|Let's Visit South Korea|
South Korea or the Republic of Korea (ROK) is a country everyone should visit at least once. Koreans are courteous and friendly hosts and the country is beautiful with some wild mountain areas, skiing in winter and beautiful coastal scenery.
Everywhere in Seoul, the capital, you see the clear lines and circles of han-gul script, resembling a clever shorthand and said to be the world's most scientific alphabet. At night the neon signs reflect the bright red, blue and white, green and yellow clothes of the children that are also everywhere, a symbol too of Korea's future. The colours are clear and pure, and suddenly you notice that the streets of this massive city, with a population of around 11 million, is almost litter-free. Ditto for graffiti. There is none. Likewise there is little road-rage, street-crime, and many of the other nasties we get so used to in western culture.
Fish and seafood forms a major part of the Korean diet. Little wonder it does, as the Korean peninsula is washed by three seas.
I spent half a day exploring the Namdaemun market, a sprawling 24-hour shopping extravaganza, more an experience than a bargain hunter’s dream, near the famous 14th-century gate which was badly damaged by fire in 2008. It should be rebuilt by 2012.
In the shops I notice an attention to detail that appears almost Japanese, yet with a distinctly different flair. These fish have been meticulously displayed and are sparkling and fresh.
A street flower market, arranged on the footpath..........
.......... and fallen autumn leaves nearby make an abstract design.
The claims for kimchi (more of that later!) are surpassed only by Korea's other miracle cure-all, ginseng which, unsurprisingly, is regarded as an aphrodisiac and vital for virility. Like so many foods it owes much of its reputation to its shape. The long twining roots, which resemble a parsnip in some sort of seizure, and glow in bottles of liquor on many street market stands. Or you can find it by the crateload in Seoul's herbal market. Here, not only is it sold whole, but as tablets and lotions, wines and powder. Korean ginseng is respected worldwide and I watched as tourists loaded up with it to take home.
One popular dish is ginseng chicken soup, in which chicken is stuffed with whole ginseng, glutinous rice and jujube before being boiled, then served in an earthenware pot. The ginseng tasted like parsnip, and perhaps I was too tired to notice, but there seemed to be no exhilarating after-effects.
If they know nothing else about Korean cuisine, most people will have heard of kimchi, that fiery, cabbage-y condiment which appears at every meal. And I mean EVERY - breakfast included.
References to kimchi have been found up to 3000 years ago in Korea. Like many countries with cold winters, a way was needed to safely preserve food for use when it was no longer available fresh. Fermentation (think, sauerkraut and pickles in Europe) was the ideal solution.
Although the version most people know involves rubbing a crimson spice mixture between the leaves of brine-soaked Chinese cabbage which is then put to ferment, often for months, in an earthenware pot, there are at least a hundred other types. Even water kimchi, a sort of spicy turnip broth, appears often as one of the multitude of side dishes which are essential at each Korean meal.
Focused as they are on health, the country's 48 million inhabitants believe kimchi is what keep them well, and some even credit it with protecting them during the SARS epidemic.
As in most parts of Asia, street markets are the most popular way to buy almost anything - food clothing, toys, and this market near the famed old Namdaemun Gate (see below) was gearing up for Christmas when I visited one year.
South Korea seems to wear the mix of religions and cultures rather well. While most acknowledge no religion, this seems to free them up to enjoy the best parts of many. Despite this, there is still superstition and many brides may still be chosen for a family's son by a matchmaker.
These pine mushrooms presented so beautifully, packed amongst pine needles from the forests where they have been gathered. They are considered as a gourmet treat and are best when the cap has not opened and may be served roasted as an accompaniment to a meal. There are pine mushroom festivals throughout the country in season.
During one visit to Korea, I visit Seoul’s Food & Culture Academy for a short lesson in Korean cuisine. As our group enters the upstairs room we pass a display of foods each traditionally served according to the month of the year. In January, for New Year, it’s tteokguk a beef soup with thinly sliced rice cakes; in April, the fourth lunar month, the feast of the lanterns dictates bubble-shaped rice cakes steamed in alcohol, and others topped with brilliant azalea flowers, and so it goes, dishes dictated by seasonal produce and special events.
Our own spaces on the long table are already set up with ingredients and utensils. Carefully Professor Kim Soo Jin, the academy’s CEO and a well-known professional cook in Korea, takes us through the basics, explaining the ingredients and demonstrating how we should cut the onions, slice the seafood and mix the batter. It’s a surprise to learn that a lighter pancake is possible by using some commercial tempura mix. I note this on my mental shopping list.
“An old proverb says you must eat dongji to grow another year older,” Professor Kim tells us through an interpreter as she prepares to show us how to make red bean porridge. “Once people would smear this on their doors to scare away ghosts.”
We shiver appropriately, and she laughs. This is the good thing about these classes it seems. While Professor Kim and her highly experienced team move easily around this modern kitchen, the spirits of their ancestors must be smiling too, for now the culture and traditions of one of the world’s oldest cuisines is being passed to new generations as well as visitors like ourselves.
Seoul food, soul food, varies from province to province but the dishes are invariably freshly prepared and the ingredients are healthy. Main dishes of meat or fish are served with up to 24 small dishes of various condiments and vegetable mixes. Most meals are eaten seated on cushions on the floor at long low tables and the food is eaten using slim metal chopsticks, occasionally with the assistance of a metal dessertspoon.
But, yes, but while traditional persist in many homes and restaurants, western influences are alive and well too, especially in the trendier parts of Seoul.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) is a country noted for its many forms of industry and technology and its skiing and natural beauty. It is a highly developed country attracting 8.8 million international tourists annually.
LOCATION: a peninsula between China and Japan with the Yellow Sea to the west and the Sea of Japan to the east.
BORDERED BY: North Korea.
CAPITAL & LARGEST CITY: Seoul, pop. over ten million
POPULATION of COUNTRY: 49 million (24th in the world)
POPULATION DENSITY: 491 per square kilometre (21st in the world)
AREA: 100,210 square kilometres (109th largest country – about the size of Iceland)
INDEPENDENCE: March 1, 1919 INDEPENDENCE DAYS: 15 August and 3 October
CURRENCY: South Korean won. Currently about 1151 won to the Australian dollar.
CLIMATE: Humid continental and sub-tropical. Snows in winter.
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Korean English is spoken by some.
RELIGION: None DRIVES ON THE: right
TIME ZONE: GMT + 9
PHONE PREFIX: 82
FLAG: White with central red and blue circle and four black symbols in corners.
CUISINE: ….. read more
INTERESTING FACTS: ...read more
BOOKS: Still Life with Rice, Helie Lee;
MOVIES, MUSIC: ..read more
NATIONAL SPORT: Taekwando
MORE INFORMATION: …..read more