Korea is a small country with water on three of its sides. More than half of its land area is mountainous. Koreans enjoy a rich and varied menu, however. They began growing cereals during the mid-Neolithic period, and rice cultivation was introduced to some parts of the country around 2000 B.C. Rice remains the main staple and is eaten with a great variety of side dishes featuring vegetables, fish, and meats.
Fermented foods, such as soy sauce, bean paste, and red pepper paste, were important sources of protein in early times and remain Korean favorites. Of course, no Korean meal would be complete without the ubiquitous kimchi, fermented vegetables essential to the traditional winter diet because of the scarcity of fresh vegetables. Today few homes are without a refrigerator, but kimchi remains on every Korean table. Each region has its own special kimchi, reflecting variations in climate and local traditions.
Koreans also enjoy varied holiday fare. Rice cakes, red bean porridge. or glutinous rice are found on most holiday tables. New Year's Day is always celebrated with steaming bowls of ttokkuk, rice cake soup. The Tano Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month features cakes made from rice flour and flavored with mugwort or azalea flowers. Chusok, the Harvest Moon Festival, is a time for thanking the spirits for a bountiful harvest and honoring one's ancestors. Crescent-shaped rice cakes are served at this time, while red bean porridge is eaten on the winter solstice. These traditions are vivid proof that food feeds both the stomach and the soul.
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