this powerful nation that was almost totally destroyed by the Korean war (1950-1953). Now, although most cities are dominated by massive buildings and congestion and where many restaurants are run by industry giants such as Samsung and Hyundai, a quieter life and traditional foods can still be found in the alleyways and countryside.

Our first night there, Audrey got up in the middle of the night to sit in the courtyard in the pouring rain. When the lightening got too fierce and frightening she returned to our futon put her head on the buckwheat pillow and slept so soundly that her jet lag was over with the first night.

The diet staple here is rice. According to the FAO, 47% of the total caloric intake in Korea were supplied by rice in 1965. These percentages decreased to 35% in 1995, due to incorporation of other foods in the diet. We have seen many beautiful farms with rice paddies, ginseng, peppers and soybean as well as massive acres of greenhouses tucked between industrial areas.

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Here is a sampling of some of the foods we have tasted so far.

Thick slices of roasted potatoes
Chicken on a stick
Marinated dried fish with sesame and chiles
Radish and cabbage kimchi
HOT marinated peppers
Amaranth greens
Fiddlhead fern
Mung bean sprouts
Minature sardines
Acorn curd with cucumbers and carrots and sweet onions in sesame sauce
Soy curd in a spicy sauce
Tofu with 2 kind of mushrooms and greens in broth with several kinds of shellfish
marinated sesame leaves, marinated
A dark delicious vegetable green, probably from greens dried from previous season
different kinds of kimchi made from cabbage, radish or cucumbers
pumpkins, either fried or baked
Japchae sweet potato noodles mixed with sauteed vegetable
Bibimbap, a rice dish of mushrooms and vegetable and sauce
Bomandu, dumplings with onion, garlic and sesame inside
various stews with mushrooms, seaweed, green peppers, tofu
Different types of "jeon": Savory Korean pancakes

I watched a cooking demonstration by Paul Schenk to learn how the mung bean pancakes that are made. He began by soaking the mungbeans and a little rice for a few hours, blending the mixture to a batter, frying and adding green onions and green peppers marinated in sesame oil, garlic, sesame seeds and soysauce. "Jeon" is usually topped with pork or kimchi.

Unfiltered rice wine (makgeolli) is made through the fermentation of a mixture of boiled rice and nuruk with water. Nuruk is a fermentation starter made from grains, Aspergillus, Rhizopus and yeasts. For a great site on the history of fermentation in Asia see the FAO

Another fantastic fermented drink is made from plums-one of the best drinks I have ever tasted.
And then there is the 100 species fermented drink that Dr. An prepared for us
Bamboo tea

Many types of green teas, can be purchased from small shops such as this one.
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Fresh peaches
Yakshik, steamed sticky rice with pinenuts
Korean donuts with cinnamon and honey
Rice cakes rolled in bean powder
Walnut shortbread
Ginko nuts
Roasted chestnus
Golden kiwi
White melon (yellow and white skin)
Pine nut and walnut cakes with sweetened bean paste. I took a picture of the machine that makes this fabulous treat.i-d68e5818682c80a160ca7cb8f18bad7b-IMG_2052cake machine.JPG

The entry to traditional restaurant in Insadong, Seoul:
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and the full table of food:
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My nine year old daughter is more interested in finishing the 7th book of Harry Potter rather than sampling the food. For Audrey's take on this trip, check out her blog.

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I laughed to see your daughter is more into the Harry Potter than the trip! Maybe she will find something fun to do anyway. Cheers :-)

If you enjoy hot food, try dakkalbi. It's chicken meat marinaded in hot sauce and then stir fried with vegetables and dduk. If you're in the mood for something which is definitely not traditional but still distinctively Korean, I recommend budae jjigae. This stew originated after the Korean war when meat was scarce. People would get processed meat (spam, sausage, etc) and surplus food (macaroni, baked beans) from military bases, then cook it all up with some hot sauce. I know it sounds terrible but it's actually pretty tasty.

I hope you and your daughter have a good time in Korea.

Wonderful descriptions of the deliciousness that is Korean food! My mouth is watering as I remember all of the little dishes that accompany bulgogi.

I hope you get a chance to get out of the cities and see the countryside. There are farms that have changed little over the decades, still farming as they did 100+ years ago. Notice how every tiny plot of land is dedicated to growing food, like Korean pear trees nestled in the curve of a highway on-ramp. What a wonderful country.

Oh, a gooey good post! The table groaning with perfectly prepared fresh food while your daughter is tucking into Potter instead is hilarious!

I will start learning how to cook Korean--it one of the few cuisines that I have neglected. Thanks so much for the informative/entertaining writing and the great photos. Safe and happy trip to you and yours. (Hope you are sleeping as well as your daughter!)

By Michelle B (not verified) on 15 Aug 2010 #permalink

My daughter, who lived in Osan for about a year, sent a video of herself eating some sort of insect from a huge vat of boiling oil and insects at a street fair.

Over here, I cannot even get her to eat an oyster.

By Harry Eagar (not verified) on 15 Aug 2010 #permalink

@ Harry Eagar

I dont blame her. Oysters are gross, unlike yummy fried grasshopper. *drools*


By Hinemoana (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

Oh, mung bean pancakes! Yum. I make some that I got out of Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian cookbook, but I don't think they are Korean. That's interesting. I would like to try this variation.

Your piece made me miss authentic Korean food so much. It always frustrates me that non-Koreans think they're getting the real stuff in places here in NYC like 32nd St. (Manhattan) or the western part of Queens. They even like the horrid meals here--which makes me think they'd freak out with delight if they ever got to S. Korea! One Question: What does the "Genetics" in your piece's title have to do with what you described or experienced? Thanks.