Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Korean Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. In today’s column, she is taking a closer look at vegan Korean cuisine. This article will be focusing more on South Korean Cuisine.

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Korean Cuisine

The cuisine of Korea is one that has changed and evolved over many centuries to become the beautiful, vibrant and flavourful cuisine that it is known as today. Its history includes influences from Manchuria (specifically northern China), various kingdoms that existed on the Korean peninsula, international trade, and the colonization of Korea by Japan.

In 1500BC, Southern Manchurians migrated to Korea bringing grains, legumes, and agricultural practices with them as wells fermentation practices for preserving and/or enhancing the flavors of foods. Some of the grains they introduced include rice, wheat, and barley. It is believed that it was during this period that the fermentation of soybeans developed as seen in the remains of pottery cookware.

Between 57BC and 668AD, the Three Kingdoms period, the cuisine was influenced by cultural evolutions and innovations. These kingdoms were that of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla and they were located in the north, southwest and southeast portions of South Korea, respectively (with Goguryeo extending to North Korea).

It was in the Goguryeo kingdom that bulgogi, doenjang, and ganjang were developed and the practice of preserving raw vegetables with salt became common.

Goguryeo, also known as, ‘Koguryo,’ consisted of people who thrived on diets that included a variety of foods with dishes including rice and beans being their staple foods. Meals were typically made up of about six different dishes prepared in varied ways and served together but in differing sizes. In the early periods of the Goguryeo kingdom (which lasted from 37BC till 668AD), The people ground and cooked grains with water in a heated earthenware to make a porridge or gruel. In later times, the handling of the grains to make this porridge evolved resulting in other rice dishes such as steamed rice and rice that is cooked in boiling water to the point where it is cooked through, but the grains remind individually identifiable and dry to touch (how plain cooked rice is often found today). It was in this kingdom that bulgogi, doenjang, and ganjang were developed and the practice of preserving raw vegetables with salt became common.

Bulgogi is a dish consisting of thin slices of grilled marinated meat. It is easily made vegan using common vegan meat substitutes (such as mushrooms, seitan, or soy curls) as the flavor of bulgogi most distinctly comes from the seasoning or marinade it is soaked in. This marinade usually consists of garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, black pepper, spring onions (scallions/green onions and ginger although the last two ingredients are used depending on a cook’s taste presences or religious practices. Bulgogi is usually cooked with onions, garlic, and green bell peppers, and served over rice with an array of side dishes.

vegan Korean cuisine
Vegan Bulgogi. Image credit: @veggiekins. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Doenjang and ganjang are fermented and preserved condiments. Doenjang is soybean paste (different from miso paste in taste and texture) while ganjang is soy sauce (different from the soy sauce of other Asian nations). Doenjang is made by fermenting a soybean and brine (saltwater) mixture. It can be served as a dipping sauce or condiment to was with foods or cooked with other ingredients to make dishes such as doenjang jjigae. On the other hand, ganjang is also made from a fermented mixture of soybeans and brine. However, although doenjang is in the form of a thick paste, ganjang is a smooth dark liquid.

In Korean cuisine, ganjang plays the role that salt does in most European cuisines although it imparts an umami (savory) flavor in addition to the saltiness.

In Korean cuisine, ganjang plays the role that salt does in most European cuisines although it imparts an umami (savory) flavor in addition to the saltiness. It is made by soaking and boiling soybeans in brine, coarsely grinding it, and compressing it into brick shapes (to make meju – soy bricks) then air drying the bricks and fermenting/aging them in brine over a long period of time (months). The brick and brine are often fermented in a vessel with a piece of charcoal for its anti-toxin and antibacterial properties and when the ganjang is done fermenting, the darkened brine is boiled to also kill bacteria and make the sauce more concentrated. At this point, the bricks can be mashed to a smoothie consistency and stored in a container as soybean paste while the brine is soy sauce. Therefore, ganjang and doenjang are byproducts of the production of each other.

The people within the Baekje Kingdom (also known as the Paekche Kingdom) followed a diet consisting of grains, beans, and vegetables. It was rather similar to the diet of the Gorguryeo Kingdom. However, rice was considered to be reserved for the elite. The grains accessible to the average person were mainly barley, sorghum, and millet which were often combined with beans for meals. This multigrain mixture is known as japgokbap.

Instant Pot Japgokbap. Image credit: @kimchimari. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Japgokbap is considered a healthy dish that is served as an accompaniment to other dishes for a meal (just like plain rice). There are various types of japgokbap with varying combinations of grains and beans. However, the most common and significant of these is ogokbap – a five-grain rice that can consist of any five grains and beans depending on availability, accessibility, and preference. A typical ogokbap combination is a mixture of adzuki beans, black beans, glutinous rice, millet, and sorghum.

Buddhism dictates that people should abstain from partaking in, or promoting, activities that involve the killing and/or consumption of animals.

The Silla Kingdom (also known as the Saro Kingdom) had a cuisine similar to that of Gorguryeo and Baekje. However, it was also greatly influenced by the diet prescribed by Buddhism especially during the later years of its era when Buddhism became the recognized official religion of the kingdom. Buddhism dictates that people should abstain from partaking in, or promoting, activities that involve the killing and/or consumption of animals. Therefore, the Silla Kingdom saw a rise in the development of a more plant-based diet, especially within aristocratic households. Dishes developed in the Silla Kingdom include yakgwa and yaksik.

vegan Korean cuisine
Yakgwa. Image credit: @sesame.sprinkles. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Yakgwa and yaksik, also known as gwajul and yakbap, respectively, are types of hangwa (sweet Korean confections). They consist of a grain kneaded with seasoning ingredients. Yakgwa is wheat flour kneaded with sesame oil, ginger juice, rice wine, and a liquid sweetener that is kneaded into a dough, deep-fried then soaked in a liquid sweetener, sprinkled with grind cinnamon or sesame seeds, and dried. On the other hand, yaksik is steamed glutinous rice mixed with a liquid sweetener (or brown sugar), sesame oil, and soy sauce then combined with nuts, sesame seeds, and dried fruits before being shaped and cooled. Traditionally the liquid sweetener used is honey. However, it is substituted with rice syrup or sugar syrup by vegan cooks with sugar syrup tending to be the most common substitute.

Yaksik. Image credit: @koreanbapsang. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The international influences on the cuisine of Korea originally came as a result of trade with China, Japan, and the Philippines. Those countries had connections with the European colonizers of the Americas. Therefore, they had access to Native American foods such as acorn, chillies, and tomatoes as well as other foods indigenous to those countries.

A greater international influence was seen between 1910 and 1945 – during the period Japan colonized Korea. Rice became more prominent in dishes in its various forms (plain, as flour, wine, vinegar, syrup, et cetera). Breads and noodles made from white flour became more evident and recipes from previous periods developed to the forms they exist as today. 

Some of the dishes that developed during the periods when Korea was opened up to international trade (the Joseon period) and the colonial period are kimchi, jjigae, tteokbokki, japchae, gamja jorim, and kong-guksu.

vegan Korean cuisine
Kimchi. Image credit: @sesame.sprinkles. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Kimchi was present in the Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla Kingdoms. However, in those periods it was made by fermenting cabbage with brine. It was not until the Japanese introduced the Koreans to chili peppers (from the Americas) in 1592 that gochu became part of the cuisine and gochugaru was developed. 

Gochugaru is Korean red pepper flakes it is a key ingredient in modern-day kimchi as it gives kimchi its distinct red color and spiciness. Prior to its existence in Korea, kimchi was just a salty, savory, light condiment.

More often than not, kimchi is not vegan due to fish byproducts. However, Korean home cooks veganize its recipe with seaweed.

It should be noted that more often than not, kimchi is not vegan due to fish byproducts. However, Korean home cooks veganize its recipe with the addition of seaweed to give a similar fish/ocean-y umami flavor.

Another dish with a recipe altered after international trade became more prominent in Korea is tteokbokki. Like kimchi, it was not a spicy dish prior to the introduction of chillies. However, its vibrant red color and spiciness come from gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) as opposed to gochugaru. Various forms of tteokbokki exist today. These include the common spicy variant, and gungjung tteokbokki (non-spicy royal court tteokbokki). Where the spicy tteokbokki includes gochujang, the royal court tteokbokki includes ganjang (soy sauce) to flavor the tteok (rice cakes).

vegan Korean cuisine
Vegan Rice-Tteokboki. Image credit: @kjeevegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Jjigae is the Korean word for stew. It exists in various forms and was often seen in history for sustenance during wars and in less affluent communities. The typical jjigae consists of the main ingredient (the ingredient that gives the dish its name) cooked in a seasoned broth. The broth is often seasoned with sesame oil, gochugaru, gochujang (Korean pepper paste), or doenjang. Some common plant-based jjigae dishes are dubu jjigae (firm tofu stew), sundubu jjigae (soft tofu stew), kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), gochujang jjigae (pepper paste stew), and doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew). It should be noted that similarly to kimchi, some of these stews might be made with a non-vegan broth or addition of fish byproducts although they are easily made, and enjoyed, vegan using suitable substitutes such as vegetable stock and kelp/kombu (seaweed) stock.

Japchae. Image credit: @thekoreanvegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Japchae is a mixed vegetable stir fry dish. In the 17th Century, it was made by stir-frying vegetables and shiitake mushrooms. However, as sweet potatoes were introduced to Korea, especially with the introduction of glass/cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch (developed in China), Japchae developed to include glass noodles as well as other non-indigenous ingredients such as bell peppers. The present-day dish is both colorful and flavourful with both savory and sweet flavor profiles.

vegan Korean cuisine
Gamja jorim. Image credit: @thekoreanvegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Gamja jorim is a Korean braised potato dish often served as a banchan (side dish). it is made by braising chopped potatoes with garlic, chili peppers, and onions in a sweet and savory liquid consisting of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, water. and sesame oil. The recipe for the braising liquid varies with the cook. However, these are the ingredients that are most commonly found in it.

Kong-guksu. Image credit: @yourkoreanvegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Kong-guksu is a cold soybean noodle soup. It consists of a cold soy milk broth (sometimes served with ice) made from ground soybeans with wheat noodles. the soy milk broth is made by blending cooked soybeans with water, pine nuts, and sesame seeds and straining the mixture. This smooth mixture is refrigerated while the noodles are cooked and vegetables (usually cucumbers and tomatoes) are sliced. The noodles are cooled off in an ice bath then placed in a bow. The cold soybean milk mixture is poured into the noodles and the dish is garnished with cucumbers, tomatoes, sesame seeds, and ice (depending on preference).

Recipe from Vegan Korean Cuisine – Kkanpoong Dubu (Spicy & Crunchy Garlic Tofu) by The Korean Vegan

Kkampoong dubu is a crunchy, flavorsome, and spicy garlic tofu that is a veganised version of the Korean dish kkanpoongi. In this recipe, Joanne Molinaro (@thekoreanvegan) shows you how to make a perfect delicious kkanpoong dubu with easy-to-follow steps.

vegan Korean cuisine

Click here for the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

If you loved this article on vegan Korean cuisine, you might also like…

Vegan Cheese Tteokbokki (Cheesy Korean Rice Cakes)

Gluten-Free Korean Savory Pancakes

Kimchi Stew with Tofu

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing about Korea’s food history and vegan cooking! 💚🌱🇰🇷

    There are so many awesome, modern Korean-style vegan recipes online these days!
    But if you live in Korea, it can actually be quite challenging to eat plant-based unless you cook at home.

    I can’t stress enough, how common it is still to add seafood to kimchi, soups and stews in Korea…
    Glad that your post reflects that fact!

    Cheers and happy munching~
    BonBon 😊
    from Sesame Sprinkles

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