Today, noodles are often enjoyed as a quick meal, but in the past, noodles were served on special occasions. As farmers mostly grew only rice, wheat was scarce, therefore noodles, which are made of wheat flour, were a specialty. Long noodles symbolized a long and happy life, therefore noodle dishes were served on special occasions such as birthdays, weddings and 60th birthdays (Koreans have special celebrations for 60th birthday) to make the occasion more festive.
A wide range of ingredients and cooking methods are used in making Korean noodles. As flour was scarce, other ingredients like buckwheat, kudzu, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mung beans and beans were grounded into powder and mixed with flour. This brought some variation to the noodle dishes on the Korean table.
Popular noodle dishes include janchiguksu (banquet noodles), thin noodles served in an anchovy or shellfish based broth, and kalguksu, hand-rolled noodles served in a chicken or seafood based broth. Naengmyeon is also a popular noodle dish with two variations. There is the Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon, cold beef broth mixed with radish water kimchi and poured over buckwheat noodles, and there is the Hamheung-style naengmyeon, potato starch noodles mixed with spicy seasoning.
People usually eat hot noodles on cold days and cold noodles on hot days. However, in accord with the traditional Korean saying “beat the heat with heat and the cold with cold,” Koreans often eat cold noodles in winter and hot noodles in summer.
Porridge can be said to be a variation of rice. Unlike rice, which needs to be chewed, porridge is made by boiling rice in about five times more water until the grains are very soft and mushy. Porridge is usually the first form of solid food for babies, and it is also ideal for the elderly or patients. Porridge is so easily swallowed and so easy to digest, that the Korean phrase “as easy as eating cold porridge,” refers to a very easy task.
The basic Korean porridge is the white rice porridge cooked with only rice. But there are also the “deluxe rice porridges,” which are made by adding fresh seasonal vegetables, meats, seafood, nuts, grains and/or other nutritious ingredients to the basic porridge. While hobakjuk (pumpkin porridge) and danpatjuk (sweet red bean porridge) are popular as appetizers or desserts, sogogibeoseotjuk (beef and mushroom porridge), yachaejuk (vegetable porridge), dakjuk (chicken porridge), haemuljuk (seafood porridge) and jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge) are served as main entrees. Porridge is said to have a longer history than rice, and was part of an old Korean tradition. On winter solstice day, the day with the longest night of the year, Koreans ate red bean porridge, because it was believed that the red color of beans kept evil spirits and misfortune away.
Koreans have brewed and enjoyed their own liquor since ancient times, and a unique traditional liquor culture has bloomed and grown since. Every family had their own way of brewing liquor. Gayangju (home-brewed liquor) was made with much care and devotion to be served on ancestral rites, festive events or when welcoming guests.
TRADITIONAL LIQUOR TRIO— CHEONGJU, MAKGEOLLI, SOJU
Traditional Korean liquors use a “mother yeast” made by fermenting rice and malt. The clear liquid collected by inserting a traditional colander-like device in the mother yeast is called cheongju, and because it took so much time to make only a small amount, cheongju was regarded as a superior liquor. On the contrary, makgeolli, which was easier to make in large quantities, was known as the commoners’ liquor. The name makgeolli was derived from its making process, combining two Korean words that translate to “roughly sieved.” Lastly, soju is a liquor with a higher alcohol content produced by the distillation of makgeolli. While it is the most popular liquor in Korea today, soju was an energy boosting drink for kings in the olden days.
A RICH AND ELEGANT HOME-BREWED LIQUOR CULTURE
Through the years, traditional Korean liquors have changed and advanced depending on medicinal ingredients, flowers and fruits produced in the different seasons and regions. Korean homes have brewed their very own liquors for years, and the especially well-made and great tasting liquors have become representative liquors in their respective regions. Famed home-brewed liquors include “Beopju,” made by the wealthy Choe family in Gyodong, Gyeongju; “Leegangju,” which is a wild pear liquor, from Jeonju; the Geumsan Ginseng Liquor, and the Andong Soju. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), there were more than 300 regional liquors renowned for their excellence.
A LIQUOR FOR EVERY OCCASION
In Korea, liquor is always present during ancestral rites, when inviting guests, or on festive events. As an old saying goes, “you can see the politics of a village by the taste of its local liquor,” Koreans often regarded liquor as an indicator of a community’s dignity and worth. The most popular liquor in Korea today is soju, and special mixtures like so-maek (soju+maekju (beer)), fruit soju (soju+citron fruit, peach, apple, grapefruit, etc.), and “Bekseju” (soju brewed with medicinal herbs) are especially popular among younger generations.
The biggest Korean holidays are Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day), Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), and Jeongwol Daeboreum (Great Full Moon Day). On Seollal and Chuseok, family members get together for a memorial service to their ancestors and visit close relatives. Popular holiday foods are galbijjim (braised short ribs), japchae (stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables), tteok (rice cakes) and hangwa (traditional Korean sweets). Regardless, each holiday has a special food for the occasion.
Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day, the first day of the first lunar month)
In Korea, Seollal is a major holiday that marks the beginning of a New Year. Dressed in their finest New Year clothes, everyone in the family gathers to perform the ancestral ritual. A key moment is when the younger family members bow before the senior members of the family. Following the bowing the seniors offer words of blessing and New Year’s money to the children. On this day, people eat tteokguk, or sliced rice cake soup, The oval rice cake slices symbolize the sun, as well as a fortuitous beginning of the New Year. Custom has it that one becomes a year older after eating a bowl of tteokguk. It is also said that this soup brings good fortune because the rice cake slices resemble coins.
Jeongwol Daeboreum (Great Full Moon Day, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month)
In the first month of the year, people perform rites to the guardian spirits of their community, asking the spirits to ensure health and happiness and help avert disasters and bad luck in the coming year. On the first full moon day, everyone eats ogokbap, which is thought to ensure longevity. Ogokbap, which means steamed five-grain rice, is made with sticky rice, glutinous sorghum, red beans, glutinous millet, and beans. Accompanying ogokbap is an assortment of namul, or salad, and on the morning of Jeongwol Daeboreum, people eat nuts such as chestnuts, walnuts, ginkgo nuts and peanuts to wish for a healthy year. Bureom refers to the assortment of nuts, and also the tradition of eating nuts.
Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month)
Celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, Chuseok literally means autumn night with great moonlight. The Korean proverb “Be not more, nor less, but just like Hangawi (another word for Chuseok)” suggests that this holiday falls during the best time of the year, with perfect weather and abundant food. Following the harvest of fruits and grains, people make songpyeon (half-moon rice cakes) in appreciation of their ancestors, and the heavens for the bountiful harvest. All of the family members gather around the table to make half-moon shaped rice cakes. Flour milled from newly harvested rice is moistened with salt water to form the dough, which is shaped into small half-moons, filled with a paste of mung bean, honeyed sesame, chestnuts, or other fillings, and steamed on a bed of pine needles.