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Hansik and Fermented Food Culture

Since its inception, Korea’s hansik globalization campaign has faced the difficult task of defining Korean cuisine to foreigners new to it. On its website, the Korean Food Foundation (KFF) broadly defines Korean cuisine as traditional cuisine “that is passed down from generation to generation in Korea.” The site goes on to say, “The agricultural and marine products of Korea are the main ingredients of Korean food and these ingredients give it a unique taste, scent, and color, which can only be found in Korean food.” This definition is common sense in a way: Korean food is local ingredients cooked using local cooking techniques. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. For instance, what makes Korean barbecue different from Japanese yakiniku? And how is kimchi different from sauerkraut? The answer isn’t just a look, feel, and taste test. In the last few years, these devilish details have been explained through the concept of fermented food.
  These days, hansik globalization evangelists have focused on fermentation as the distinguishing technique, and fermented foods as the distinguishing ingredients. The campaign has enlisted both local and foreign star chefs in its cause. Min-goo Kang, a Michelin star chef working in new hansik cuisine, has avidly spoken out for fermented food culture in social media and interviews. Kang repeatedly argues that no other country uses so many ingredients, especially vegetable ingredients, in fermented food to create banchan or side dishes. His ideas have been echoed by Eric Ripert, Michelin three-star chef who runs Le Bernadin in New York. In addition, the KFF introduced Korean fermented food and traditional fermentation techniques at Madrid Fusion 2015, a premier culinary expo that features the world’s top chefs and professionals. The presentation was made by Woogwan, a Buddhist monk at Gameunsa Temple, who demonstrated how to make traditional barley gochujang.
  The list of fermented food dishes that Korea offers the world is long, but there are a few key dishes to familiarize oneself with. Yes, there’s kimchi, the funky cabbage dish that can be found at every Korean table. And going back to the earlier question of what makes kimchi different from sauerkraut, the answer may be the simple fact that kimchi isn’t just fermented cabbage. There are over 187 recorded varieties of kimchi according to the Kimchi Field Museum. That’s because kimchi can be made from any number of vegetables and ingredients. And what makes kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented foodstuffs particularly healthy is that the fermentation process creates lactic acid that helps preserve the food and creates healthy enzymes, vitamins, and probiotics that improve digestion.
  Like kimchi, doenjang is part of Korea’s fermented food culture, called jang munhwa. Doenjang is made of fermented soybean and brine, and the fermentation process not only produces doenjang but also ganjang, commonly known as soy sauce. These various jang items can be used as seasoning for other dishes, or, like ssamjang, they can be combined with other vegetables to flavor rice, meat, or fish dishes. Another important seasoning used in Korean food is jeotgal. It’s essentially salted fermented seafood using ingredients like shrimp, shellfish, fish eggs, and fish intestines. The possibilities here are endless too, as any visit to a jeotgal market stall filled with dozens of various jeotgal varieties, would prove. Jeotgal is used as a condiment to flavor meat and fish dishes and is also used to season stews and soups in the same way as ganjang. Bringing our list of fermented food together, jeotgal is also used to flavor kimchi during the fermentation process.

Written by Cynthia Yoo