An Introduction to Korean Food
Korean food is largely unknown compared to the cuisine of its neighboring countries. It’s not because the Land of the Morning Calm is lacking in the delicious food department— it’s quite the opposite actually. Once you familiarize yourself with Korean cuisine, your Korean food adventure will begin and your taste buds will surely thank you!
What is Korean Cuisine?
Korean cuisine offers light, vegetable-filled dishes accompanied by marinated meats and seafood. Sauces are normally placed on the side, so people can dip as they wish. Korean food is largely meant to be shared, especially when dining out or for special occasions. This means that most dishes will be placed in the center of the table, with everyone using their chopsticks to take what they want from the center into his/her own rice bowl.
A Typical Korean Meal
A typical Korean meal consists of the following: kimchi (see below), one or two vegetables, soup, and a small bowl of rice. Some kind of meat or seafood is often served as the main dish. Koreans use flat, metal chopsticks, (which can be a bit tricky for first-time users) with a long, metal spoon. The two should not be used at the same time.
Korean meals rarely include dessert, unless it’s for a special occasion. Fruit and traditional snacks, like sweet tteok/떡 –chewy dessert like rice cakes, are preferred over sugary deserts made with wheat flour.
To find out the “dos and don’ts” of eating in Korea, visit WorknPlay’s Korean Table Manners article.
Characteristics of Korean Food
Korean food is very spicy, and you cannot usually control the level of spice that’s in your food (unless you want to add more spice on your own). Some Korean foods are spicier than others, but keep in mind that nobody is going to ask for your preference - so, it’s good to know beforehand which foods are spicy or not.
Kimchi 김치= spicy,
ramyun 라면 (instant noodle soup) = sometimes spicy,
gimbap 김밥 (Korean sushi rolls) = rarely spicy
Sometimes, like in the case of bibimbap (see below), you’ll be given your own bottle of hot chili sauce. Start with a little, and then add more if you need it. Remember, you can’t take the spice out, but you can always add it in!
Koreans love garlic. The first time you try Korean BBQ, you’ll notice the little cloves of them next to the grill – add them on top of the grill and roast them like the locals do. While putting an entire clove of garlic in a single lettuce wrap may seem like a lot at first, it does go hand-in-hand with the Korean love of onions, which are also often consumed raw on their own.
Salty and fermented foods are a Korean favorite. For example, soup is served at almost every meal in Korea. It can be spicy or non-spicy, with or without noodles, but it’s always salty and flavorful. Snacks like dried squid, hard-boiled eggs, and salted meat skewers are all wildly popular here.
Chewy types of food are very popular in Korea. Tteok, rice cakes made with glutinous rice flour, are used in both sweet and savory dishes, and their texture is unique. Japanese wheat-based udon noodles, like tteok, are also very chewy and popular in Korea.
Sweetness is a funny characteristic of Korean cuisine. While it doesn’t appear often in traditional foods, savory Western foods adapted to Korean taste buds are almost always sweet. For example, Italian restaurants in Korea serve garlic bread with sprinkled sugar on top, pizza sometimes comes with a side of honey, and several grocery stores have started selling strawberry-flavored Laughing Cow cheese (and yes, it’s bright pink). Sweet adaptations of foreigner foods have become a quirky and interesting characteristic of contemporary Korean cuisine.
Famous Korean Foods
Korea’s national food is called kimchi. While the cabbage version (the most popular variety), seems to get all of the attention, the truth is that there are hundreds of different varieties of kimchi, such as mul kimchi /물김치 or non-spicy kimchi served in a vinegary broth. Kimchi can be almost any vegetable left to ferment in a mixture of chilis, fish sauce, and garlic. Like many Korean foods, kimchi is spicy! Thanks to its richness in pro-biotics (healthy bacteria), kimchi offers many health benefits, most of which help with digestion. Kimchi is served like a condiment with every meal in Korea.
The word “Jjigae” refers to a variety of Korean stews. You can have sundubu jjigae /순두부찌개: tofu stew; kimchi jjigae /김치찌개: kimchi stew; budae jjigae /부대찌개: meat stew; as well as several other types. jJigae is one of the cheapest meals you can have in Korea, but (strict) vegetarians beware! Even the jjigaes that seem to be meat-free (like kimchi or sundubu jigae) can still be made with meat-based broths, and may have pieces of meat or seafood floating around in it. Jigae is rarely (if ever) served with noodles, but you will get a bowl of rice on the side with it.
Bibimbap, literally meaning “mixed rice”, is a favorite among many. This dish is served in a bowl and is composed of: rice (on the bottom); mixed veggies, like bean sprouts, kimchi, and radish (on top); and sometimes includes shredded beef. Its vegetarian version is much more popular, and is normally served with an egg on top. While it certainly looks pretty when it’s initially served, you’re actually supposed to mash it up with your spoon. It’s called “mixed rice”, remember? This is especially important for the dolsot /돌솥 variety, which is served in a piping hot stone pot, sometimes with a raw egg on top (don’t worry, the bowl is so hot that the egg will cook itself in seconds). Always served alongside the bibimbap is a sweeter, watered-down version of gojuchang /고추장, hot chili sauce. It makes the bibimbap more flavorful, while also giving it a spicy kick.
Korean BBQ /고기구이
Korean BBQ is one of the few foods that are becoming more recognized around the world, mainly for the unique and interactive dining experience that it offers. Korean BBQ can involve any number of meats, the most popular of which being galbi /갈비, marinated beef ribs; or samgyeopsal /삼겹살, thick bacon strips. Korean BBQ is not just a food, it’s a social experience. You’re not going to see anyone eating galbi or samgyeopsal all by their lonesome; that would be pretty strange. Instead, people usually go out with groups of friends or co-workers, and order plenty of soju and beer to wash the meat all down. Korean BBQ is served with lettuce leaves, in which you can wrap the meat up before adding in garlic, onions, spicy pepper paste, or other morsels accompanying the meal. Alternatively, you can just dip the meat in the sauce on the table and eat it by itself.
If you go into a Korean restaurant and end up with several little plates of things you never ordered, fear not! There was no miscommunication, and no, you’re not going to get charged for them. Those are called banchan, and they’re basically like side dishes served at every meal in Korea. There are over 40 different kinds of banchan, most of them being marinated vegetables. For a more information about popular banchan, see WorknPlay’s article on Being Vegetarian in Korea.
Seafood is widely popular in Korea, due to the country’s geographic location. One is never that far from a coastline in Korea, and the prevalence of seafood in the Korean diet reflects this. Some popular seafood dishes include: odeng /오뎅, pressed fishcake soup; ohjingeo bokkeum /오징어 볶음; spicy stir-fried octopus; and hoe /회, thinly sliced raw fish. Dried fish and squid are also a Korean favorite snack, especially in the summer and at baseball games. It’s considered to be a great picnic food, perfect for a lazy day on the beach or after a hike.
Traditionally, Korean food does not include desserts. Sweet foods, like songpyeon /송편, chewy rice cakes, were usually reserved for special occasions like Chuseok /추석, the Korean harvest festival. Nowadays, Korea has a lot of sweet foods, but most of them are street foods or from foreign-inspired bakeries. Other foods, like patbingsu /팥빙수, shaved ice with ice cream, fruits, and/or red bean, are popular in the summer. Patbingsu is popular during the hot and sticky summers, while hotteok /호떡, fried, sugar-filled pancakes, take precedence during the chilly winter season. Especially popular are franchise and locally-owned bakeries, which serve everything from (surprisingly authentic) “pain au chocolat” and creamy macaroons to red bean dumplings and green tea pound cake.
Korea is a street food lover’s paradise. Street food vendors and pojangmachas /포장마차- street side restaurants, line almost every busy street in Korea, especially around the nightlife districts. Greasy, deep-fried street food may look tasty to begin with when sober, but after chugging down several rounds of soju and beer? The stuff is like a gift from the gods. Pojangmachas offer covered seating and tables inside tiny tents and have larger menu options that small street stalls. They are great options for those looking for a quick snack roadside. Hang around the vendor while you eat. It’s the Korean way to do it!
Here are some commonly-eaten street foods:
Anju /안주: Korean Appies
Koreans love to drink. However, alcohol is rarely consumed without some snacks to go along with it. In Korea, these snacks that accompany a night of drunken fun with friends or coworkers are called anju /안주. Why do Koreans like to have food with their liquor? Well, think about it: drinking on an empty stomach means that you’re going to get drunk fast, and your night will likely be over pretty early. However, drinking in Korea isn’t about who can get wasted the quickest. Rather, it’s a very social experience which is supposed to lead to forging stronger bonds with friends and coworkers. Anju will act as a sort of sponge to soak up the booze that you consume over the course of the night, so you can pace yourself and socialize more with your co-drinkers.
Anju can be main dishes or side dishes, meat or vegetarian, spicy or not spicy. It can also be selected to compliment the drink, for example, fruit for soju cocktails; spicy, salty, or fried foods for beer; or heavy, greasy comfort foods for makgeolli /막걸리, Korean rice wine with a milky, sweet taste.
Anju is most commonly served in “HOFS” (Korean-style pubs), but they can also be ordered in night clubs. While the concept of eating in a club may seem a bit strange to foreigners, it is actually quite common in Korea, especially upon ordering “VIP bottle service”.
à Tip: In Korea, drinking without ordering appies is a big no-no (even if the server doesn’t say it’s required). The reason the beer is so cheap at many Korean bars is because it’s expected that you will order at least one anju to help offset the cost. Many foreigners instead choose to stock up on the free popcorn or pretzels that are served “on the house” with drinks. This looks very rude. To put it in perspective, it would be like going to McDonald’s, ordering a Coke, and then stuffing your pockets with the free ketchup packets and napkins.
Here are some common Korean anju:
Thanks to globalization, many international foods are becoming more and more popular in Korea. As more Koreans go abroad, they bring back some of their new favorite foods, and as more foreigners come to Korea, they too bring exotic dishes with them, like “kebab” or “grilled cheese sandwiches”.
Like foreign foods in any country, these international dishes have been adapted to fit the host country’s palate. The result can be disappointing for diners expecting foreign dishes in Korea to be 100% authentic. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t taste good. Be open-minded: go ahead, dunk that gorgonzola pizza in that bowl of honey, and enjoy the experience!
Korean-Chinese: Jajangmyun /자장면
Jajangmyun is one of the most common and well-known versions of Korean fusion foods. It’s been around for about 100 years, introduced in Korea by Chinese restaurateurs wanting to create a meal that would appeal to the Korean palate. Well, it worked. This dish, consisting of wheat noodles and a thick black bean sauce, can be found easily in Korea. The best part? It’s super cheap, only costing about 3,000-4,000KRW at most restaurants. It’s also a very popular delivery food.
Korean-Italian: Gorgonzola /고르곤졸라 Pizza
Okay, so this isn’t officially a Korean-Italian fusion food, but the way it’s made in the restaurants of Korea is certainly different than anywhere else in the world. Those who’ve eaten pizza in Korea can attest to these “uniquely Korean” pizza characteristics: corn is almost always sprinkled under the cheese, a bowl of sweet pickles is served on the side, and yams are a common stuffed-crust filling. One of the well-loved pizzas in Korea is the gorgonzola pizza, a thin-crusted pizza covered in creamy sauce and cheese. It’s always served with a side of honey. Yes, you’re supposed to dip the pizza in it. It’s one of those “so weird it’s good” things. Try it, you may be pleasantly surprised.
If you’ve been in Korea for a while, then you’ve probably noticed the abundance of bakeries that line the streets here. Big names like “Paris Baguette” or “Tous les Jours” are found within a stone’s throw of each other. As well, more and more locally-owned bakeries are beginning to gain popularity. So, what makes a Korean bakery unique? Well, there are a few things that have been adapted to the Korean palate. Specialties like green tea cake, red bean donuts, sesame seed buns, and anything that could possibly be stuffed with sweet potatoes are standard in any chain or local bakery. Other common and recognizable treats include pain au chocolate, croissants, apple strudel, and cinnamon buns, often made with a respectable level of authenticity. Things that are traditionally savory (like pizza buns, croque monsieur, or garlic bread) tend be on the sweet side.
Gabrielle interned as a Content Creator for Work'n'Play during her exchange trip to Chung-Ang University in 2012-2013. She graduated from Vancouver Island University in May 2014 with her BA in Global Studies. She is now a Master's student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. The things she misses most about her year in Korea are: going for makgeolli + jeon with friends, exploring Seoul's new and old hidden treasures and getting to practice Korean every day. You can connect with her on Twitter at @MsGabrielle or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.