The Philosophy of Korean Food


Upon first glance no-one would fully understand the significant effect that Korean food has on its traditional culture, other than a persons need to satisfy their hunger. Korean food is becoming more widely known for its popular dishes of bulgogi, bibimbap, and kimchi; enough to satisfy anyone’s appetite. But why exactly are they becoming so popular? This is mainly due to the huge health benefits that these dishes carry, along with their unique flavours and colours. However dig deeper into the philosophical side of food, and what is the connection? You first need to understand that the mind and body are both connected with each other. Koreans believe that they are so interconnected that they believe a sick body can harm the mind and a strong mind can make the body healthy.  Therefore food is also a huge factor underlying a sick patient’s health due to its nutritious value.

This explains the typical traditional dining layout of a Korean meal, with colourful and plentiful dishes spaced around a table, this ancient philosophy is therefore in line with todays ‘5 A DAY’ campaign, which aids the prevention of geriatric diseases and cancer due to the variety of fruits and vegetables on offer.


Digging deeper into philosophical meanings, Korean philosophy is deeply rooted in the Taoist concept of yin yang or ‘Eum yang’ in Korean. This is used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and, how they give rise to each other as they intermingle. Many natural dualities (such as male and female, light and dark, high and low, hot and cold, water and fire, life and death, and so on) are thought of as physical manifestations of the yin-yang concept. Therefore Korean food both interacts and opposes itself in terms of its flavours and also its complimentary colours.

1. Sour flavour and the element wood.Liver and bile works as a response to sour/acidic food. Acidic and sour food is useful in helping to ‘cleanse’ the liver and is therefore helpful to those who may have fatigue or a weak excretion of bile-juice. Distinctively, citron tea, apple, sesame leaf, grapefruit, and oats contain these characteristics.

2. Bitter flavour and the element fire.
This is related to the heart and the small intestine in our body. Stress and weight loss can cause indigestion therefore bitter foods can be helpful; these foods can be barley, lettuce, coffee and melon.

3. Salty flavour and the element water.
The kidney and the bladder are related to these forces. Salty food can influence these bodily functions and other related organs. Dehydration is an example of how salt and water interact, this characteristic can be controlled properly using salt, seaweed, bean, salted sea food, corn silk and watermelon are examples.

4. Spicy flavour and the element metal.
The lung and colon are affected by these interactions. Phlegm and bad coughs can be relieved by this flavour, as well as being helpful for sufferers of constipation and diarrhoea. Red pepper, onion, adlay tea, brown rice and peach have the characteristics.

5. Sweet flavour and the element earth.
These interacts help to work on the stomach and the spleen. Sweet food is specifically linked to helping indigestion. Therefore Yam, persimmon, ginseng, and beef, are particularly good for these symptoms.


In order to sum up all of these philosophical meanings Han Bok-ryeo, the director of the Institute of Royal Cuisine wrote about Korean food explaining that ‘It is a great source of energy; going beyond physical strength. Food and medicine are grown from the same root, and therefore there is no better medicine than food. People also add that the principles of ying and yang plus the five elements explain how all things in nature grow on the basis of mutual interactions. The twin energies created the five elements of wood, fire, soil, metal and water, and the five cardinal colours of blue, red, yellow, white, and black, corresponding to the five basic elements. The coloured ingredients are blended, thus producing foods that allow the body to efficiently absorb the nutrients and to stimulate the appetite through five essential tastes; salty, hot, sweet, bitter, and sour’.

Therefore, when tucking into delicious Korean cuisine never forget that it is not just as good as it tastes, but also just as good for your body and mind!

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