Over the last decade, Korean cuisine has grown increasingly popular all across the globe. In the US, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any metropolitan city without at least one Korean BBQ joint. Yet, despite its entry into the mainstream arena, there are still many deep-rooted aspects of Korean food that are seldom brought up; aspects integral to Korean cuisine throughout the country’s history.
One of those aspects, and what I’m going to be covering in this post, is fermentation. But before diving in, a brief science lesson (to make sure we’re all on the same page) – so what is fermentation, exactly? In short, fermentation is the process by which a substance (in our case, food) is broken down via exposure to bacteria and yeasts. The bacteria and yeast microorganisms convert carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids, which is what ultimately results in those interesting flavors, textures, and smells in fermented foods like kimchi.
Koreans have actually been fermenting their foods over several millennia. In fact, their first use of fermentation dates back nearly 5,000 years as a form of food technology to preserve resources. Faced with the country’s harsh weather and climate conditions, fermentation was required to prevent microbial spoilage, and ultimately, make the food last. That said, despite it being born of this survival need, fermentation is what has led to the creation of the deep and complex tastes of Korea’s most foundational dishes, including kimchi and doenjang (soybean paste).
Most fermented foods in Korea are presented as side dishes or dipping sauces to complement BBQ meats. For instance, gochujang (red chili paste) is often used as an accompanying sauce for grilled pork belly. Fermented pastes, like doenjang and gochujang, are also used as the base of a variety of staple soups and stews, serving as the very core ingredient.
What’s important to note here is that it is the fermentation process that is responsible for bringing out the strong, deep flavors that make many Korean signature dishes what they are – without fermentation, they just wouldn’t be the same. What first started out as a technology to protect food against harsh climate conditions has now proven to be the means by which a longstanding legacy was established in food and culture.