See this kimbap? It’s been very badly rolled. I know because I rolled it myself. The ingredients shouldn’t be spilling into each other. The shredded carrot, for example, is all over the place, when it should be grouped together, distinct, and sharp in contrast to the other ingredients.
But you can still see the effect that’s desired—a bright show of colors. Black in the roasted seaweed, white in the rice, yellow in the pickled daikon and cooked eggs, orange (or red) in the sautéed carrots, and green in the spinach. The five colors, elements, or phases of Korean (and Chinese) cooking.
(There’s also the brown of the cooked meat and the sautéed burdock root, but I will conveniently ignore that for now.)
The five elements, though, are more than colors. They represent material elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, water. They represent emotions, from rage to fear to contemplation. They are associated with organs in the body and with five essential flavors, sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty.
No one element is best or right. What’s important is balance.
Korean philosophy is deeply rooted in the Taoist concept of yin yang, or eum yang in Korean. (Hence, the prominent red and blue taegeuk in the middle of the South Korean flag.) Yin and yang are forces that are both opposing and complementary; together, they govern the universe. As yin and yang should ideally be balanced, the five elements should also be present and in balance with each other.
It all sounds very mystical and “Oriental,” but ultimately, it’s a very pragmatic way of looking at life. (Check out the Taoist concept of sexuality—it’s pretty awesome, especially if Wikipedia can be trusted. No abstinence-only education for Taoists!)
Honestly, I don’t know much about this stuff. But as applied to food, it seems like a healthy way to make sure you eat right. Each food has a different property, and depending on the season and your temperament, there are certain foods that are better and worse for you. One person should perhaps eat more apples and fewer melons, another should eat more fish than meat. At the same time, no one food is fetishized or demonized. Modern Koreans love food trends, including diet trends, but traditional Korean food culture is resistant to the kind of absolutism we know so well in modern American food culture. It may be why people who sell fried dough stuffed with sugar can claim they are “well-being hotteok”!
Best of all, when the concepts of the five elements and yin yang are applied to food, the results are delicious. Gujeolpan, or “Nine Delicacies,” invites you to put a little bit of each ingredient in the little white crepe, and then dab on some spicy mustard that makes the flavors of each ingredient even sharper. Grilled meats, with their juices and their fat, are supposed to be paired with fresh greens and sharp, earthy doenjang, or soybean paste. Bibimbap, at its best, is a careful balance of colors and ingredients, as is bibimnaengmyeon and anything else with the concept of “bibim” of “mixed” at its core. Pork belly and cabbage kimchi; soothing, rich, beefy broths with sour, spicy kkakdugi radish cubes; even plain white rice and salty, sweet banchan. The list of opposing yet complementary pairings goes on and on.
Flavors aren’t necessarily melded together, other than in the intensely complex and deep flavors of the jang, or sauces, like fermented soy bean paste and red pepper paste. What’s important is that separate flavors and textures come together. In almost every dish, each ingredient is supposed to be chopped and cooked separately before being mixed together at the end. If you’re going to cook Korean food for any length of time, you will learn knife skills and you will wash a ridiculous number of plates.
Growing up, whenever my father preached moderation at me, I thought it sounded boring and dull. I wanted a life full of extremes! Intensity! Super-spicy and super-rich! Now I know, at least with regards to food, moderation means I can just have it all.