How Korean food philosophy can help us reconnect

Korean fare has been on the rise to mainstream popularity for years. But it’s the values behind the bold and satisfying cuisine that we need more than ever right now.

Korean fare has been on the rise to mainstream popularity for years. But it’s the values behind the bold and satisfying cuisine that we need more than ever right now.

By WP Creative Group

Today, when you go to a trendy restaurant, you might see words like gochujang and bibimbap on the menu more often than before. And on your favorite streaming music service, you might have more than one catchy K-pop song served up on your playlist alongside your other recommendations.

But just a few years ago, Korean culture — and cuisine — weren’t quite so mainstream. Slowly, that began to change. First came Bonchon, the Korean fried chicken chain. On the music charts, K-pop and a catchy song called “Gangnam Style”— a rap about satirized life in a hip South Korean neighborhood — were everywhere. And on television and social media, popular Korean American chefs like Roy Choi and David Chang were helping to introduce words like “bulgogi” (thin marinated slices of meat) and “bo ssam” (roasted pork shoulder) to the American foodie lexicon.

Since then, Korean food and flavors have enjoyed a steady rise toward mainstream popularity. But even as more Americans regularly enjoy Mandu (dumplings) and bibimbap (mixed rice bowls), not as many are familiar with the philosophy and communal values embedded in Korean food culture — ones that especially resonate in today’s world. In a time that calls for gathering together again, the Korean ritual of uniting with loved ones around a table of shared flavorful dishes offers a vital opportunity for reconnection.

The rise of K-food — and Korean culture

Starting in the 1960s, immigration from South Korea to the U.S. began to swell, generating new communities of Korean Americans in big cities like New York and Los Angeles. But Korean food was slow to spread out from those neighborhoods, even as other Asian cuisines made inroads across the U.S. Because the Korean restaurants that sprang up served mostly expats who were missing the cuisine back home, Korean food was less vulnerable to the “Americanization” propelling the popularity of sushi and chains like Panda Express.  

But slowly, more chefs discovered the joy of Korean flavors and started incorporating elements into their menus. As Korean barbecue restaurants and food trucks serving hip K-fusion food fanned out from the big cities, Korean cuisine began to catch on across America, its complex, full-bodied condiments and bold flavors providing a unique experience for Western palates.

Today, many Americans regularly dine on K-food staples like kimchi and bulgogi. But Korean food culture comprises more than just delicious flavors — it’s about the experience and meaningful customs behind it. Tradition calls for time and loving attention to go into the preparation of every ingredient, a philosophy that’s mirrored in the practice of connecting with the people gathered around the table.

And in a year that celebrates reuniting with family and friends, the principles and values behind Korean cuisine resonate even more deeply.

Three principles of Korean cuisine

The first principle, nature and time, is central to Korean cooking, says Soyoung Paik, the chief marketing officer at CJ Foods, one of the largest manufacturers  of Korean food products worldwide and makers of Bibigo, Korea’s number one brand of Mandu (dumplings).

Korean food is seasonally driven, centered on vegetables but also featuring seafood and meat from the shores and robust landscape of the peninsula. Traditional Korean cooking employs ancient ways to preserve ingredients for year-round enjoyment. Fermented products, like kimchi and jangs, are foundational in the winter. Bold condiments not only characterize the assertive flavors of Korean cuisine; they also provide essential nutrients and are beneficial for digestive health.

Second, a foundational philosophy of Korean cuisine is “yak sik dong won,” which literally means “food is medicine.” In other words, health begins with what you eat. Kimchi, for example, not only contains healthy fiber and probiotics, but has been shown in scientific studies to help support a flourishing gut biome and immune system. In addition, Korean cuisine’s abundance of heart-healthy seafood and a robust spectrum of vegetables and herbs like ginseng contribute to a balanced, nutritious diet. 

Finally, Korean food is infused with the concept of balance. While much of Korean cooking is famous for its heat, other staples like aromatic broths, rice, and the delicate doughy skins of Mandu are more nuanced and mild. Signature dishes like bibimbap balance carbohydrates, fiber, and protein in one satisfying serving. A balanced feast fosters the Korean concept of bapsang, which means a table set up for shared enjoyment — the foundation for every good meal.

These tenets of Korean cuisine can apply to more than just food itself — they can help provide a philosophical blueprint for the year ahead. In times of stress, reconnecting with both our bodies and the world around us, as well as nourishing ourselves with nutritious food, is of immense importance.

The embodiment of Korean food philosophy: Mandu

Perhaps no delicacy represents these three principles — and the heart and soul of Korean food — better than Mandu, a chewy dumpling filled with a well-crafted mix of fresh and healthy ingredients. The history of Mandu goes back to the 14th century, when “mimandu” made in the shape of a sea cucumber to represent nature’s bounty was a vital part of Korean royal court cuisine. Today, Mandu is a popular snack for all, enjoyed equally as a popular street food and traditionally on New Year’s Day.

Mandu is delicious, of course. But it also epitomizes one of the deepest principles of Korean cooking: taking time to reconnect around the table together. Mandu is an essential food for the Lunar New Year, its pouch-like shape symbolizing a way to welcome health, well-being, and prosperity ahead. Preparing Mandu is also a social activity. Many Korean families have their own Mandu recipe, and families gather to fold them together by hand ahead of celebrations.

But not every day can be a Mandu-making holiday celebration. Given how easy it is to prepare frozen dumplings at a moment’s notice, Mandu has become a tasty staple in many households.

“It’s convenient, but also delicious and nutritious, and something the kids will eat,” said Peter Cho, an award-winning chef who owns two Korean restaurants, Han Oak and Toki, in Portland, Ore.

Bibigo frozen Mandu is specially crafted to recreate the taste and experience of homemade dumplings. Dough is pounded thousands of times to achieve the perfect texture and thinness, then packed full of fresh-cut vegetables and hearty proteins. The dumplings are then fully cooked before flash-freezing to maintain their freshness until they’re ready to be eaten.

“Koreans devote a lot of attention to crafting beautiful, well-made dumplings because they’re one of those foods in which you can tell whether or not someone took care and, by extension, whether or not that someone cares about you,” says Paik of CJ Foods. “We try to honor that approach to create dumplings made with that deep attention to detail.”

Well-crafted food does more than just nurture our bodies — it gives us a reason to come together to connect with those we love. And after a year where many of us spent many mealtimes apart, we’re emerging reinvigorated to gather around the table again The Korean food principles of nature, balance and nourishment are perfect for this moment, helping us reprioritize mealtime as not just an opportunity to refuel, but a way to reconnect and refresh — via sharing handcrafted food like Mandu that’s full of love.

“Our devotion to craft is our way of sharing our love of this food with you,” Paik says.