Cut the cooking? A raw look at a village’s diet

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Cut the cooking? A raw look at a village’s diet

Deep in Korea’s mountainous hinterland lie a host of small villages whose residents lead what some would call an alternative, healthy, lifestyle. Here, whole communities have a diet that primarily consists of uncooked natural vegetarian food, which begs the question, how do they survive the country’s harsh cold winters, when little can be harvested? Do they chew on dried sweet potatoes and potatoes or eat powdered grain during the long nights in their mountain locale?
The JoongAng Ilbo visited Hana Village, one such place in Sangju, North Gyeongsang province and found that scenario to be a baseless anxiety. The residents’ lunch tables were splendidly abundant with raw grains, root tubers and green vegetables grown in plastic greenhouses.
In this remote village community at the end of the Jiri Mountain range, winter comes early and residents, who operate a kind of collective, begin to store food in November that will last until the coming March or April. For long-term storage, they use a warehouse at the village entrance, and for short-term storage, they use a traditional um, a covered hole in the ground. The residents dig the hole before the ground freezes, and then fill it with Chinese cabbages and radishes in protective wrapping, and potatoes or sweet potatoes in sacks. They then cover the hole with straw matting to allow easy access.
Lettuce, chicory, spinach, barley and other vegetables and herbs are also grown out of season in plastic greenhouses. To compensate for any lack of minerals or vitamin in the off-season plants, residents grow “wild” edible plants such as shepherd’s purse (capsella bursa-pastoris) that they harvest in late autumn and store, without washing it, in a kimchi refrigerator. The seasoned shepherd’s purse on the lunch table was as green as if it had just been picked.
There are many misconceptions about eating only uncooked food. One is that raw grains have a bland taste. But by changing spices and seasoning, the taste isn’t so different from something that has been cooked.
Other foods the residents enjoy include barley cakes ― made by grinding soaked barley into a dough ― covered with honey; jujube stuffed with pine needles or powdered seaweed and eaten with powdered cashew and pine nuts, and “wheat meat,” mixed wheat gluten, mushrooms and olive oil that tastes like meat.
The food preparation techniques in Hana Village concentrate on making the most of the ingredients’ natural tastes and flavors. Thus, the residents have their own rules in using spices and condiments. When making sweet foods they use honey, although occasionally they use sugar in cooked foods for guests. In order to make sour tastes, they use plum extract instead of vinegar.
Another principle is to use very little salt. “The amount of salt that the residents eat doesn’t even amount to half the consumption of the average person,” said Park Geum-hwa, the head of the mother’s association in the village. “If we have to use salt, we use bamboo salt, which is put through a special baking process nine times.” The food is not terribly spicy. The villagers seldom use ginger and garlic, nor do they use black pepper. When they eat bibimbap, which is usually made with red pepper paste, they use home-made tomato puree instead.
The cuisine is attributed to Kwon Young-eun, 46, who created her own raw-food diet after recovering from cancer five years ago. Rising early, Ms. Kwon goes hiking in the mountains at 3:30 a.m. and has breakfast at 6. For breakfast, she has half a bowl of ground grains, three or four pieces of sliced root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, potatoes and radish, six or seven peanuts, a walnut and a bit of green perilla powder (made from ground mint leaf). It is the richest meal she has all day.
If she tires of the same food, she soaks barley for two to three hours and mixes it with sliced vegetables and tomato puree. Sometimes she eats rice cake coated with bean paste, or dips rice paper (pressed soaked rice) wrapped with seaweed into olive oil.
“I sometimes eat dried jujube with pine needles that I get from the mountain,” Ms. Kwon said. “The sweet taste of jujube and the peculiar taste of pine needles fit together well.”
For lunch, at noon, she eats powdered grain and nuts along with green vegetables, such as lettuce, Chinese broccoli and chicory, which she dips in plum extract or honey, or wraps in seaweed.
She eats only fruit for dinner at 6 p.m. Her diet may seem meager to some, but Ms. Kwon said she doesn’t feel good if she eats more. What’s more, she says she doesn’t feel cold, thanks to regular exercise.
A common misperception about grains is that they lack fat and protein, although they are abundant in vitamins and minerals. On the contrary, beans are one of the richest sources of protein.
Some of the village’s residents eat beans raw, but others don’t like the pungent smell and eat them in a soup after grinding and parboiling them. The “wheat and meat” recipe also provides a large amount of protein.
Fats are provided by the oils in peanuts and walnuts, which contain healthy unsaturated fatty acids, unlike animal fatty acids, the cause of arterial sclerosis.
The unpolished grains eaten by the residents are full of nutrients as well as fiber, and the bulbous plants are a good source of carbohydrates. Green vegetables provide complex carbohydrates, which contain many antioxidants, as well as vitamins that protect people from aging or getting adult diseases. Even villagers in their 80s or 90s don’t suffer from diabetes, heart disease or high cholesterol levels, and their skin appears healthy and clean.
“As one starts to eat uncooked foods, one loses five to 10 kilograms (2.2 pounds) easily,” said Go Young-ja, the head of Hana Village. “The residents here recently got health check-ups, and nobody has a chronic disease such as high blood pressure or gastroenteric troubles. The only problem was arthritis for some of the older people.”

Tips for eating uncooked food

1. Use fresh ingredients.
2. Use various foods for a nutritional balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.
3. Create new recipes for a variety of tastes.
4. Chew your food slowly to experience its natural flavor.
5. Control the amount of uncooked food you eat to start with depending on your condition.
6. In order to increase absorption of uncooked food, exercise.

by Ko Jong-kwan
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