With the Hallyu wave and a dictatorship ruled by a lunatic on its doorstep, a spotlight has been given to South Korea over the past several years. The government has used this advantage to robustly promote the nation’s language, its customs and etiquette, and of course, its food.
If one scrolls through Google after typing “Korean cuisine,” dozens of articles and blogs will pop up. And in every post, there is one description that stands out like a sore thumb, and it’s the word “healthy.”
Foreigners gush over the fact that Korean food is filled with lots of vegetables, high-quality meat, and soup; a less high-calorie meal than Western food and a hearty one at that. Many would probably refer to “bibimbap” as a healthy meal with its colorful, assorted vegetables delicately laid upon white rice.
Kimchi is also a staple in Korean cuisine — a side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables. Besides providing phytonutrients and fiber, kimchi also supplies lactobacillus and other “good” bacteria that some experts believe can help boost immune defenses. Kimchi is also lavishly seasoned with chili pepper, which provides capsaicin, a compound shown to protect blood vessels and increase metabolism.
Korean food can be deceiving, however. Although vegetables may sound refreshing and beneficial for foreigners that compare to their usual intake on burgers and pasta, the “Korean” way of eating is usually smothered in three flavors: soy, spicy, and fermented. The same sauces and spices are used in nearly every dish, which includes “gochujang” (red chili paste), and “doenjang” (fermented bean paste), all high in sodium and nitrates due to copious amounts of salt used with reckless abandon.
Because of this – and slurping down spicy soup over its boiling point – Korea has one of the highest stomach cancer rates in the world, according to World Cancer Research Fund International.
Walk through the streets of Seoul, and you will see hundreds of university students and business workers crammed into small Korean barbecue restaurants, all salivating at samgyeopsal — a favorite slab of meat.
Although cooking meat on a cast iron hot plate looks slightly healthier, samgyeopsal consists of thick, fatty slices of pork belly. Similar to thick bacon rashers, the slices usually gushes with oil that slithers down into a grease cup that the restaurant generously offers.
Not to mention that by getting rid of the oily aftertaste, Koreans slam down shots of soju that has 527 calories in one bottle.
Korea’s obsession with fried chicken also has no limits, due to the fierce competition of who can make the craziest sauces for their menu. “Sweet garlic soy glaze,” “yangnyeom,” “scallion chicken,” “honey,” “onion cream sauce,” and “sprinkled cheese dust” are the basics at a typical fried chicken store; just one in 50,000 fried chicken restaurant throughout the country.
Sticking to the often-quoted Spider-man theme of “with great power comes great responsibility,” 99 percent of chicken stores have adopted delivery services to satisfy the cravings from starving customers until the wee hours of the morning. With just a push of a button, chicken is served promptly at your door.
One extreme case of fried chicken obsession was shown in a TV program called “Same Bed, Different Dreams,” where teens and their parents come and openly share their issues with the show’s panel, trying to resolve their problems with each other.
An 18-year-old girl called Han Boh-na is a fried chicken enthusiast, who orders two boxes of chicken alone for dinner nearly every night. Within two years she gained 40 pounds and her mother frets about it consistently. In a live-demonstration, Boh-na wowed the audience by knowing which chicken was which from different brands while being blindfolded.
But in all, Korean cuisine has some of the most delicious, savory dishes that no other country can top off. Complex? Yes. Exotic? Yes. Amazing? Definitely! Healthy? Hm, let’s get back to that.
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