Monday, June 20, 2011

Jinju Bibimpab


On my way through Jinju, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample the regional dish, Jinju bibimpab. Each region has its own dish representative of the area's particular culinary specialities.

When I lived in Sri Lanka, I had managed to keep a strict vegetarian almost vegan diet for about one year, which wasn't all that difficult. Unlike Indian cuisine, dishes containing meat such as beef or pork are quite common. However the varieties of vegetarian or fish recipes are so numerous and flavourful, they are usually the preferred option. Once in Korea, I quickly discovered maintaining similar eating habits would be a challenge.

Although Koreans eat a mostly vegetarian diet, Korean dishes with no seafood or meat are extremely difficult to find. Even if not visible to the eye, the seasoning or stock may be meat-based. I wanted to take advantage of my time here and be able to sample all of the local fare. So, I knew I would have to modify my diet. But I was determined to continue eating meals that consisted mostly of vegetables and grains. So, bibimbap became a frequent choice from the menu.

The dish comes in many variations. Jeonju bibimpab with over 50 local ingredients is the most famous variation of the recipe. Many will be meatless, although there will be an omnipresent egg. The standard ingredients consist mostly of shoots, sprouts, roots, rice, barbecued beef and an egg. For seasoning, you'll have a dollop of fermented chili paste (kochujang), sesame oil, sesame seeds and strips of toasted sea weed (kheem). The Jinju version adds slices of cooked and seasoned zucchini, Asian radish, and Shiitake mushrooms.

The assortment of colours and aromas made it difficult to resist. The presentation itself had my mouth watering. After mixing up all the ingredients in my bowl, I started on my meal savouring each spoon full. Not only did it taste incredible but it's nutritious and quite filling. I continued to find little sesame seeds in the crevices of my mouth. I happily chewed them reliving the meal with each bite.

by Paula Kim

Sunday, June 19, 2011

History of Cremation in Korea

History of Cremations in Korea


Although Buddhism is still the major religion in Korea, it is that only by a small margin. Neo-confucianism albeit not a religion but moreso a philosophy is by far the ruling mindset of the people. So although Buddhism has been around longer, Neo-confucianism has had a much stronger influence on society.

After being around for 200 years, Buddhism had finally established itself as the official religion in the 7th century. That is when the idea of cremations as part of the funeral rite started and continued to be the widespread practise of the nobility and common people alike. Before that people would be buried in an above-ground mound at their homes.

Around the end of the Goryeo period and the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) Confucianism was introduced to the country and cremation was gradually abandoned in favour of burial. Although cremations were still practised by the faithful, continuous prohibitive action by the intolerant Confucian regime lead to its disapearance.

It was during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 that cremation was re-introduced in an effort to eliminate any trace of Korean culture. Crematoriums were built and used profusely. However Koreans keeping to their customs continued to have funerary burials.

Because of its association with the coercive policies of the Japanese, cremation remained unpopular. Even Buddhists chose to bury their dead. It was only the very poor in urban areas where children, unmarried people and those who committed suicide were sent to the poorly maintained crematoriums. That was the state of funerals until the mid-1990s.

To improve the situation of the encroaching grave sites a policy reform to restrict burials and encourage cremations was taking shape. The land area taken up by the grave sites was at 1% which is roughly the size of metropolitan Seoul. Every year the country was losing more and more land to the graveyards.

Therefore a cremation policy was launched supported by the media and citizen groups from all over the country. It was only after this massive support campaign and the cremations of some notable figures that cremation's image started to change.

In 2002, all the major cities such as Seoul, Busan and Incheon had more than 50% of their funerals end in cremations. And the numbers are rising every year. By 2010, Seoul will have a 80% cremation rate.

For more information you can read the Encyclopedia of Cremationedited by Davies and Mates, 2005.

by Paula Kim

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Sound of Summer: Cicadas

I was walking to the laundry room in my apartment when I noticed some big black spot on the door.With closer inspection I realized it was a cicada. It wasn't moving so I assumed it was dead. But when I nudged it, it kinda side-stepped to the left.These insects can have a life span of over 15 years. They spend it mostly underground and spend the last five weeks of their lives above ground to find a mate, mate and then die.In Montreal, we would hear these damn things only on the hottest days of summer. Apparently that's when they are more apt to "sing." In Korea, you hear them all the time for about a month. And then suddenly, silence.



The males have these timbals which are plate-like membranes on the sides of their abdomen that vibrate to emit this shrill ear piercing sound. Uhhhh, I remember staying awake at nights listening to them as a kid. It's like nails scratching on the blackboard. But at least back home they were some distance away but in Seoul they're right at your window or in my case my laundry room. And these guys are loud.


Once, I had one stuck to the screen on my bedroom window. I looked up to see the back end of a big dark bug with veiney wings shaking its butt at me. There was a piece of me that wanted to open the screen and keep it. I can't help but touch. But while I was lying there contemplating taking him in and it would be a him since it's the males that do the "calling" the noise was progressively driving me nuts. Some species of cicadas can reach up to 106 decibals which is like a car horn. So, I got up and flicked at the screen and the chubby cicada just fell away.

Here's a video I found on the life cycle of a cicada.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Little Indonesian Village Adopts Hangul as their Writing


For the first time ever, the Korean alphabet has been adopted as the official script of a small tribe in a foreign country. The Hunminjeongeum Research Institute on Thursday said that the Cia-Cia tribe of Bau-Bau city on Buton Island, located in the southeastern Indonesian province of Sulawesi, has adopted Korean or Hangeul to transcribe its aboriginal language. The Bau-Bau city government on July 21 distributed textbooks written in Hangeul to about 40 elementary schoolchildren in the Sorawolio district, where the Cia-Cia people are concentrated, and began weekly Hangeul classes.

The tribe has a population of about 60,000. Its own language is in danger of extinction as it has no native writing system. The Hunminjeongeum Research Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with Bau-Bau city on the propagation of Hangeul in July of last year, and compiled the textbook in Hangeul. The city is planning to use Hangeul alongside the Roman alphabet on road signs and to publish history and folktale books in Hangeul.


Institute chairman Kim Ju-won said, "We have made several attempts to propagate Hangeul among small tribes in the past. But this is the first time we've signed an MOU with a local government in a foreign country and officially published a Hangeul textbook taught to foreign students." The institute was founded in 2007 to study languages of the world, and to propagate Hangeul among tribes whose native languages are on the brink of extinction due to their lack of writing systems.

Courtesy of the Chosun Ilbo

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How to Spot a Korean Monk


Spotting a monk in the vast city of Seoul is not difficult. You will occasionally see one asking for psalms on a street corner while tapping on a hollow wooden bell. For hiking enthusiasts going up any hill or mountain in Korea, you would inevitably find yourself near a temple with monks mulling about dressed all in grey.

It isn't clear exactly when Buddhism was introduced to the Korean peninsula but it was brought in by travelling monks from China. It was only after the King's nephew became a martyr of the new religion in 527 AD that Buddhism took a foothold in the Shilla Kingdom in ancient Korea.


When Buddhist monks from India first passed through China, the converted Chinese opted to dress in grey and not the yellow as worn by their Indian teachers. Another modification they chose to make was to cover up the one bare shoulder which would have been scandalous in conservative China. Considered a sign of respect in India, many sub-tropical Buddhist regions such as South East Asia and South Asia had their monks continue baring the one shoulder. That style of dress is more accommodating to the torrid weather but not so for the colder climates of East Asian countries. Although Chinese monks have since adopted yellow among other colours for their robles, Korean monks have stayed true to the neutral grey.


Korean Buddhist monks will normally wear a grey baggy outfit for their everyday working clothes which look somewhat like the traditional men's hanbok (outfit). Sometimes they will add on a dark red outer layer worn off one shoulder imitating the original Indian dress. It is used normally for ceremonial purposes.

Every colour worn by monks from Buddhist countries has some significance in the faith. Yellow is the colour of equanimity or intelligence. Gherva, a kind of burnt brick red worn by ancient philosophers from India, signifies the five elements: fire, earth, water, and wind. And grey is the combination of all colours and the colour of ashes which we will all be in the end.

by Paula Kim

Friday, August 7, 2009

Korean History

Korea has had a long history. Starting from 2,333 B.C, this section follows the history of Korea from the prehistoric age to the present.

prehistoric painting

The Prehistoric Age
Archaeological findings have indicated that the first settlements on the Korean Peninsula occurred 700,000 years ago.

Gojoseon (2333 - 108 B.C)
According to legend, the mythical figure Dan-gun founded Gojoseon, the first Korean Kingdom, in 2333 B.C. Subsequently, several communities moved from the southern part of Manchuria to the Korean Peninsula.

The Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. - A.D. 676)
The Three Kingdoms refers to a period of time (early 4th to mid-7th centuries AD) marked by the struggle of three rival kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla over the territory spanning the Korean peninsula and part of Northeastern Asia.

An ancient state of the Korean peninsula, Goguryeo occupied the largest territory among the Three Kingdoms. Founded in 37 BC, Goguryeo prospered on a vast area encompassing the northern part of the Korean peninsula and south-central Manchuria. The kingdom expanded its territory in fierce battles against Chinese kingdoms, but fell to an alliance of Silla and Tang forces in 668 AD.

One of the ancient states of the Three Kingdoms, Silla originated in the southeastern part of the Korean peninsula. The kingdom lasted for 992 years, from 57 BC to 935 AD. It conquered Baekje and Goguryeo, one after the other, by joining forces with the Tang Empire of China. Following the unification of the Three Kingdoms, The Tang Empire was no longer an ally, but an invader. Hence, Silla joined forces with the people of Goguryeo and Baekje to drive out Tang forces, and founded the first unified state in the history of Korea in the territory south of the Daedonggang River and Wonsanman.

One of the three ancient kingdoms, Baekje (18 BC-660 AD) was founded by King Onjo, the son of the King of Goguryeo, in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula. The kingdom witnessed the florescence of the elegant and delicate Baekje culture, which in particular greatly affected Japanese culture. In 660 AD, Baekje was defeated by the coalition troops of Silla and Tang of China.

The Unified Silla Kingdom and Balhae

The Unified Silla Kingdom (676-935)
The Unified Silla Kingdom promoted the development of culture and arts. Buddhism was at its peak during this period. The Unified Silla Kingdom declined because of contention for supremacy among the noble classes, and was annexed by Goryeo in 935.

The Balhae Kingdom began to emerge just as the Goguryeo kingdom was on the verge of collapsing. Goguryeo General, Dae Joyeong founded Balhae along with his army of displaced peoples. At one point, Balhae became so powerful that it was able to acquire territories in northern and eastern parts of China. At those times, the Tang Dynasty of China referred to Balhae as 'the strong country by the sea in the east.' The significance of the Balhae Kingdom is greatly inherited from Goguryeo, including the land that it was able to retrieve.


The Goryeo Dynasty (918 - 1392)
The Goryeo Dynasty was established in 918. Buddhism became the state religion during this time and greatly influenced politics and culture. Famous items produced during this time include Goryeo celadon and the Tripitaka Koreana. Jikjisimgyeong, Buddhist scripture printed with the world's first movable metal type developed in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty, is at least 78 years older than the first Gutenberg Bible.

The Goryeo Dynasty's supremacy decreased gradually in the latter half of the 14th century.


The Joseon Dynasty (1392 - 1910)
The Joseon Dynasty came to power at the end of the 14th century. Confucianism became the state ideology and exerted a massive influence over the whole of society. The Joseon Dynasty produced Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which was invented in 1443 by King Sejong. Starting with the Japanese invasion in 1592, invasions from foreign groups caused the decline of the Joseon Dynasty. More info:

1. The Early Joseon Dynasty
The Japanese Colonial Period (1910 - 1945)
In 1876, the Joseon Dynasty was forced to adopt an open-door policy regarding Japan. The Japanese annexation of Korea began in 1910, and continued to be under Japanese colonial rule until the surrender of Japan in 1945, which ended World War II.

2. The Late Joseon Dynasty
Establishment of the Korean Government (1945-1948)
Korea was liberated from Japanese oppression on August 15, 1945, but it soon faced the tragic division of the North and South along the 38th parallel. Both regions were placed under temporary military rule by the U.S. and Soviet armies. In 1948 with the help of the United Nations, South Korea held an election on May 10th and elected Dr. Rhee Syngman president. On August 15th of that same year, an official declaration was made about the birth of the South Korean government. On the other hand, North Korea formed the Provisional People's Committee for North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung, on February 1946 and on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was officially founded.

The Korean War (1950-1953)
In the early hours of June 25, 1950, North Korea attempted a forcible unification of the two Koreas by invading South Korea and stepping over the 38th parallel. In response, military help from over 16 nations helped defend South Korea against the threat of communism under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. China and the Soviet Union lent their military might to North Korea. The war raged on for over 3 years until a peace agreement was signed at Panmunjeon on July 27, 1953. Not only did the war ravage the peninsula, it heightened hostile sentiments between the North and South making reunification problematic.


The Governments After the War (1954-Now)
The Rhee Syngman government focused on an anti-communist approach to government in 1954, but in 1960 the government collapsed under heavy anti-government student demonstrations on April 19.

In a military coup, Park Chung-hee took office in 1963. He ruled with an iron fist for the next 17 years. He started his 'Saemaeul Undong' (New Community Movement) campaign in an effort to modernize Korea. Though it brought about rapid modernization and economic returns, his regime pushed back the democracy and human rights movement. And with an increasingly disatisfied constituency over his harsh policies and extended rule, Park Chung-hee's life ended in an assassination 9 years later.

The country went on to see more progress in the subsequent years. In 1988, Roh Tae-Woo came to office. His government hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics and introduced Korea into the UN in 1991.

The next president, Kim Dae-Jung won the Nobel Peace prize in 2000 for his work with reunifying with North Korea. President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jeong-il (the former North Korean leader) took early steps to explore reunification, improving the economy, and solving the problem of separated families. The family reunification program, started in 1985 and continues to this day. In 1998, South Korean citizens began to be admitted into North Korea to tour the Geumgangsan Diamond Mountains.

The aim of the last president, a former lawyer, Rho Moo-hyun was to achieve economic growth, and develop Korea as the hub of Asia with a more democratic style of leadership.

*More info on Korean history
*Chronological table of Korea's history

Monday, August 3, 2009

First Arrival - Part 1

I had just completed my contract working for the Canadian government in Sri Lanka. Since I had never been to South Korea I thought this would be a good time to visit before I jumped into a full-time job back home in dear ol'Canada. Though I would've liked to stay in Sri Lanka a little longer, there were just no viable jobs there for expats.

Korea was so close to Sri Lanka it was only a 5 hour flight, unlike that horrendous 20 hour flight I took from Montreal. Besides, I was very curious to see the place my parents had grown up. When my parents had left Korea, the country was still under a harsh dictatorship and in great turmoil. Anyone who wanted to leave the country had to leave all their possessions behind, meaning their money and valuables. So when my parents arrived to Canada, they literally had nothing in their pockets.

My parents spoke from time to time about how it was growing up in Korea. Although my mother was mostly unaffected by it, my father had grown up during the Japanese occupation. He wouldn't really elaborate too much but he can still speak a little Japanese. This was all he could speak in school as a child. He had occasion to speak with Japanese students that came to our universities and would ask for directions. My eyes would always kind of glaze over when they would get into a conversation.

When I got off the plane at the Incheon airport I remember how I found the quality of the air palpably stifling. Lucky for me I arrived during the "yellow sand" storm which occurs every spring. My uncle and cousin picked me up from the airport. I was supposed to stay with them for about 6 months although I doubted I would stay that long. Turned out I was right...but only aobut staying with my cousins.