Food as medicine was a fundamental way of living long before it became a hashtag.
Koreans can attest to this very statement since food has not only been a rich part of their history but also a key principle in regards to overall health and wellness. Dating back to 1610 when Donguibogam, the first Korean “encyclopedia” of traditional medical practices listed all the healing properties one could gain by eating specific foods, was published for the nation. They were providing healthcare to all and not just the elite. Educating their communities on how to forage, prepare and eat foods to prevent and remedy various symptoms and conditions especially when they couldn’t afford to see a doctor.
Currently, our awareness and connection to our food and how it impacts our health has become so far removed. We’ve become detached from the idea that real food can actually influence our health and well-being. Learning from our past and blending traditional wisdom with our modern day living will empower us to better care for ourselves and our communities. So the idea of wellness/alternative medicine isn’t this new trend but a reflection of traditional medicine practiced for many centuries.
So the beauty in bridging our past to our present can be done through food. Here are 5 popular traditional Korean ingredients we can incorporate into our modern diets today:
Ingredient No 1. Ginger: Saengang
Saengang may be known for spicing up desserts during the holidays but Koreans add it to almost all their dishes and even teas due to it’s warming effects that support digestion and metabolism. Saengang has been used to balance blood sugar levels and reduce metabolic disorders that can lead to complications like diabetes. Studies show that 2g/day of ginger has significant effects in lowering specific metabolic markers that can increase inflammation and vascular degeneration.
Ingredient No 2. Seaweed: Miyeok
This underwater superfood has been used to support postpartum recovery for Korean moms for generations. The abundance of minerals and vitamins like Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Vit A, B, C, D, E and essential fatty acids have made miyeok the best go-to food to replenish our bodies.
Ingredient No 3. Sesame Oil: Chamgireum
Chamgireum not only adds a level of savory and warmth to many Korean dishes but the antioxidant rich sesamin found in sesame seeds has been shown in studies to promote heart healthy effects along with lowering cholesterol, hypertension and inflammation. It boosts detoxification within our digestive system while promoting enzymes like aldehyde dehydrogenase which is an alcohol-metabolizing enzyme, this is great for those who get the “asian flush” whenever drinking.
Ingredient No 4. Radish: Mu
With its mild flavor and crunchy texture, this fibrous root vegetable is high in polyphenols that our gut microbiome love. Koreans love to ferment it into kimchi to increase the skin and immune boosting effects. Mu is also rich in vitamin C known to promote healthy collagen production for vibrant skin. If there’s one thing Koreans are known for these days, it’s their glowing skin and foods like mu shouldn’t be passed up.
Ingredient No 5. Mungbean Sprouts: Sookju Namul
Sprouts are one of the best ways to add more nutrient dense foods into our daily diets. A small batch provides more minerals and vitamins compared to their fully matured versions. Sookju namul is one of the easiest banchan (side dishes) to add to your meals and the iron rich sprout has been shown to reduce inflammation, fight infections, boost immune and circulation.
How we define health may differ from person to person and even culture to culture but when we peel back the layers, food continues to play an essential role in our search for true health. Every culture and community has its own interpretation on what foods are considered healthy. Through food, we’ve been able to connect our communities, ancestors and even future generations.
Dr. Sara Chong is the founder of Happy Gut Happy Life Method. She empowers health conscious women to heal their digestive disorders through traditional healing nutrition and techniques. When she isn’t with patients, she enjoys the breath-taking Hawaiian beaches and stunning hikes with her family.