Seasoning and style of Korean food
When cooking, we use various ingredients to create the distinctive flavor of each dish while preserving the individual taste of each food used. We call these ingredients seasonings.
In Chinese characters, “seasonings” is written as yangnyeom, which means “many things mixed equally in the hope that they may be beneficial to the body just as medicines are.” Basic seasonings can be grouped into five categories: salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter. Depending on the food, condiments are added to create a distinct flavor. Aromatic condiments emit a good scent or produce a spicy, bitter or nutty flavor. Their unique aromas eliminate or offset any unappetizing food odor and enhance the taste of food.
Basic seasonings used in Korean cooking include salt, soy sauce, hot pepper paste, soybean paste, vinegar and sugar. As for aromatic seasonings, ginger, mustard, pepper, hot pepper, sesame oil, perilla oil, sesame, green onion, garlic and Chinese pepper are used. A Korean dish is usually prepared using at least five or six different condiments, thereby offering a unique flavor not found in other countries.
Soy sauce and soybean paste are unique bean-based fermented foods of Korea, and important condiments for seasoning. Gan in ganjang (Korean for soy sauce) refers to the salty taste, while doen in doenjang (Korean for soybean paste) indicates its denseness. Traditionally, soybeans are boiled thoroughly in late autumn and shaped into blocks called meju. They are then kept in a warm place to ferment and dry. After the lunar New Year, they are soaked in a large jar of salted water to make jang. Once the jang is fully fermented, the liquid is separated and collected for use as soy sauce, while the solids are drained, seasoned with salt and sealed in jars to be used as soybean paste. To make hot pepper paste, glutinous rice powder is kneaded and steamed, then mixed with meju powder. When the mix thins, hot pepper powder and salt are added for seasoning. It is then stored to allow it to ferment. Depending on the region, regular rice, flour or barley is used instead of glutinous rice. When making meju specifically for hot pepper paste, rice powder is sometimes added to boiled beans and mild sauce is used as seasoning instead of salt.
Different types of soy sauce are used in cooking depending on the dish. For soups, stews and vegetables, light-colored mild soy sauce is used. A dense soy sauce is favored for boiling, drying and pickling. Soy sauce is not only used in cooking; it is also mixed with vinegar or other seasonings and served as a sauce. When it is served with a pan-fried dish, dumplings or cold dumplings, vinegar is added to the soy sauce. When making a seasoned soy sauce for use in noodle dishes or grain-based jellies, hot pepper powder, minced green onion and garlic are usually added to enhance the flavor.
Soybean paste is mainly used in soups and stews. It is also a key ingredient in the paste that accompanies wrap dishes, served with lettuce wraps or pumpkin leaf wraps, and in paste cakes. Just like soybean paste, hot pepper paste is used in soups or stews. It is also used as a condiment for flavoring fresh or boiled vegetables or other boiled or broiled foods. Hot pepper paste is also mixed with vinegar and served with sashimi or boiled green onion rolls. Seasoned hot pepper paste is prepared for use in bibimbap (a bowl of rice mixed with vegetables) or noodles mixed with vegetables.
Gomyeong (a Korean name for garnishes) is used to decorate food to improve its appearance and color rather than its taste to stimulate people’s appetites by presenting attractive dishes. It is also called utgi (meaning “toppings” in Korean) or kkumi (“decorations”). Based on the five-element principle, red, green, yellow, white and black are the basic colors used.
Korean cooking does not focus solely on taste, overlooking appearance. Korean food, which is decorated in five naturally occurring colors in consideration of attractiveness and health, is adorned with colorful garnishes in the noble spirit of suggesting that the food has been specially prepared just for you. It also seems to covey the subtle elegance appreciated by Koreans.
The natural color of each ingredient is made use of to adorn dishes. For red garnish, red peppers, shredded red peppers, jujubes and carrots are used. For white and yellow, eggs yolk and whites are separated and fried paper-thin on a greased pan. This is called jidan. Dropwort, small green onions, squash and cucumbers are used as green garnishes. Dropwort is neatly skewered, sprinkled with flour and dipped in whipped eggs and pan-fried on both sides just like jidan. This is called dropwort chodae. Manna lichen mushrooms, tree ears or shiitake mushrooms are used for black garnish. Minced manna lichen mushrooms are mixed with whipped egg whites to make jidan.
Egg jidan is shredded to garnish vegetables or japchae (glutinous noodles mixed with stir-fried vegetables) or cut in rectangles or diamonds to be used as toppings in soup, stew or casseroles. Jidan is cut into different shapes to match the dish in which it is being served.
Then meatballs are made by finely mincing lean beef, then adding seasonings and shaping the meat into small balls. They are coated lightly with flour and whipped eggs and cooked evenly on a greased pan. Meatballs are used as utgi in noodle dishes, casseroles or sinseollo (a fancy hot-pot boiled at the table). Nuts, including pine nuts, ginkgo nuts and walnuts, are also often used as garnishes.