Korean food as a nationwide cuisine recognized today has evolved through centuries of social and political change. Its roots could be traced back to myths and legends of ancient times. Originating from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions in southern Manchuria and northern Korean peninsula, Korean cooking has evolved through a complex interaction of the natural surroundings and different cultural trends.
Ingredients and dishes vary by region. There are many significant regional dishes that became both national and regional. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated in different variations across the country in the present day. The Korean royal court cuisine once brought all of the unique regional specialties together for the royal family. Meals consumed both by the royal family and ordinary Korean citizens have been regulated by a culture of etiquette that is exclusive to Korea.
Korean cookery is largely based on rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables and meats. Traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes (banchan) that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Kimchi, a fermented, highly spiced vegetable dish is generally served at every meal. Korean cuisine usually involves rich seasoning with sesame oil, doenjang (fermented soybean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger and gochujang (red chilli paste).
Soondubu Jiggae / Soft Tofu Stew – 순두부 찌개 - Soondubu jiggae is a Korean stew (jiggae) – thicker than a soup but thinner than a porridge. When cooked in the traditional way in an earthenware pot, all of the cooking is done in just the one dish. This makes it very easy to clean up afterwards. It starts with a delicious fish stock and a little beef to deepen the flavour then finished off with fresh shell fish, hot pepper flakes, silken tofu and eggs which are optional. The best thing about this stew is that you can control how hot you want it but limiting the quantity of hot pepper flakes. The small amount of beef is typical of Korean food and illustrates how healthy it is, the meat is used for flavour rather than stomach filling. This is a dish everyone should try, it is really one of the nicest ways to introduce someone to tofu which picks up all of the flavours of the stew while adding a soft comforting texture. Eat it with rice and side dishes for a complete meal.
Seolleongtang / Ox Bone Soup – 설렁탕 - Seolleongtang is an incredibly popular soup in Korea – there are even restaurants that specialize in making just it. Of all the items on this list, seolleongtang is the most time consuming as you must boil the beef bones (typically ox leg bones but you can make do with ox tail) for hours and hours to release all of the calcium which gives it the very distinctive white look. But don’t be fooled by the colour, this is the beefiest tasting soup you can imagine! When you boil the bones you can also add a large piece of beef and radish which you slice and add to the soup at the last minute. While this is a great winter soup it is also delicious in summer. It also makes a huge quantity so you can make it on the weekend and consume it during the week. In Korea this might be eaten for breakfast, not just dinner – as Korean’s typically have soup, rice and side dishes for breakfast.
Ddukbokkie / Rice Cake Street Food – 떡볶이 - Ddukbokkie is the delicious smell of Korean cities at night. In large Korean cities like Seoul, the streets are filled with vendors selling their own special recipe versions of the most popular street food. Ddukbokkie (it is pronounced roughly like “dok-bok-ee”) is one of the most popular and it comes in various styles. The sauce is spicy but it is also very sweet and packed with an immense amount of flavour. The spiciness is cut by the long cylindrical rice cakes which, when cooked, become chewy and soft. The rice cakes are probably the most unusual part for most westerners but when they try it – they love it.
Dakjuk / Chicken Porridge – 닭죽 - You boil a chicken in a huge pot of water with onions and a lot of garlic – then you add sushi rice and cook it until the chicken is done. The end result is a thick stew (which Koreans refer to as a porridge even though it has no oats) caused by the rice breaking down bursting with rich chicken and garlic flavour. You tear the chicken up and eat it with the porridge. This is a meal you will make again and again because it really is super easy.
Hoeddeok / Sweet Syrupy Pancakes – 호떡 - If you have a sweet tooth you are guaranteed satisfaction with this amazing pancake sold by street vendors. It is a little more complex than a western style pancake because it is made with a yeast dough but the effort is well worth it. The dough (virtually identical to a western bread dough) is filled with a mixture of cinnamon, brown sugar and chopped walnuts and fried in a lightly oiled pan until the filling has melted into a syrup. And if you don’t like the sound of the filling or don’t have a sweet tooth, just fill it with mozzarella cheese instead.
Yangnyeom Tongdak / Seasoned Fried Chicken – 양념통닭- This fried chicken has to be tasted to be believed. When you bite into a piece of this chicken you are initially met with a sticky, sweet, spicy red sauce. But then your teeth crunch through a triple cooked batter so crispy that you wouldn’t believe it possible. This then leads to the most incredibly moist and flavoursome chicken inside. This really is one of the most delicious Korean foods ever invented.
Japchae / Stir Fried Noodles – 잡채 - Japchae is one of the most popular Korean dishes both inside and outside of Korea and when you taste it you will understand why. Originally japchae was made without noodles, it was invented for the King by one of his chefs and he loved it so much that it became famous across Korea. In more recent times the noodles were added and now they are an essential element to the dish. The noodles used are sweet potato starch noodles which give japchae its very distinct chewy texture. The vegetables are all lightly cooked so they retain all of their flavour.
Bulgogi / Marinated Beef BBQ – 불고기 - Bulgogi is an extremely versatile way of preparing beef and the one most westerners have sampled at Korean restaurants. Typically in the west we eat bulgogi on a korean barbecue, a hot plate in the middle of the table. But in Korea this is just one of many ways. It can be made into a stew or as the basis for other dishes. It is such a versatile marinated meet that you could even use it to replace pulled pork in a western style sandwich. Bulgogi is very thinly sliced beef which is marinated in a sauce made from pear juice, garlic, soy sauce and many other things.
Bibimbap / Mixed Rice – 비빔밥 - In Korean, “bibim” means “mixed” and “bap” means rice. All of the ingredients except the meat (which is optional) are prepared in advance so you can add them at room temperature to the top of hot steamed rice. You then quickly fry and add the meat and a sunny side up egg to the top. Bibimbap is usually served with a spicy sauce made from gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste) which you can add to your liking, allowing you to control how hot it is. You then use your spoon (Korean food is always served with metal chopsticks and a spoon) to “bibim” it all until it is completely mixed together.
Kimchi / Fermented Cabbage – 김치 - Kimchi is the national dish of Korea. At first it can sound daunting to us westerners because of the word “fermented” but don’t forget that we eat a lot of fermented foods already, yoghurt and bread for example. In the case of kimchi the cabbage is coated leaf by leaf in a delicious spicy mix of hot pepper flakes, garlic, chives, onion, pear juice and more. It is then able to be eaten right away (in which case it is fresh, not fermented) or you can leave it out of the refrigerator for two or three days to start the fermentation process. As it ferments it develops a rich and slightly sour flavour, true also of German sauerkraut (which means sour herb or cabbage). It lasts for months and is also used as the base for many other dishes such as kimchi stew and even as a filling for kimbap (Korean sushi). Kimchi is such an important dish in Korea that it is eaten with breakfast, lunch and dinner. It may not look pretty but it sure tastes good! And if you don’t have time to make it yourself (it can be a little time consuming) it is always available pre-made at your local Korean grocery.