Korea A deeper look into the meaning behind traditional Korean dishes

By Vivian Jiang and Anish Vasudevan

While some cultures place emphasis on having large main dishes, Korean culture includes making multiple side dishes to round out a meal. According to freshman Priscilla Cho, at important holidays, such as the Korean Harvest Festival Chuseok on October 1, her family plates a large array of dishes like kimchi.

“There’s a lot of side plates or seasoned foods like kimchi [in Korean dinners],” Cho said. “If it’s a huge celebration, there can be up to 40 different side dishes with rice as a main dish. Something that’s common for Korean families is having five or six side dishes.”

Junior Annabelle Choi, who moved from South Korea before the start of high school, explains that in Korea, dinners serve as family reunions. Choi says that her whole extended family would meet for dinners when she was in Korea, with Saturdays being spent with her mother’s side of her family and Sundays with her father’s side.

Along with a focus on family, according to junior Rachel Kim, Koreans stress keeping in touch with their culture. Kim says that Korean Americans partake by learning the language at Korean school or just by having culturally significant foods with their families at home.

“For me if I had to find something that [food] signifies, I guess it would be warmth and the comfort of returning back to your roots,” Kim said.

Below are examples of three Korean dishes that are significant to students at MVHS.


Kimchi is a staple dish in Korean cuisine and can be seen on the table as a side to almost every meal. It is created from salted, fermented vegetables, usually cabbage and radishes and gets its signature spicy taste from a paste made of chili powder, garlic, ginger, red pepper and sugar.

Since Korea is mountainous with a few fertile plains, food preservation is a high priority during cold months. When early Koreans began an agricultural lifestyle, they ate salted vegetables to aid with the digestion of grains. This salting of vegetables turned into a preservation art. According to Choi, making kimchi serves as a tradition to come together and bond.

Priscilla Cho

“The meal in general feels really empty without kimchi. It’s one of the natural parts of eating a meal for my family and I.”


Japchae, which means “mixed vegetables,” is a sweet and savory dish of stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables. It is the number one sought after dish, particularly during Korean holidays like Korean New Year’s Day and Chuseok, the Autumn Harvest Festival.

In Korean history, the first japchae dish was made as an offering to King Gwanghaegun in the 17th Century and contained neither meat nor noodles. Until fairly recently, beef was a rare delicacy on Korean tables because of the influence of Buddhism—which prohibited the slaughter of cattle for food—and the expensive cost of cattle ranching. Noodles were brought to the Korean peninsula by Mongols and were originally made of wheat and buckwheat, but were later made using sweet potatoes after tubers arrived from Japan. Japchae changed to accommodate this shift in tastes and has become the beloved popular dish seen now in Korea. Both Choi and Kim agree on its popularity in Korean culture, stating how japchae is a common dish that shows up in any type of traditional Korean family meetings.

Rachel Kim

“A lot of people eat it during every single holiday. We [make] it every year, ever since I could remember.”


Songpyeon, meaning “pine cakes,” is a traditional Korean rice cake made of rice powder that is filled with either a sweet or semi-sweet filling such as sesame seeds, nuts or bean powder. The rice cake is usually steamed over pine needles, giving it a subtle pine tree flavor which gives the rice cake its name. Historically, it was created using the first rice harvest and is a must-have on every Korean family’s dinner table during Chuseok.

Annabelle Choi

“Every year, making songpyeon is a big thing. Like you know when you’re in elementary school or kindergarten [and] when Christmas comes around, they'll bake cookies at school. Korea will do that with songpyeon.”


Created with images by rawkkim - "Gimbap is one of the favorite foods of Koreans. It’s also a great dish to eat vegetables together. If you are traveling to Korea, try gimbap. You won’t regret it." • Angela Bailey - "untitled image" • Ryan Kwok - "untitled image"