Korean Health Secrets

“The ‘eating time rule’ is very important to me, meaning, no eating between meals. Mealtime should be very regular, no snacks, no soft drinks…”

Journey with this mother-daughter team each week as they explore various vegetarian diets from all over the planet. By looking at the nutritional habits of cultures from Sri Lanka to Nepal to India, we can learn as much from various attitudes as we can from the recipes. This week’s focus is on:

KOREA

“It is very sad”, says our friend Mi Hyang Song, 39 year-old librarian from Dae Gu City, South Korea. She momentarily muses on the past and tells us, “Korea used to be only one country but the North now belongs to Communist China, and has kept its door very, very close, like China.” People now only have poignant, haunting memories of friends and family who have remained in the North after the separation. Communication by any means is not allowed between people of these two countries.

It is entirely possible to drive from end to end of South Korea in just seven hours by car! It is so small in area and so few people with only one language and one alphabet. And yet Korean people have been known worldwide to be very strong physically with very stern discipline. In the world of sports, Korea has harbored a reputation out of proportion to its size. In 1999, Korea, a consistent Olympic Game placer, again ranked 6th in the Olympic Games with 24 gold medals. “The only Asian to achieve such feat”, says Mi Hyang. “China and Japan are always in competition with us but China has so many people compared to us.”

Mi Hyang readily attributes this to the people’s basic healthy, wholesome diet. Being very disciplined and fitness-conscious herself, she comments, “In Korea people traditionally eat rice and beans cooked together (called pop), wheat noodle soup, some vegetable preparation (usually raw) with tubu (tofu), seaweed (dried or wet), kimchi (pickled cabbage) and fresh fruits. This is their standard food three times a day.”

“Always, always, there’s seaweed and kimchi in every meal. People cannot eat rice without kimchi. And there are so many different kinds of wheat noodles: momil, nang meun, cha chang meun, kal guk su. There are so many kinds of fresh, green vegetables and fruits. They taste so different and so good, there are also so many kinds of beans, I cannot tell you how many and how good,” Mi Hyang rattles on excitedly.

It is interesting to note that seaweed contains iron and calcium. Kimchi, after 2 or 3 days of fermentation contains lactic acid – a substance produced in the muscles during hard exercises. Mi Hyang explains to us the importance of lactic acid in relation to health and endurance.

Of course Mi Hyang’s mother and grandmother didn’t know anything about lactic acid as they traditionally prepared clay jars of kimchi in the autumn. In the past, kimchi was simply the housewife’s way of preserving and storing fresh pechay. Kimchi was kept in jars buried in the ground until wintertime because, at that time, Korean farming technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now and the people couldn’t have fresh vegetables in all four seasons. Of course today with the advent of modern irrigation and green houses, green vegetables are available all throughout the year, and there are many different kinds of vegetables that are made into kimchi. In fact, kimchi has become such a national passion that it has become a way to choose a wife! A young girl’s chances of marrying a good husband is largely enhanced by how good she can prepare kimchi.

In the true spirit of Korean discipline, Mi Hyang, mother of a 9-year-old boy, slim-waisted and quite vigorous, offers these tips for good health: “The ‘eating time rule’ is very important to me, meaning, no eating between meals. Mealtime should be very regular, no snacks, no soft drinks -only water or natural fruit juice, no smoking, no liquor. (In Korea the government does not allow advertisements of beer and cigarettes). Avoid oily foods -only steamed, baked and boiled.”

“My country is a mountainous peninsula. 75% of the land is mountains. When you look down from a plane, all you see are mountains,” beams Mi Hyang, “This explains why there are just so many plant foods. There is no need to eat meat. There is already so much protein in beans.” The alacrity with which Mi Hyang explains her rather strict points on the diet and health leaves us with the impression that here indeed is the mark of a woman of true Spartan discipline.

What you have in your mind?