Korean superfoods have numerous health benefits and have been used for centuries to keep the body in balance. Food and medicine are often treated as one and the same thing. Traditional Korean meals put emphasis on side dishes, or 반찬 banchan, and contain herbs and roots with various health-giving properties. The traditional style of eating is similar to a banquet – everyone has their own bowl of rice and you then help yourself to the various plates of vegetables, herbs and meat that you desire. With usually around 5-10 of these side dishes, invariably foods from the 5 elements of fire, wood, water, metal and earth are present, to help keep the bodies energies in balance.
No wonder I feel so good after eating a Korean meal. This concept of food balancing the body is familiar to me – as a child my grandmother ran a health food shop and our medicine cabinet was empty of various medicines and filled with things like lavender oil, apple cider vinegar and blackstrap molasses.
The 5 Elements and Tastes
In Korea, different foods are eaten to maintain the balance the yin and yang energy in the body as well as the 5 elements of fire, wood, water, metal and earth. 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 not always easy. Sometimes one part of the body is blocked or not functioning well so another organ overcompensates and thus appears to be sick. Visiting a traditional medical doctor can be best to find out the true cause of the illness. For maintaining overall good health, 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.
2. Doenjang Paste
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 vegetables gathered from mountains – anything from the leaves, stems and roots are used. Namul vegetables or herbs are often bitter, which is good for the heart and small intestine. You can find san namul in many of the side dishes provided at restaurants in Korea, and are of particularly good quality in the countryside or near mountains. They’re often added to one of Korea’s most famous dishes, bibimbap – a combination of rice, namul, kim (seaweed), fermented vegetables and egg. Older Koreans collect namul from the wild to use in the kitchen – you will often spot them in springtime collecting from riverbanks, forests and along the side of country roads.
One of the most widely used and loved namul 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 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 and is 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
As with all superfoods, these Korean foods should be eaten in moderation to avoid causing an 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 also 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 gained and shared much of their medicinal knowledge with China. Lee says to really gain good health you also need to develop your spiritual character, like with a traditional Chinese spiritual practice, Falun Dafa. She says, “Traditional Chinese culture has created 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 are essential virtues to recover human nature and morality. ”
To find more healthy Korean superfoods, check out our amazon page in the Korean food section. Any questions or comments? Join the discussion on Google+ or Facebook. Please use the amazon links to support our website.
Photography by Jarrod Hall