Posted on 22 March 2012.
Some popular Korean dishes today have the aura of age due to their rustic, simple appearance but are actually quite new and innovative, compared with Korea’s long history. Humans have occupied the peninsula for more than 5,000 years, according to archaeological and historical research. But Korea’s earliest culinary roots have been established more by archaeology than history.
Written records of Korea’s culinary history are few and far between. Two of Korea’s earliest history books are the 삼국 사기 Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), completed in A.D. 1145 and the 삼국 유사 Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), complied circa A.D. 1280.
Neither book is solely on Korean food, but they do offer small glimpses of culinary culture in their narratives on Korean history and myth from the 고조선 Gojoseon period (about 2333–108 B.C.) to the middle of the 고려국 Goryeodynasty (A.D. 918–1392).
Over such a long period of time, culinary trends are bound to come and go, influenced by periods of tumult and war as well as periods of peaceful co-existence and free trade with neighbors. Korea’s earliest cookbook found to date is 산가 요록Sanga Yorok, written in A.D. 1459 during the 조선국 Joseondynasty (A.D. 1382–1910). From that time forward, Koreans seemed to have been more dedicated to recording and preserving their culinary heritage.
It’s a good thing that modern food experts have traced the origins of the following five popular dishes, because they’re younger than they seem.
Kimchi jjigae with tuna, one of my happiest culinary memories from Chuncheon. (TQ photo)
김치찌개 Kimchi jjigae
Kimchi stew, usually made with either pork or tuna mixed with 두부 dubu (tofu) appears so rustic and filling that it should be a very old recipe, but it likely was crafted four decades ago. Kim Su-jin, Director of Association for Research on Taste of Korea, told KBS World:
Since records about the dish are not found in ancient documents, it’s speculated that the stew originated from regular households in the 1970s, when housewives started making kimchi at home thanks to cheaper napa cabbage prices.
The hot and spicy stir-fried small octopus dish is probably the spiciest dish in Korea’s culinary repertoire. It has been traced back to the Mugyo-dong district of Seoul, when a restaurant served the new dish to customers in 1961.
닭볶음탕 Dakbokkeumtang aka dakdoritang
As tastes shifted from pheasant to chicken in the early 20th century, Koreans invented dishes putting chicken front and center. Because Korea was under Japanese occupation at the time, the term dakdoritang (dori is the Japanese word for chicken) became the standard name of the spicy braised chicken dish.
Gungjung tteokbokki, Korean royal cuisine at its finest (TQ photo)
This steamy, spicy hot dish is a stripped down, spiced up verson of 궁중떡볶이 gungjung tteokbokki was born in the aftermath of the Korean war and is now one of Korea’s most popular street foods.
Chuncheon dakkalbi, one of modern Korea’s most popular pub grub dishes (TQ photo)
춘천 닭갈비 Chuncheon dakgalbi
This local adaptation of a spicy marinaded chicken dish was developed in the 1970s as an inexpensive way to serve one of Chuncheon’s signature food products — chicken — to the lakeside mountain city’s large population of college students and military personnel. Chuncheon has three colleges — Kangwon National University, Hallym University and Chuncheon National University of Education — and had U.S. Army Camp Page until it closed in 2005.