In Korea, the climate fluctuates between cold, snowy winters and hot, wet summers that limit agriculture. Korean food is influenced by Chinese and Japanese cooking styles but with flavor and color all its own! Sweet, sour, bitter, hot and salty tastes are combined in all meals and white, red, black, green, and yellow are important color considerations in the presentation of dishes. Rice is the foundation of the diet and rice cooking is considered an important skill. Vegetables are served at every meal either individually or added to soups and other dishes. Pickled, fermented vegetables are especially popular, usually in the form of spicy kimchi. The preparation of kimchi is a special family event. Beef is a common protein source and fish/shellfish is eaten throughout Korea. Barbecued meat is well-liked by Koreans. Soybeans and other legumes are added to sweet and savory dishes. Seasonings are the heart and soul of Korean cooking and include garlic, ginger, black pepper, chile pepper, scallions, toasted sesame, and various condiments. Many Koreans follow the balance of um (cold) foods and yang (hot) foods. The preparation of healthy, tasty fare is an important way that Koreans show affection for family and friends.
Overall, the Korean diet can provide many essential nutrients.
The traditional Korean diet is:
Low in fat – Fat is essential to any child’s diet. The Korean diet is low in saturated and trans fats (the less healthy fats) and provides foods rich in the mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (think fish and vegetable oils).
High in complex carbohydrates – Complex carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. These foods contain fiber, which is important for digestive health.
High in sodium – Specific recommendations regarding sodium do not exist for infants and children. It’s not yet clear what effect a salty diet has on children’s long term health, but moderate intake of sodium and plenty of fluids should be encouraged.
Low in calcium – Milk and dairy products are generally not eaten in Korea. Koreans rely on leafy green vegetables and soy products as alternative sources of calcium.
Calcium – Calcium is needed to build strong bones and teeth. It also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and nerve-cell communication. In the long term, dietary intakes well below the recommended levels may impact bone development. Bones increase in size and mass during childhood and adolescence, therefore adequate calcium and vitamin D should be consumed throughout childhood into early adulthood.
Folate – Folate is needed for making DNA in new cells. It is also critical for spinal cord and brain development in embryos. Folate contributes to heart health because it disposes of homocysteine, an amino acid that may lead to heart disease.
Iodine – Iodine is needed for production of thyroid hormone. Deficiency of iodine can lead to development of an enlarged thyroid called a goiter, hypothyroidism, and mental retardation in children whose mothers were iodine deficient during pregnancy.
Iron – Iron is necessary for oxygen delivery to cells and regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency develops gradually and is commonly seen in women of childbearing age and children. A lack of iron results in an insufficient supply of oxygen to cells eventually causing anemia, fatigue, poor work performance, slow cognitive and social development in children, and decreased immunity.
Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays a critical role in healthy vision, growth and development, and immune function. Vitamin A deficiency is common in developing countries, such as China, and is often accompanied by zinc deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency include blindness, diminished ability to fight infections, decreased growth rate, and slow bone development. Vitamin A helps mobilize iron from its storage sites, so a deficiency of vitamin A limits the body’s ability to use stored iron. This results in an “apparent” iron deficiency because iron levels in the blood are low even though body stores are normal.
Vitamin E – Vitamin E is one of several antioxidants needed to protect cells from damaging free radicals.
Meat/Poultry/Fish – beef, variety meats (heart, kidney, liver), oxtail, pork, chicken, pheasant, abalone, clams, codfish, crab, jellyfish, lobster, mackerel, octopus, oysters, perch, scallops, shrimp, squid
Eggs/Legumes – chicken eggs; adzuki, lima beans, mung beans, red beans, soybeans
Cereals/Grains – barley, buckwheat, millet, rice (short-grain), wheat
Fruits – apples, Asian pears, cherries, dates (jujubes, red date), grapes, melons, oranges, pears, persimmons, plums, pumpkin, tangerines
Vegetables – bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, beets, cabbage, celery, chrysanthemum greens, cucumber, eggplant, fern, green beans, green pepper, leaf lettuce, leeks, lotus root, mushrooms, onion, peas, perilla (shiso), potato, seaweed, spinach, sweet potato, turnips, water chestnut, watercress, white radish
Seasonings – chile peppers, Chinese parsley, cinnamon, garlic, ginger root, green onions, MSG, hot mustard, red pepper sauce, rice wine, fish sauce, sesame seed, soy sauce, vinegar, sea salt
Nuts/Seeds – chestnuts, gingko nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts
Beverages – barley water, fruit drinks, honey water, hot tea, soup
Fats/Oils – sesame oil, vegetable oils
Sweeteners – honey, sugar
The Korean diet centers around 3 small meals with frequent snacking. Rice is the main dish of every meal. Everything else such as meat, fish, and veggies is served as an accompaniment (called panch’an). Kimchi and dipping sauces are always offered. Soup is also served at most meals. Individual bowls of rice and soup are given to each diner, and side dishes are served on trays in the center of the table for communal eating. Hot barley water or rice tea is often the beverage of choice. A wide variety of snacks are available from street vendors. Chopsticks and soup spoons are the only eating utensils used and food is always passed with the right hand. Traditionally, elders are served first and children served last. Filling the soy sauce dish of the person sitting next to you is considered polite.
For an internationally adoptive family, food deepens the connection for young Eli and Lucy to their Korean birth family and culture. Special thanks to Martha Crawford, David Amarel, Eli and Lucy Amarel for sharing their story with us:
“We are in Korea now -and my son (Eli from the Grandpa Chili segment) said: ‘Mom! I thought Korea was going to be different! They have all the same foods we have at home! Kimchee, kim, bulgogi, mandoo, jigae, guk! I was scared I might have to eat something WEIRD.’ They are chowing down at every meal. Its been very moving to see how ‘at home’ the kids feel here in Korea.”
The transition diet is one you develop to help bridge the gap between your child’s native diet and what eventually will become his or her regular diet at home. The transition diet often includes recipes and foods from the native diet. A good way to start the transition process is to ask exactly what foods your child ate in the orphanage or foster home, using that as a base for your cooking at home. As one parent put it, “I would encourage all parents to adapt the foods they present to mimic what the child had at the orphanage during the first months home. It is an easy adaptation that parents can make to create a more familiar environment during what can be a hard transition.” It may also be helpful to watch the caregivers feed your child at least one meal before returning home. Simple things such as the temperature or texture of foods may be important to your child. One mother wrote, “Our daughter was on formula at the orphanage but they gave it to her very, very hot. It took us a while to realize she wanted everything HOT and would cry hysterically if it wasn’t hot.” Even if you don’t know exactly what your child ate previously, incorporating native foods into his or her diet is a great way to help your child transition to a new culture, as well as preserve traditions from his or her first culture (see “Grandpa Chili” video above).
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