Today is Hangul Day in South Korea, marking the anniversary of the publication of the principles of the Korean alphabet, now called Hangul, by King Sejong the Great in 1446. Until the development of Hangul, Korean had to be written using Chinese characters (Hanja) which was such a complex system that only intellectual elites were literate. Although the development of a new writing system was formally proposed by Sejong, it was Jiphyeonjeon “The Hall of Worthies” who did the actual work because the development of Hangul involved complex and protracted linguistic work by its initial inventors.
The project was completed in late December 1443, or January 1444, and described in 1446 in a document titled Hunmin Jeong-eum, (정도하는 훈민), “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” The publication date of the Hunmin Jeong-eum, October 9, eventually became Hangul Day in South Korea. Its North Korean equivalent, Chosongul Day, is on January 15. Various speculations about the creation process were put to rest by the discovery in 1940 of the 1446 Hunmin Jeong-eum Haerye, a commentary (Haerye) on the original Hunmin Jeong-eum. This document explains the design of the consonant letters according to articulatory phonetics, and the vowel letters according to the principles of yin and yang and vowel harmony.
Hangul was designed so that even an uneducated commoner could learn to read and write easily. The Haerye says “A wise man can acquaint himself with them (the letters) before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” Although Hangul as it is written bears a vague resemblance to Chinese characters, it is actually an extremely simple phonetic alphabet. So, for example, the syllable 한 , han, may look like a single character, but it is actually composed of three letters: “h,” “a,” and “n.” There are 14 basic consonants and 10 basic vowels which can be formed into clusters of 2 to 5 letters. I am simplifying slightly, but the beauty of Hangul is that the sounds of the letters are invariant, so once they are learnt it is very easy to read.
Hangul faced opposition by the literary elite, such as Choe Manri and other Korean Confucian scholars in the 1440s, who believed Hanja to be the only legitimate writing system, and perhaps saw Hangul as a threat to their status. However, Hangul entered popular culture as Sejong had intended, being used especially by women and writers of popular fiction. It was effective enough at disseminating information among the uneducated that Yeonsangun, the paranoid tenth king, forbade the study or use of Hangul, and banned Hangul documents in 1504. King Jungjong abolished the Ministry of Eonmun (언문), the governmental institution related to Hangul research, in 1506.
The late 16th century, however, saw a revival of Hangul, as the poetic forms gasa and later sijo flourished. In the 17th century, Hangul novels became a major genre. Because of growing Korean nationalism in the 19th century, and the promotion of Hangul in schools and literature by Western missionaries, Hangul was adopted in official documents for the first time in 1894. Elementary school texts began using Hangul in 1895, and the Dongnip Sinmun, established in 1896, was the first newspaper printed in both Hangul and English. Still, the literary elites continued to use Chinese characters, and the majority of Koreans remained illiterate at this period. Colonialism by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945 set back nationalist efforts to promote Korean language and writing, but with independence after WW II Hangul has been fully established and the use of Hanja is rapidly diminishing.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) is a signature Korean dish suitable for the celebration of Hangul Day. The word literally means “mixed rice,” which is a good description — a bowl of warm rice topped with stir fried and seasoned vegetables, plus some spicy, hot sauce. Bibimbap may also include sliced meat and a raw or fried egg. It is served with the rice on the bottom and the other ingredients on top, but then guests swirl everything together before eating. Here is a recipe in Korean, using Hangul (just for the sake of it). It’s not that complicated to understand with a translating program. If you get that far you will see that this is a specially healthy version.
양념: 고추장, 쇠고기, 참기름, 볶음고추장
냉장고를 열어 나물류를 비롯한 있는 반찬을 꺼낸다.
밥을 퍼서 큰 그릇에 담는다.
꺼낸 반찬을 모두 밥 퍼놓은 그릇 위에 얹는다.
고추장(매운 거 싫어하는 사람이면 간장이나 된장이나 쌈장도 좋다)과 참기름을 한 큰술씩 넣는다. (고추장은 고봉 없이 평펑하게 한 큰술. 고추장 외의 장은 조금 더 넣어야 할 수 있다.)
소고기를 볶다가 고추장을 넣은 볶은 고추장은 비빔밤의 맛을 한층 업그레이드해주니 참고.
취향에 따라 계란 프라이도 하나 넣는다.
열심히 비빈다. 맛있는 비빔밥 탄생.
Bibimbap is first mentioned in the Siuijeonseo, an anonymous cookbook from the late 19th century. There its name is given as bubuimbap. Some scholars assert that bibimbap originates from the traditional practice of mixing all the food offerings made at an ancestral rite (jesa) in a bowl before eating. Others claim it was originally a way of using up leftovers.
Vegetables commonly used in bibimbap include julienned cucumber, zucchini, daikon, mushrooms, doraji (bellflower root), gim (seaweed), spinach, soybean sprouts, and gosari (bracken fern stems). Dubu (tofu), either plain or sautéed, chicken, or seafood may be substituted for beef. For visual appeal, the vegetables are often placed so adjacent colors complement each other.
A variation of this dish, dolsot bibimbap (?? ???, dolsot meaning “stone pot”), is served in a very hot stone bowl with a raw egg in the middle. The egg cooks when the ingredients are all stirred against the sides of the bowl. The bowl is so hot that anything that touches it sizzles for minutes. Before the rice is placed in the bowl, the bottom of the bowl is coated with sesame oil, making the layer of the rice touching the bowl golden brown and crisp.
Here’s a gallery to provide you with inspiration. A recipe, as such, is not really necessary. Use your imagination and whatever you have available. For my money the only essential ingredient is gochujang (???), fiery hot chile paste. This is easily found in good Asian markets, or online. You can add it before serving or let guests add their own.