- Vanessa, Desiree (LO2)
First Traces of Food in Ancient Korea
One of the early myths, known as Tan'gun Sin-Hwa' (Myth of Tan'gun) speaks of Kojoson. The myth reveals a few aspects of the livelihood of native Koreans from the 4th century BCE. The myth speaks about Hwanung, the son of a heavenly God to the human world had fathered a son with a bear who had transformed into a woman. The son of Hwanung was the mythical founder of Kojoson, who was known as Tan'gun. In the myth, early understanding of Kojoson as primarily a agrarian society was highlighted by the descend of Hwanung to the human world, bringing along the ability to control wind, rain and clouds. These abilities possessed allude to the ability to control elements that govern agriculture. In Hwanung’s human transformation process, the bear is required to eat nothing but 'Ssuk' (Mugwort) and garlic for a hundred days. This arouses suspicions that certain foods had been established as possessing medicinal or religious worth by the early natives (Pettid, M. J., 2008).
Political development of goguryeo
Ancient Korea’s interaction with neighbouring states, especially kingdoms in China (mostly located in modern-day North Korea) allowed for the exchange of ideas. The 1st Century BCE up till the 7th century CE in Korea was known as the Three Kingdoms period. Koguryo (37 BCE- 668 CE) occupied the northern Korean peninsula and most parts of Manchuria, Baekje (18BCE-660CE) was situated southwest of the peninsula and Silla (57 BCE-935 CE) occupied the southeastern part of the peninsula. There were also minor kingdoms such as Kaya kingdoms situated in the southern part of the peninsula and the island kingdom of T’amna on Jeju Island. Each individual kingdom had their own culture and unique foods. It was also in this period that rapid development of culture occurred for all kingdoms. Constant interaction with China ushered the advent of a writing system, legal systems and new worldviews. Especially, by the 4th century, both Buddhism and Confucianism had infiltrated the Korean kingdoms and changed the worldview of the people. Preceding the Three Kingdoms period was the Northern and Southern Kingdom (a.k.a Unified Silla) period. Silla had defeated Baekje and Koguryo, successfully unifying the southern peninsula. However refugees from Koguryo established a new kingdom in the north known as Parhae (Bohai, China, 698 CE-926). While relationships between the two states were initially spiteful, they gradually formed a peaceful coexistence. Both states had embraced Buddhism and maintained international ties.
Planting Seeds of Buddhism
Before the 4th century, the natives of Ancient Korea delighted in consuming meat and livestock was greatly regarded as a prized possession. In 4th century, Buddhism had spread to the Korean peninsula. The slaughtering of animals for the consumption of meat was banned with the spread of Buddhism. Buddhism had become the state religion of the whole Korean peninsula by the second half of the 6th century. The Buddhist vegetarian diet carried on to the first half of the 13th century. The vegetarian food culture transformed due to the Mongol invasion and remained throughout the 130 years of Mongol domination.
Let the feast begin!
Yaksik: Medicinal rice
The Buddhist diet is one which does not include meat in their dishes. Naturally, food which originated from the Koryo Dynasty would contain no meat. One such example is the Yaksik, which we would identify them as “medicinal rice” or “medicinal food”, is a fragrant traditional Korean dish that can be prepared by steaming glutinous rice mixed with honey, brown sugar and Ganjang (soy sauce which acts as a colourizing agent). In addition to the fact that it is a sweet-tasting dish that has gotten its name from honey, which has medicinal properties, it is also usually consumed during the Korean occasion of Jeongwol Daeboreum and during special events like weddings and ‘Hwangap’ festivals (Unknown, 2016). During the Koryo Dynasty, other ingredients like soft-boiled chestnuts, jujubes, pine nuts and other seasonings such as cinnamon and sesame oil are then introduced to the original mixture. The mixture is then molded into any desired shapes before it is left to cool for consumption. As we can see from the ingredients used to make this dish, we can infer that the Koreans strictly adhered to the Buddhist diet at that time as no meat was used as ingredients (during the initial period of the Koryo Dynasty until the mid-Koryo Dynasty). Moreover, the Buddhist religion found the system for slaughtering cows to get beef too crude and hence, such a system was banned for a period of time (Koehler, n.d.). No meat was available to both the commoners and even the King. Hence, the creation of dishes that originated at that time and which we still consume till today can therefore be said to have been under the influence of religion.
Conceived from the Bapsang (traditional Korean meal), Bibimbap originated and has evolved over the past 1,000 years. Today, the dish has become a popular ethnic food across the world. The traditional Korean meal is characterised by a setting of rice, Guk (Korean-style soup), Banchan (side dishes) and Jang on a table. Bibimbap can be viewed as the ‘condensed’ version of the Bapsang.
The origins of Bibimbap can be unraveled by two proposed explanations. Firstly, Koreans may have attempted to innovate and develop the traditional meal style by finding ways to make delectable food by consuming Namul (seasoned vegetable dish) and other vegetables, thus having created a dish that comprised of vegetables, rice, meat mixed with Gochujang (red chili paste). Secondly, Bibimbap could have been created out of convenience when people did not have ample time to consume the Bapsang. These explanations were found supported by historical references. Evidence was found in the “People’s Unofficial Story of Jeonju” written by C.S Lee in 1967 where it mentioned that Jeonju Bibimbap used to be served to government officials in provincial offices, the head of Nongak samulnori (a genre of traditional percussion folk music) and important guests at a party. The other evidence was found in “Lannokgi” written by S.B Choi in 1977 where Bibimbap was created by wives of farmers who had insufficient time to consume a traditional Korean meal (Pettid, M. J., 2008). The variety of vegetables that is served in a Bibimbap can be linked to the strong influence of Buddhism, forming the core of Korean cuisine. As mentioned earlier, slaughtering of cows was prohibited with the adherence to Buddhist beliefs during the Koryo Dynasty. Buddhism is reflected in the Korean tradition of food, through the combination of many vegetables in one dish to balance taste, texture and visual appeal(Rubio, S. S., 2014).
Another one of Korea’s traditional dish, known as the Yakgwa, was once referred to as a dessert by the Koreans of the past. In modern day however, this dish is considered a sweet snack which modern-day Koreans may identify as the Korean cookie. Traditionally made by frying ingredients such as wheat flour, honey and sesame oil together, the history of the Yakgwa goes back to the period of the Three States, and were served during the Koryo period as an essential and signature dish to be served in the Koryo Royal Court or whenever banquets or national ceremonies were held during the Koryo Dynasty (918~1392) (Wikipedia, 2016). The name Yakgwa is derived from the words ‘Yak’, which means medicinal, and ‘Gwa’ which means confectionary. How this dish came about was due to the introduction of Buddhism into the country and hence, the people strictly adhered to the Buddhist diet which did not allow the consumption of meat. As a result of this, agriculture and the cultivation of crops were rife and increased and the people turned to these crops to create new food - one of which was the Yakgwa. Although the Yakgwa is a must-have food item in the meals served in the Royal Court, it was not exclusive to the royalties as the commoners during the Koryo Dynasty could also enjoy this delicacy.
Meat The 13th Century Mongol Invasion
With Buddhism as the mainstream religion during the Koryo period, the consumption of meat declined during that period of time as well, due to the Buddhist diet forbidding meat consumption. However, during the 13th century, the Mongols invaded Koryo using the death of Chu-ku-yu, a Mongolian envoy, as an excuse.
From then on, meat began to be included in Korean cuisine again under the Mongolians’ influence and meat was once again, consumed. The revival of meat consumption happened most noticeably in the Kaesong, which was the capital city of of the Koryo Dynasty, where a large population of Mongolians and Muslims lived in. In those days, one of the meat dishes which they consumed was called the Maekjeok, which is a grilled sliced pork dish. This dish then gave rise to the traditional Korean dishes that we still get to enjoy today, namely the Neobiani (grilled sliced beef) and Bulgogi (grilled marinated beef), which were dishes inspired by the Maekjeok. This is evident that political issues (specifically the invasion of Koryo by the Mongols) experienced during the Koryo Dynasty did indeed have a part to play in influencing the Korean cuisine we get to enjoy today.
In conclusion, the Korean dishes that we consume today have been created under the influence of many factors during the Koryo Dynasty. Religion, Buddhism in particular, played a major role when it came to the kind of food that was created during that period of time. Dishes that originated from that time were mostly made from vegetarian ingredients as the the consumption of meat was not allowed. Other factors that have influence in the dishes created then included major political events such as the invasion of the Mongols in Koryo. The ingredients used to make the dishes is also evidence that Buddhism has also brought about widespread agriculture and crop cultivation as well as an increase in the production of crops. We can thus safely say that religion at that time, was a big part of Koryo’s identity as a country and which was reflected in the lifestyle of the Koreans living in the Koryo Dynasty.
Koehler, R. Traditional Food: A Taste of Korean Life.