A General Look at History and Korean Cuisine

Spanning thousands of years, Korea has had a very rich and colorful history. As Korea evolved from tribal enclaves and nomadic barbarians to villages, city-states, kingdoms, and on to modern civilization, Korean cuisine has evolved along with its people

Early Korea

The earliest inhabitants of the Korean peninsula were likely small groups of hunters and gatherers, possibly consisting of only a few families. It is believed that these groups were somewhat nomadic in nature, following their food source. As the population grew, these bands gradually formed into tribes. Some of these tribes eventually settled down in areas with abundant food sources. With this stability, they began constructing small villages and practicing basic agriculture. A few animals were also domesticated, leading to further growth and expansion of these settlements.

Early Korea

Violence and peaceful trade occurred as the villages grew. Some villages formed alliances with other nearby clans and tribes to fight common enemies, while others evolved into city-states. As the population in these areas increased, agriculture became more intensive, and food animals became domesticated.

By concentrating more people, ideas were also exchanged more rapidly. With these advances, new ways of preparing and preserving food began to develop. Advances in woodworking, tool-making, and pottery began to accelerate. A variety of changes began to occur in the foods that were prepared and consumed by the people when grains were milled, cooking vessels were invented that could be placed over fire or coals, and salt was discovered as a preservative.

City States and Kingdoms

Eventually, allied villages and walled towns became federated tribes and kingdoms. During this period, metalworking was discovered or introduced. A variety of weapons, tools, and cooking vessels were spread throughout the peninsula, first bronze and then iron. As a result of trade with far distant people and lands, both on land and by sea, Korean cuisine underwent further changes. Exotic foods and methods from distant lands were introduced into Korean cuisine as a result of this.


City-states often waged war as one faction or another sought greater control over and/or tribute from the other. In this warfare, captured enemies were usually kept as slaves and low-class workers, whereas defeated enemies were incorporated into the victor's empire or paid tribute to him. In addition to merging tribes and city-states, the cuisines of the people involved in the conflict also merged.

The kingdoms of Korea grew to such power that they controlled the entire peninsula and speared into territory that included central and southern Manchuria. The strife and pressure from the major Chinese polities, Han China and the Lelang Commanderies, made for shifting alliances among the Korean kingdoms.

Buddhism and Mongolian Invasion

From India, Buddhism was embraced by the most powerful kingdoms in Korea. As Buddhism spread, meat eating was banned throughout much of the country, which led to the development of a predominantly vegetarian cuisine. Namul dishes are a series of small vegetable dishes that are thought to have originated from this.

The Buddhist influence in Korea started to wane when the Mongol invasions of Manchuria and Korea took place. This resulted in the lifting of the ban on consuming meat and the introduction of various new food influences. As Western trade with China grew, it also made its way into Korea, leading to increased contact with other countries. Korean traders and adventurers traveled abroad, returning with unique items, cuisines, and animals that were introduced to the Royal houses. Eventually, through this contact with the West, Korea embraced the chili pepper wholeheartedly, bringing about a significant transformation in their culinary scene.

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