Korea has a heartbreaking history as a pawn among larger powers – at times repressed, at times squeezed, at times conquered, and always a battleground of conflict. Today, Seoul is at the heart of the country’s dynamic growth. One-fifth of the population calls this city home. Beneath this dynamism is the political reality of a city located perilously close to the 38th parallel. However, for most Seoul residents, this reality is part of their status quo. With quality of life improving for every succeeding generation, the focus is on living life to the fullest in the here and now.
OVERVIEW OF KOREAN CUISINE
Korean food’s regional differences can be traced back to the Joseon dynasty when the peninsula was divided into eight provinces. Over hundreds of years, these separate administrative districts formed their own unique cuisines based on the geographical location and topography of the region. In the northern provinces of what is now North Korea, the food is not as spicy nor as salty as in the south. The northern part of the peninsula is more mountainous with less access to meat and fish, thus common foods are dried fish, mountain vegetables and herbs. The south, with its milder climate and less mountainous terrain, has a greater variety of fresh seafood with more spices in the diet than the north.
What unites Korean cuisine, despite regional variations, is the key flavouring ingredients (yangnyim) and the numerous preservation techniques applied to everything from vegetables to seafood to meats. Basic seasonings are sea salt, soy sauce, soybean paste (denjang), chilli paste (gochujang) and rice vinegar. While the basic and accenting ingredients may appear somewhat limited and simple, the variations are enormous. For example, there are over 20 commercial types of soybean paste options – some offer milder, subtle flavours while others are powerful and pungent.
OVERVIEW OF FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
Korea is where food accurately reflects the character of its people. Within the confines of hierarchical social structures, Koreans are a passionate lot and can be audacious, persuasive and compelling. Their food is not dissimilar – it is spicy, potent, lingering, bold and incredibly addictive.
The dining table in Korea differs from its neighbours in the diversity, number and generosity of small side dishes (banchan) that always include at least one type of kimchi to accompany a meal, like a loaf of bread would go with most French meals. In most Korean restaurants, these dishes are free and replenished throughout the meal. Sometimes, a special soup, hot pot or noodle dish can be the main focus but often, a typical meal consists of many small dishes and rice. Another aspect that distinguishes the Korean dining table is the use of bowls, chopsticks and flat spoons, all made of metal, as standard cutlery.
BEVERAGE AND WINE CULTURE
The most widely consumed beverage in Korea is water, with tea not far behind.
In the modern era, Koreans enjoy tea and other hot beverages throughout the year and teas unique to Korea are very popular. Bori cha is a traditional roasted barley tea that is caffeine-free and often served as the standard drink instead of water in many local restaurants. Another common tea is insam cha which is ginseng tea with honey while two other favourite teas are senggang cha, or ginger tea, and omija cha made with local berries.
Seoul’s wine scene has changed dramatically over the past decade. This densely packed city has always had a plethora of drinking venues, mostly devoted to local beverages such as soju, beer, jungjong (Korean sake), makgolli and donggonju. In the middle of this, wine bars are growing in number, from high-end stylish bars like Casa del Vino with over 500 wines, to intimate wine bars for serious wine lovers like Veraison.
WINE AND KOREAN FOOD
Korean cuisine’s bold, spicy flavours are a challenge to pair with wine. The wines must be equally bold in their fruit characteristics but with ripe, moderate tannins. Korean food has many fermented flavours and fairly high umami levels and wines with rounded mid-palate textures work best. In general, highly tannic wines such as Tannat or Petit Verdot don’t work well because of the high chilli and salt content which strips the fruit and exaggerates the tannins. However, mature wines, even Barolos with sufficient age, can pair well with Korean dishes if the chilli and spices are not too strong.
With typical Korean meals that incorporate a wide range of flavours, versatile wines with refreshing acidity work best. The spices require a refreshing element in the wine and the varied textures and ingredients mean that versatile wines like Sauvignon Blanc or fruity Pinot Noir from cool climates work very well.
It is important to note that similar to other places in Asia, Koreans’ enjoyment of alcoholic beverages like wine is not limited to the dining table. Soju, beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks are just as often enjoyed with meals as they are consumed on their own accompanied by snacks (anju). In this context, full-bodied, bold, tannic wines are very popular. Korean cuisine incorporates many bitter flavours from numerous root vegetables and herbs such as ginseng. Very often, Koreans have a higher tolerance for bitter flavours and enjoy tannic wines when drinking wine by itself. One of the most frequently asked questions is not just what Korean meals and dishes pair well with wine but what anju should one serve with a Tuscan red, Bordeaux or a Chablis.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR KOREAN CUISINE
- Old World Merlot
- Mature Tuscan
- New World Pinot Noir
- New World Chardonnay
- New World Sauvignon Blanc – Semillon