To say that Korean pop culture shot to popularity quickly and with a loud bang is an understatement. Go to most any commercial or retail establishment and you’ll see posters of popular K-pop music groups, hear their songs being played everywhere, and find Korean makeup brands being sold in department stores. Korean tourism is booming, as well, with tourists from all over the world travelling to the country for culture and entertainment.
Food is another aspect of Korean culture that foreigners enjoy. Outside the country, you’ll find that Korean cuisine has grown wildly in popularity – from Korean fried chicken restaurants in Singapore to Korean ramen sold by the bulk in a nearby convenience store.
What makes Korean cuisine popular? We look at four of its distinguishing features.
#1: Focus on well-being
Since ancient times, Koreans have held the belief that “food is the best medicine.” They believe that food and medicine have the same origin and function. When someone isn’t feeling well, it is recommended that they eat something first; medicine is used only after the food fails.
Koreans also believe that one’s health and illness come from the food they eat and how they eat it. This is why they prefer to ferment some of their ingredients, particularly kimchi. When the ingredient matures, its nutritional properties improve, and it can be stored for an extended period.
#2: Balanced food ingredients
South Korea has a low obesity rate, and it is largely due to their diet. A typical Korean menu includes these food items, usually consumed in one meal:
- Cooked rice and dishes with broth
- Side dishes seasoned with various fermented soy products, medicine herbs, sesame oil or perilla oil
Although Koreans enjoy barbecue meals, they eat them sparingly. Their typical diet contains a high amount of vegetables, fish and legumes. Koreans also prepare their food by blanching, boiling, pickling and other methods that use minimal fats.
#3: Embracing balance
The Korean philosophy on food is also rooted in the Taoist concept of eumyang or yin and yang. It is believed that people are surrounded by five elements that represent colours and the main organs of the body:
- Fire – Heart – Red
- Metal – Lung – White
- Wood – Liver – Green
- Water – Kidney – Black
- Earth – Spleen – Yellow
Finding the perfect balance among the five elements is the key to preventing illness through one’s cooking. Taoists believed that if you are ill or weak in certain parts of your body, you should consume certain food ingredients based on the body part’s corresponding colour and element. For example, if you are having problems with your heart, you should eat red/fire food like carrots, strawberries and red beans.
#4: Connection with nature
Koreans believe that food connects people with nature, so they cook the ingredients to preserve their original taste. For example, seasoned spinach – a popular side dish – is made by parboiling the vegetables to be seasoned afterwards. In this way, the food gives you a taste of nature.
Korean food has risen to popularity not just because of the huge influence of the country’s popular music. With the focus on well-being, balanced food ingredients and connection with nature, Korean cuisine teaches us about developing an excellent relationship with food to stay healthy.