Having one of the most unique and recognisable flavour sets in the world, it’s strange to see that many people find it hard to define what Korean cuisine actually is. Sure, the occasional recognition of what kimchi is might show that it is beginning to leave its mark in the west, but compared to Chinese or Japanese cooking, Korean dishes are relatively harder to find. But that is what it is also easiest to define Korean food by some of it’s most well known and widely eaten dishes. With its incredible long history and traditions that are still carried through in cooking today, here are some of the best to get your teeth into the next time you find a Korean restaurant. Get a taste of what Korean cuisine is all about!
The side dish, or banchan, almost everyone has heard of, and for a good reason too. Kimchi has been labelled as Korea’s national dish for quite some time. The most famous version of the dish is comprised of cabbage fermented in various seasonings such as red pepper paste (gochujang), stored for months before eating. They are many variations to cabbage kimchi too, including radish and cucumber. Its taste can strengthen depending on the storing period – some matured kimchi varieties can be years old – which means it’s not only a great accompaniment but is particularly versatile for other dishes too.
Kimchi Jjigae (김치찌개)
Another well-known dish, perhaps due to the main ingredient. Kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, is the kind of warming bowl you would eat on a cold night. It is quite spicy, containing more of that gochujang that is found so often in Korean cooking but contains a depth of flavour given by pork and the meat or fish stock used to make it. Don’t confuse this dish with kimchi soup however; jjigae is a little thicker. Often it is shared between family and friends, who all take from the same bowl, and is eaten with rice.
A mixed vegetable rice bowl that is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, bibimbap is traditionally served in hot stone bowls so that the rice continues to sizzle as you eat away. This version, called dolsot bibimbap, is still served up though it’s not an essential part of the dish. Really, any kind of vegetables can make up what goes into bibimbap, but some of the most common include cucumber, carrot and mushrooms, all of which are seasoned and sauteed. This is usually topped off with a fried egg or egg yolk, and gochujang, whilst sesame oil can either be poured on top or spread around the stone bowl. Healthy and filling.
This is a delicious way of grilling marinated beef until soft and tender. The marinating sauce includes soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic and red pepper, which means it’s packed full of flavour. There’s no singular way of eating bulgogi; stews, lettuce leaf wraps and mixed with rice are all popular accompaniments, but it’s the meat that is the real focus. A classic side with bulgogi is ssamjang, a spicy red paste that goes perfectly with the deep flavours.
Street food is prevalent in Korea, and as a result, Koreans have it perfected. One of the most common sights on the streets of Seoul is food vendors selling tteokbokki. A deliciously hot and spicy snack made from Korean rice cakes and a sticky, fiery red sauce. Some kinds of tteokbokki also contain triangular pieces of fish cake too, in addition to vegetables like spring onions. Once cooked in the sauce, the rice cakes become soft yet still chewy with the sauce coating them. It can be quite addictive; the sauce once again stars gochujang, and the sweet and spicy contrast leaves you wanting more.
Also called ginseng chicken soup in English. This dish is frequently eaten during the summer months under the belief that warm food will make you cooler and that the ginseng improves health. It is made from, you guessed it, chicken and ginseng, the former of which is surrounded by the ginseng infused broth. Also found in this broth is spring onions, rice and Korean jujube. It’s more than likely that the small chicken will be served whole in the soup, which is what makes the dish so characteristically recognisable.
This is another popular grilled meat dish, this time taking marinated beef ribs to sizzle on the grill. The ribs are cut along the bone and then filleted, meaning they are quite thick. Although beef is the most common meat to be cooked as galbi, there are other variations. Dak galbi, for example, uses grilled chicken instead. The sauce used to get all the extra flavour into these ribs is soy sauce based and quite similar to that used in bulgogi. As a result, they share the same sweet and salty combination of flavours and are eaten similarly. Both are staples for Korean barbeque. Not only that, galbi is also used to make galbitang, a soup dish that’s just as popular and just and tasty.
Perhaps the only grilled meat dish mentioned here that isn’t seasoned or marinated. And this is for a good reason, letting the meat really speak for itself. Samgyeopsal is pork belly meat that diners cook on the grill themselves. With this dish, the better quality pork belly, the better the taste will be. Of course, it is always accompanied by a variety of sides. Similar to bulgogi, lettuce leaf wraps are an excellent way of eating this meat. Sliced garlic, kimchi, onions and chilli peppers are just a few of the ingredients most often used. All of these can either be grilled alongside the meat or wrapped up raw alongside the cooked meat. Ssamjang is also used as a dipping sauce for samgyeopsal, with classic Korean flavours coming across with its gochujang base.
Whilst this might be the first noodle dish in this introduction, that isn’t to say that Korean cuisine doesn’t use much of the staple food. Japchae is a stir fried noodle dish made from sweet potato noodles. It’s usually served at special occasions and celebrations, but can be found all year round with various different vegetables thrown into the mix based on seasons. The noodles are fried in sesame oil along with the vegetables, a little soy sauce, and finished off with a garnish of sesame seeds and sometimes chopped chilli. Like kimchi, japchae is usually served as a side dish.
Deserts in Korea aren’t a typical sight. Sweet treats are found more frequently in the hands of street vendors. If a meal is followed by something sweet, it will be sliced fruit. But one dessert that has whole cafes dedicated to its different varieties is bingsu, or shaved ice. There are endless combinations of toppings to be found. Some of these range from the classic flavours like strawberries and cream, to more interesting tastes such as green tea. Patbingsu, however, is the most traditional form of the desert. Pat refers to red bean paste, a sweet, thick topping that is added to the layers of ice and condensed milk. Whilst this is no longer found in all types of bingsu, it remains as the most popular in Korea.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. With a rich history in food, Korea has many iconic dishes and tastes that make it’s cuisine what it is. This small sampling should start you on your way, introducing you to the flavours that make Korean cooking so unique, and even more so, worth exploring!
Featured Image Source: ©daechonet, 26.02.2017, www.pixabay.com