When cooking Korean food, one of the most distinct parts of the experience is the smell of garlic that permeates the air. Garlic in Korea is considered on the same level as salt; it’s a seasoning and a condiment that most dishes simply cannot be without.
If you’ve deliberated on eating healthy before, chances are, you’ve come across the suggestions to increase garlic consumption in your diet. Most people worldwide enjoy garlic for its distinctive umami taste that it lends to food, but it’s also a food that is laden with lots of health benefits.
For Koreans though, the medicinal functions of garlic take a back seat.
Instead, one could say that their food culture, with its variety in taste, smell, and visual, is based on garlic.
It could be the strong and distinct smell of garlic that hits your nose before all other senses are awakened. It could be the subtle, slightly spicy, slow unfurling of the raw garlic taste as you make your way through a dish.
Whichever the case, enjoying Korean food means that your palette must adapt to eating garlic in all forms, especially raw. We’d go as far as to say it’s one of the nation’s most beloved foods. From being an ingredient to a condiment to a banchan, to a seasoning – garlic is simply a must.
Let’s have a look at why Koreans eat so much raw garlic.
How much raw garlic do Korean actually eat?
According to the Korean Rural Economic Institute, this small bulb of delightfully pungent and spicy vegetable is consumed by the kilos per Korean, per year! They’ve estimated it to be around 7.4kg (in 2019). To put it into perspective, think about when you go grocery shopping and pick up a small bag of 1kg of garlic. Now, imagine consuming over seven bags of that garlic!
This is especially impressive when compared to the average amount of garlic consumed by Americans and Italians, which is approximately only 1kg per year (2019).
Foreigners will likely witness much of the raw garlic consumption at places like Korean BBQ restaurants, where fresh, raw garlic is served thinly sliced and ready to be wrapped up with grilled meat.
It’s understandable if you’re turning your nose up at the thought of biting into garlic in its purest form. Most people would assume the overpowering juices of raw garlic will ruin the taste of the food.
However, there’s a belief that Korean garlic is actually much milder in pungency than other garlic from around the world. Garlic is produced all year round because of the massive levels of consumption in Korea.
In other countries, it is produced during certain seasons and harvested only a few times a year. The older the garlic, the more pungent it is, thus why garlic is much less prominent in taste and smell in Korea, and the reason why raw consumption is so popular.
Why do Korean people eat so much raw garlic?
There is a myriad of reasons why Koreans eat so much raw garlic, but the bottom line is: that garlic is simply a part of their lifestyle. Raw garlic is as ingrained in the diet of Koreans as much as water is an essential part of their lifestyle.
Garlic has been a staple of Korean food culture for thousands of years, stemming from the legendary tale of the bear who wanted to become a human and was told he needed to consume copious amounts of raw garlic to do so.
Many children will grow up remembering how their parents and grandparents simply chewed on raw garlic as a breakfast item and continued to do so throughout the day.
As it stands, raw garlic is not considered off-limits to anyone or any dish in Korea. Garlic will simply elevate everything and anything it is added to.
Of course, the health benefits of garlic are hard to ignore.
Raw garlic health benefits
Koreans are known to have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. This could be contributed to a number of things, such as their active lifestyle (being in a country full of natural landscapes helps!), access to fresh seafood, and culture of consuming copious amounts of fermented foods (fermented food brims with health benefits for the body).
However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that their high levels of raw garlic consumption also contribute to their elongated life expectancy. Garlic is absolutely bursting with health benefits, including but not limited to:
- High amounts of sulfur compounds are present when garlic is chopped, crushed, or chewed. These compounds are responsible for many of the health benefits of garlic.
- The high levels of nutrition along with low levels of calories.
- The boost of protection to your immune system against illnesses such as the common cold.
- The reduction of blood pressure, especially for people diagnosed with high blood pressure.
- The improvement in cholesterol levels may also reduce the risk of heart disease
Do Korean people smell like garlic?
Surprisingly, Korean people do not necessarily smell like garlic. They may consume copious amounts of garlic; however, this does not necessarily translate to their body odor.
When traveling to Korea as a foreigner, your senses will be attacked when you walk through the streets. The garlic smell will permeate the air at every corner you turn. From people chopping, mincing, and crushing it, to using it to make kimchi, in their stir-fries, and to marinate, garlic is undeniably everywhere.
However, you likely won’t get a whiff of it when you walk past people on the streets. Yes, these very same people who eat raw garlic as though it were candy, don’t actually smell like it.
Whilst the reasoning is still unclear, some people believe that this is because of the genetics of Korean people, and how the bacteria that causes body odor is not present in their bodies.
Other people believe that because garlic in Korea is not as pungent as in other countries, this is the reason why people don’t smell like it.
Others still, simply believe that the high levels of hygiene that Korean people have, omit them from smelling like garlic, regardless of how much raw garlic they consume.
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However, in saying that, this is not true for all Koreans, and those who are sensitive to smell will always be able to pick up a whiff even if it’s the faintest scent. For foreigners, you might be more perceptive of the smell of garlic on Korean people in Korea simply because you’re not used to it.
However, travelers and people who move to Korea and stay for a relatively long period have also noted that their identification of the smell of garlic on other people has slowly dissipated over the time that they’re over there.
So the bottom line is, as much as they consume extraordinary amounts of raw garlic and cooked garlic in their foods, Korean people do not smell like garlic – or at least nowhere near as much as other people assume.
I hope you understand now why Korean people eat so much garlic!
Does this surprise you at all? Most people know and love garlic for its ability to boost the overall satisfaction of any dish, but there is no denying that it is quite a smelly food. In raw form, garlic is akin to smelling an onion (they are from the same family!).
And as to why people Korean people eat so much raw garlic? Well, it simply stands to reason that one of the world’s most beloved food enhancers (i.e. garlic) is used prevalently by a food culture that’s centered around strong yet homey smells, and complex and flavorsome tastes.
Garlic makes everything better, and Korean people know this.
The health benefits are just an added extra!