If Americans know anything about Korea, it is that it`s bisected by the 38th parallel, it contains the city of Seoul, and that, judging from M*A*S*H, the whole country looks a lot like southern California. But there is more to this beautiful country, and its cuisine is not the least of its charms. Descended from Mongolians, Koreans were governed by imperial dynasties on a feudal system since before the Common Era. And despite persistent troubles with Japan, Korea remained independent until 1910, when it became a Japanese protectorate. As a result, Korean cooking has a distinct national identity that, in its contemporary form, combines dishes and techniques from both peasant diets and royal palace foods.
Korea is surrounded on four sides by water -- so, beside rice, seafood is the staple food. The markets overflow with fish, shrimp, crabs, clams, oysters, squid, and octopus, which are eaten dried, pickled, crushed into paste or sauce, stewed, steamed, and grilled. Fish is even stirred into a common breakfast porridge. As in Japan, rice, pickles and fish are the basis of the diet. Food is flavored with various combinations of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, dried anchovies and one of the many delicious spice pastes (changs or jangs) that Koreans build from a base of fermented soy beans. Dejan paste, fermented soybean paste, and gochu Jang, a hot, fermented chile paste are much like Japanese miso. Koreans also eat meat; northerners eat more pork, while southerners prefer beef, and the cooks are unafraid to mix meat, fish, chicken, and pork. Anything goes.
Koreans eat a medium-grain "sticky" rice (as distinguished from long-grain and short-grain, or glutinous, varieties) which is also common in Japan. Rice is sometimes mixed with barley or soybeans for flavor and nutrition. Unlike the crops grown in Korea`s tropical neighbors to the south, these grains and rices are more amenable to the colder weather, longer days, and shorter growing season of Korea. Both grain and rice are often made into noodles, which play a central role in Korean cooking. Soups, which come in a wondrous variety, are often noodle-based, and buckwheat noodles are distinctively local.
Much Korean cooking is done in a clay stewing pot known as a tukbaege. These produce gorgeous casseroles and stews that might combine fish or meat with potatoes (sweet and white), eggplant, seaweed, fiddleheads, or tofu. Street carts and restaurants all over Korea serve up pancakes made on a griddle and fritters made from scallions, oysters, buckwheat, meat, and most anything else. The wok, too, is common.
At dinner time, a Korean family sits on the floor around a low table. A meal is built around a mound of plain, steamed rice, which is eaten with thin chopsticks.