Korean Food Story: Rice

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The food that should be on every table in Korea is a bowl of hot rice. Rice is the centerpiece of the meal. Throughout history, the simple bowl of grains has been the driving force behind the economy and the reason for, and the cause of revolutions and social change. 

When Korea tried to open up trade agreements to other countries, rice was a battle cry for farmers to protest the agreements. Ultimately, they were able to put restrictions on the amount of foreign imports allowed. Plus it maintained the Korean perception that Korean rice is unique and preferable to other nation’s rice. Korean rice is a short grained rice that is sticky. Korean short grained rice seems stickier and has a poppy bite compared to other nations’ rice that I have tried. It definitely has more bite than a jasmine, basmati, or Chinese long grain rice. I would say it has a chew that is similar to risotto. 

The flavor of the rice is bright and with a clean aroma. The rice goes very well with Korean foods such as kimchi and soups like soybean paste stews because of the contrasts in flavor. Koreans like newly harvested and polished rice which is called bekmi. They prefer rice that is picked within the year. If the rice is old, it tends to be mushy and doesn’t have that poppy chew that they prefer. Also, the rice should have a pearly luster. Old rice doesn’t usually have that glow. Listeners, I apologize if I am going to far into detail about rice, but for Koreans it is the most important aspect of the meal. If the rice is not cooked properly or doesn’t taste correct, then diners may never return to a restaurant. 

Many have the belief if the rice is good then it is a good indicator for the rest of the food. Good rice means that the restaurant is willing to pay a bit more and to take the time to make good rice. The rice maker is also very important. To create that fresh aroma and the desired pop, many places will use a pressure cooker instead of standard rice cooker. The crispy bits on the bottom of the pot will be eaten as a snack called nurunji. The Nurunji can also be mixed with hot water to make a subtle yet sweet rice porridge. The taste of nurunji is so popular they even make candies with that flavor.

Koreans are always focused on health and these days it is popular for younger people to eat brown rice or hyeonmi. However, some older generation people, like my mother, doesn’t like the taste of brown rice for it reminds them of when they were poor. 

If you find a really white rice, it is probably glutinous rice. This rice is often used to make very sticky rice cake or in samgyetang. It is also used in sweet snacks called gangjeong and sauces such as red chili paste or gochujang. Also, the rice is grown on dry land instead of in wet rice patties like regular rice. 

Koreans like to mix grains of rice such as adding some black rice, or heukmi, to white rice which will turn it a beautiful purple color. Black Rice was called the King’s Rice for it is very nutritious and rare. It can also be mixed with yellow millet, red rice, beans, barley and more. A special mix of these different grains is called yeongyang sotbap. 

Rice is the centerpiece of the meal in Korea so cherish it. Also, Koreans have a belief that you should finish all your rice as a sign of respect to the community farmers that worked so hard to bring it to the table. Oh, and eat Korean rice with a spoon so you can enjoy each full-flavored bite. And one final note, you don’t just eat rice as a meal. That would make you babbo, or a stupid person. You have to eat it with other side dishes, soups, and meats of course.

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