“Superfoods” have been used in Korea for centuries to stay healthy and keep the body in balance. In traditional Oriental medicine, food and medicine are one and the same. This concept is one not unfamiliar to me – as a child my grandmother ran a health food shop and our medicine cabinet was empty of various medicines. Instead it was filled with superfoods like apple cider vinegar and blackstrap molasses. I understood even as a child if I was sick it meant my body was out of balance, while eating different foods could put it back into balance.
The 5 Elements and Tastes
In Korea, different foods are eaten to maintain health by balancing the yin and yang energy in the body as well as the 5 elements of fire, wood, water, metal and earth. In oriental traditional medicine the 5 elements relate to different tastes. The fire element is bitter, the wood element is sour, water is salty, metal is spicy and earth is sweet.
Eunji Lee, an Oriental health practitioner from the Academy of True Maek I met in Seoul, explained how the 5 tastes relate to the body’s organs. “Sour foods are good for the liver and gallbladder, bitter food is linked to the heart and small intestine, sweetness is for the stomach and pancreas, spicy foods are for the lungs and large intestine and salty foods are for the kidneys and bladder. If one of your organs is sick, food of the same element can help repair damage to that organ.” But she says diagnosing which organ is sick is difficult.
Lee recommends the following superfoods used in Korean cuisine to bring balance to the body.
Kimchi is fermented spicy cabbage and is the most famous Korean dish. Well-fermented kimchi is sour, so is beneficial to the gallbladder and liver. Kimchi has vitamins A, B, and C but most importantly, it contains Lactobacillus, a probiotic similar to that found in yoghurt. Probiotics aid digestion, boost the immune system, help to efficiently use vitamins and filter out bad bacteria or toxins. They’re also linked to reducing cholesterol. Vegetarians should beware and check the ingredients, as kimchi often contains small amounts of seafood.
Lee says a lot of the goodness in kimchi comes from the fermentation process, particularly when fermented in traditional large ceramic pots called onggi. “The reason kimchi is a “superfood” is because it’s fermented which preserves nutrients and digestive enzymes and promotes good bacteria…The food is still raw or alive. All these foods breathe through tiny holes in the pottery allowing a controlled bacterial growth and fermentation.”
Korean dishes which contain kimchi are; kimchi jiggae (stew), kimchi pajeon (pancake), kimchi mandoo (dumplings) and kimchi bokkeumbap (fried rice). Kimchi is a side dish with almost every meal in Korea and is commonly eaten with rice. You can also make your own at home.
Doenjang paste is a fermented soybean paste similar to miso. The fermentation process of the doenjang paste neutralizes the toxins and anti nutrients that soybeans contain. Doenjang is salty in taste and is related to the kidneys and bladder.
Doenjang is a great and relatively cheap source of protein and has recently inspired the term “doenjang girl”. This refers to young women who live on cheap doenjang stew in order to spend more money on clothes and coffee. Apart from being the main ingredient in doenjang jiggae and other stews, doenjang is the main ingredient in ssamjang, a Korean BBQ dipping sauce.
3. San Namul
San Namul is the Korean word for a side dish made of wild mountain vegetables or herbs. The plants used in San Namul are often bitter, which is good for the heart and small intestine. There are many variations of San Namul at restaurants in Korea, particularly in the countryside or near mountains. Wild herbs are also often added to one of Korea’s most famous dishes, bibimbap – a combination of rice, kim (seaweed), fermented vegetables, and egg.
Older Koreans still collect herbs from the wild to use in the kitchen – and in the springtime, you often spot them collecting on riverbanks and along the side of roads. One of the most widely used and loved mountain herbs is Chinese mugwort, called ssuk in Korean (쑥). The bitter herb is used to flavor rice cakes, make side dishes, tea or to make soup.
Gochujang is a hot spicy paste made from hot peppers and is found in a huge amount of Korean dishes. The spiciness of gochujang is good for the lungs and large intestine and is yang in energy. Gochujang has been a part of traditional Korean cuisine since the 16th century.
Gochujang aids digestion so is great to eat with meat or food that is harder for the body to digest. Capsacin, a substance found in chili peppers is known to reduce body fat.
Gochujang is used in Korean dishes such as bibimbap (rice with vegetables), tteokbokki (rice cakes in hot sauce), gochujang stew, and bibimguksu (noodles with vegetables).
Gim, also known as nori, is a type of seaweed and is high in iron, magnesium, iodine, omega 3, vitamin A and C. It’s usually seasoned with salt and toasted. Dried and seasoned gim can be found at many Asian grocery stores, but be sure to choose a good brand for the highest quality. Research suggests gim can help lower cholesterol levels. Gim is salty so is linked to the kidneys and gallbladder.
Gim is used as a side-dish and eaten with rice (very popular with children in Korea), used to make gimbap (similar to a nori roll) and is often sprinkled on top of rice dishes or udon noodles.
A Balance of Tastes for Balance in the Body
These Korean superfoods, as with all superfoods, should be eaten in moderation to avoid causing imbalance in the body. A variety of “tastes” should be eaten to keep a healthy balance of yin and yang and the 5 elements. Pregnant women should avoid Chinese mugwort unless prescribed by a medical practitioner.
Lee says Korean traditional medicine is not just about food and herbal medicine; it also has a spiritual aspect. “You should maintain emotional balance for your health.”
During the development of Korean traditional medicine, Korea shared and gained much of their medicinal knowledge from China.
“Traditional Chinese culture has spawned a rich and profound system of values. The concepts of ‘man and nature must be in balance,’ ‘respect the heavens to know one’s destiny,” and the five cardinal virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness as well as loyalty and filial piety is essential virtues to recover humane nature and morality. “
This article was originally published on koreanrooftop.com.