In South Korea, one of my favourite things is the Korean food – there are a number of Korean foods I really like and for some there are also interesting stories behind them. Further, there are also some interesting things about “eating” in Korean culture. So, I would like to start a series of blog posts on “Hansik” (한식 – Korean food) to talk about interesting things about Korean food and eating in South Korea. This is the first post in the series – I will talk about some general interesting things about hansik and eating first. In the coming posts, I will talk about some signature hansik and, of course, my favourite hansik, and other things about eating in Korean culture. You can also share your favourite hansik with us in the “Comments” section.
Hansik in the Eyes of Foreigners
According to a survey by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute of 810 foreigners who visited South Korea in 2014, foreigners graded hansik at 74.4 out of 100, and by region, Americans graded the highest at 82.4, followed by Japanese (78.5), Europeans (77.8), others (76.3) and Asians except Japanese and Chinese (76.2). Chinese gave a relatively low score of 70.
During their stay, the hansik eaten by most visitors is bibimbap (비빔밥 – rice mixed with assorted vegetables) (72.5%), followed by bulgogi (불고기 – grilled beef) (60.6%), samgyeopsal (삼겹살 – grilled pork belly) (57.2%), fried chicken (치킨) (51.2%), tteok (떡 – rice cakes) (51%) and gimbap (김밥 – dried seaweed rice roll) (46.4%), with multiple replies being allowed. Countrywise Japanese like galbi (갈비 – marinated beef /pork short ribs) the most, while Chinese like samyeopsal; other Asians, bibimbap; and Americans and Europeans, bulgogi. Are any of these foods also your favourite ones? I will talk more about these foods in the coming posts.
Key Features of Hansik
Hansik is well-known as a healthy food – with the people becoming increasingly concerned about well-being, hansik has gained more attention from people both in South Korea and overseas. Why is hansik a healthy food? The secret lies in the ingredients being used and the cooking techniques.
For each meal, boiled rice, side dishes and soup (made from seafood, vegetables and/or meat) are key items for the Koreans and main dishes (which can be made from meat and/or fish and/or vegetables) may vary between meals. Typically, there are at least 3 to 4 side dishes, at least one of which is kimchi (김치 – fermented vegetables), and a family may have 10 or more side dishes for one meal. The side dishes are usually food made from vegetables and so are nutritious and healthy. There are also some side dishes made from fried fish, salted fish or sliced meat. In Korean restaurants, side dishes are usually free of charge and if you have finished a side dish, you can ask for more if you like. It is found that a Korean meal provides a well-balanced diet – according to nutritionists’ research, hansik dishes maintain figures close to the recommended ratios between carbohydrates (65%), protein (15%) and fat (20%).
Koreans use fermented ingredients a lot. Such ingredients contain a lot of lactic acid, bacteria and dietary fibres and have anti-cancer properties and are good for digestion. Kimchi, which is a type of fermented vegetables, is a “must-eat” side dish for every meal. Kimchi has been named by the US health magazine, “Health”, as one of the healthiest foods in the world. Koreans also used fermented sauce for seasoning, for example, ganjang (간장 – soy sauce), deonjang (된장 – ground soybean paste), gochujang (고추장 – red pepper paste) – such sauce not only makes the food taste good, but also makes the food healthy to eat.
Hansik also represents the metaphysical view of the Koreans – the theory of yin and yang (representing earth and heaven respectively) and the interaction between the two resulting in dynamic energies represented by the five elements that make up the universe (i.e., water, fire, wood, metal and earth). The traditional Korean table consists of dishes of five colours, namely, green, red, yellow, white, and black, which represent the five elements and also the five tastes of spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is believed that a combination of dishes with these colours provides nutritional balance. A good example is bibimbap which is rice mixed with assorted vegetables of different colours, egg and gochujang (red pepper paste).
Main cooking techniques used by the Koreans are grilling, boiling, pan-frying and steaming which do not use much oil and so make the food healthy to eat.
Eating shows, “Mokbang” (먹방), on the Web
For Koreans, eating is a social and communal activity. However, as nearly a quarter of the population now live alone, eating alone has become a new trend in South Korea. As a result, live eating shows, “Mokbang” (literally, “eating broadcast”), have recently become a hit. In Mokbang, the host eats food and chats with the audience like a friend. The show is watched by the audience through webcast and the audience may send their comments through texting to chat with the host. Sometimes, the host may also demonstrate how to cook the food.
In South Korea, Mokbang started in early 2013 when a national media wrote about a film star eating on screen which made the viewers’ mouth water. Then network television started eating shows, for example, Sam Hammington (an Australian comedian) joking in Korean while eating in a show. Now, Mokbang has became popular in South Korea – for example, the video of a Korean female host called Diva (디바) showing her eating a big Chinese meal got nearly 70,000 views in less than 2 months. You may watch an episode of the Mokbang hosted by Diva (디바) by clicking the link below:
During the Mokbang, the audience may also send virtual gifts to the host – such gifts are denominated in virtual currency which can then be converted into real cash minus a fee paid to the hosting platform service provider. For example, according to Choi Ji-hwan who hosts a Mokbang on AfreecaTV (a YouTube-like platform), he earns about 2 million won (about US$1,880) a month after deducting expenses.
Here ends the first post in this Hansik series, more on hansik in the coming posts. Please don’t miss them! Also feel free to share your favourite Korean food in the “Comments” section.
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 2 April 2015. Watch this space!
Related Blog Posts
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Bibimbap” dated 2 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Bulgogi” dated 9 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Samgyeopsal” dated 14 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Samgyetang” dated 16 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Korean Table Manners” dated 21 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Kimchi” dated 23 April 2015
“Hansik (Korean Food) Series – Chimaek (Fried Chicken and Beer)” dated 28 April 2015
Kim Rahn, “Foreign visitors find Korean food ‘so-so’“, The Korea Times, 2015-03-16
Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, “Hansik and the long tradition of Korean cooking“, The Jakarta Post, 2015-02-01
“The new South Korean craze for live-streaming eating“, France24, 2014-03-14
Jeyup S. Kwaak, “In South Korea, eating shows – or ‘Mokbang’ – are hits on the web“, The Wall Street Journal, 2014-03-09
“Colors, meanings, charms and flavors in Korean dishes“, The Korea Herald, 2010-06-03
“The story of Korean food“, Korea Tourism Organization
“Customs“, Korea Tourism Organization