From catering companies to restaurants serving elaborate course meals of Korean cuisine, a new buzzword has found its way onto menus that focus on seasonal ingredients and their health-giving benefits.
The word “yakseon,” literally meaning “food that is (as good as) medicine,” has spread to community centers that have set up classes teaching its basic principles and home recipes. Ahead of the regional festival season in coming months, more yakseon seems likely to be introduced in presentations and sample bites.
“I think it’s the kind of food with herbal medicine in it. Something that’s good for your body,” said Choi Hae-jin, a 30-something Seoul resident, when asked her definition of yakseon.
Vegetables and fruits are pickled, fermented and aged by season at Daebo Myeongga. (Yonhap News)
Kim Jun-sik, who is in her 60s and about to retire from teaching, wants to study yakseon to learn about natural cooking and food that can keep herself and her family healthy.
Although it seems to be a new buzzword, yakseon has long existed in Korean history, with its foundation in traditional Korean medicine. This, in turn, is based on a holistic view of the universe and the balance of yin and yang ― the two major energies governing the universe.
In that holistic view, all human beings are seen as connected as part of the universe, as are other living creatures such as plants and animals. It is important to stay healthy, or “in balance,” and avoid illness, which is seen as being “out of balance,” to be part of a harmonious universe. Seasonal, local and natural ingredients are believed to contain the necessary energies for this and to provide the best nutritional sources for people who live in that area.
In the view that everything people consume should be harvested from nature, the underlying belief for using yakseon is “yakshik dongwon,” or that “medicine and food share the same root.” Many herbs and some vegetables are used not only as ingredients for everyday dishes, but also for traditional tonics or medicines. The Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) currently lists 117 medicinal herbs that can be used as food ingredients.
Although such beliefs are rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, yakseon and traditional Korean medicine have established their own foothold by using local ingredients, developing prescriptions and continuing their own research. The importance of food as medicine in the Korean mind was demonstrated by the position of a royal culinary doctor alongside a royal medical doctor in the Goryeo Dynasty period (918-1392).
Later, Donguibogam, a comprehensive medical encyclopedia published in 1613 that was placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2009, also emphasized the importance of managing health to avoid illness. In the encyclopedia, medicinal ingredients were divided into three categories based on whether they were used to maintain health, prevent specific illnesses or to treating sickness.
Yakseon, in its treatment role, is highly customized and used for a limited duration of time. However, the preventative role of medicine in the form of food is considered equally, if not more, important in the yakseon philosophy which aims to keep people healthy and in balance through their daily food consumption.
“A common misunderstanding of yakseon is that yakseon food must be cooked with medicinal herb ingredients,” says Jo Jeong-soon, professor of the Traditional Medicated Diet Program, also called the Yakseon Program, at the graduate school of Myongji University.
She adds that proper eating habits, including lightly-seasoned dishes made with natural, local ingredients, along with regular exercise can be considered part of the yakseon philosophy. “The focus should come from following the flow of nature in our diet, rather than eating a cure-all fix from medicinal herbs without proper knowledge.”
While she sees haphazard commercialization of yakseon or misuse of the word as of concern, “it is great that people are taking more interest in learning about yakseon and utilizing medicinal herbs in cooking,” she says. “There are definitely opportunities to better utilize yakseon.”
“We approach yakseon with expanded options of seasonal herbs and medicinal ingredients,” says Kim Eun-min, president of the Ciboville catering service and a graduate of the Yakseon Program.
“We want to introduce yakseon food in more accessible ways.”
Ciboville’s spring lunch-box menu includes multigrain rice with lotus fruit, pork tenderloin with goji berries and seasonal Korean herb side dishes crafted with the yakseon philosophy in mind.
The company’s cookies and jams that include herbal ingredients are also popular for children’s birthday parties. “People are surprised that cookies with what they consider ‘medicinal’ ingredients could be tasty,” says Kim.
A restaurant located at the foot of Mount Bukhan in Seoul also uses yakseon in its dishes. Daebo Myeongga is an offshoot of a well-known restaurant in Jechon, a town known for its medicinal herb production as well as its annual Oriental Bio Expo each fall.
In addition to making its own essential condiments of Korean cooking, such as doenjang (fermented bean paste), gochujang (red pepper paste) and ganjang (soy sauce), the restaurant also presses its own perilla (wild sesame) oil for cooking and makes its own seasoning sauces, kimchi and pickles with seasonal herbs and vegetables foraged in the hills nearby or grown in Jechon by contract farmers.
“My grandmother (restaurant owner Kwon In-ok) wouldn’t have it any other way,” says the Seoul branch manager Kim So-ryong. “We make everything in-house.”
Yakseon has many similarities with the philosophy and practice of Korean temple cuisine, but also uses meat and certain root vegetables prohibited in the Buddhist religion.
While the word yakseon may be new to many, the philosophy behind it is deeply embedded in Korean food traditions. A common saying that translates as “rice is preventative medicine” is often used to highlight the importance of simple, regular meals and basic food.
Jo, who runs the Yakseon Program, hopes to see more Koreans return to those traditional beliefs. “I hope this renewed interest in the wisdom of ‘food that can be medicine’ gives people a chance to take better care of themselves in their busy daily routine, while they are healthy,” she says.