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Korean cuisine: how pure sugars shape traditional dishes for modern cuisine
The cuisine of Korea is explosively flavourful, combining fermented, preserved and pickled flavours with fiery bursts of chilli. For the stickiness and sweetness synonymous with modern Korean dishes, sugar steps in.
Sugar first came to Korea in the 13th century, as recorded by poet and politician Lee In-ro in 1260, although some historians say that sugar was introduced before then, from China. It was a luxury product used only by the elite until the early 20th century when the public gained access to it in baked goods imported from Japan.
Sweet meat from the fields: the marriage of beans and sugar in Korean cuisine
Koreans call beans ‘meat from the fields’, because for most of their culinary history, meat was a luxury that commoners rarely had a chance to eat. As a result, Koreans cultivated a wide variety of beans to supplement their diet. Beans like black beans, soybeans and peanuts were often used to make banchan (side-dishes), and when sugar became widely available it was quickly incorporated into traditional recipes to give a rich and sweet stickiness.
Braised black beans (geomeun-kongjorim) is one of the most popular and easy side dishes in everyday Korean cuisine. It’s sweet – from the soft dark brown sugar – and a little nutty too, with an umami base flavour. It goes well with beer, but Koreans usually eat it with rice. It’s a favourite with children, so you’ll often find a batch in the fridge in family kitchens.
Red bean paste – known by Koreans as ‘anko’ – dates back to the Heian period in Japan when Chinese travellers brought recipes for steamed buns. Buddhist priests were unable to eat the meat-filled buns so they opted for a substitute of boiled red azuki beans. Koreans soon adopted the filling and used it as a savoury ingredient, mixed with salt. However, over time, sweetened versions started to become more popular.
Korean tradition says that red beans ward off evil spirits and entities. This is because the redness of the beans symbolizes yang energy which expels wickedness and infectious diseases. To make anko, chefs often recommend using dark cane muscovado sugar, as the brown colour enhances the red hue, and the natural minerals boost nutrient content.
Spicy fermented squid: preserved and enhanced by liquid sugar
‘Ojingeojeot’ is fermented squid with an intense combination of flavours from a hot, sweet and punchy sauce. It’s usually a ‘banchan’ (side dish).
Korea is a peninsula, with three coastlines and only one land border. That means the country’s cuisine is fresh fish and seafood heavy, because even before refrigeration, salt and clever fermentation techniques made sure Koreans could eat from the sea all year round. Today, the squid is still fermented, albeit for only one month and with the help of a fridge. Then, it’s combined with a seasoning paste of pepper flakes, fish sauce, scallions, garlic, ginger, hot peppers, toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, and liquid sugar. Once prepared, Ojingeojeot can be stored and used as an accompaniment to meals for up to four months.
Liquid sugar is usually favoured over crystallines for Ojingeojeot because its lack of viscosity keeps the sauce thin – ensuring it covers all of the squid – and its clean, light taste doesn’t detract from the pungency of the garlic and ginger.
Bulgogi: fire meat from a 2000-year-old recipe, updated with smoky molasses
The term ‘bulgogi’ directly translates to English as ‘fire meat’. Traditionally, the dish was cooked using skewers on a hwaro grill, and by some chefs, it still is, although today Koreans are more likely to put the thinly sliced, marinated beef on a very hot skillet or griddle.
This ubiquitous meal’s early history and origin date back to the Goguryeo era, from 37 BC to 668 AD. Before cooking, the meat is marinated with soy sauce, the chef’s choice of sugar (dark cane muscovado sugar and molasses are popular), sesame oil, garlic, ground black pepper, and other ingredients such as ginger, onions or mushrooms, especially white button mushrooms or matsutake. Pureed pears, pineapple, kiwi, and onions are often used as tenderizers.
One benefit of the old way – putting a layer of thinly sliced meat between two mesh screens and holding it over a fire – is that the smoke yields a super delicious result that forms a large part of bulgogi’s signature taste. Modern cooks without an open fire often get around the lack of smoke by using molasses as the sugar in the marinade, because of its robust, bittersweet flavour has an intense, barbecue-like smokiness.
The versatility of pure sugars has brought them to cuisines in every corner of the world. Their ability to not only enhance taste, but texture, mouthfeel and shelf-life has seen almost every culture incorporate them into their traditional fayre. Today, the tastes of Korea can be found all over the world, from Korean barbecues in New York to kimchee entrées in the Michelin starred restaurants of Paris. Thanks – in no small part – to pure sugars.