Korean foods have always been believed by many as the healthiest. To Koreans, food is treated as the best type of medicine in combating many ailments. This is perhaps why their cuisine has been gaining international notice as more people now are being drawn to partake of Korean cuisine. The foods from this Asian country revolves around the theory of yin and yang called Eumyangohaeng. It also speaks about the five elements which make up the whole universe. To Koreans, the body can only be healthy when these elements are balanced. Even India has its version of this theory where the body can attain health by balancing doshas by the principles of Indian diets from the ancient times.
Aside from its health benefits and of course its flavors, Korean foods usually follow color combinations in presenting their cuisine. The colors green, yellow, red, black, and white are dominant on Korean displays, and each color signifies a natural element, a direction, each bringing a specific ingredient on the table and each having their benefits to the health. Black, for instance, symbolizes the North, water and is responsible for soothing the mental state of a person. The color can be represented by ingredients like black sesame seeds, black rice, and seaweeds which are foods good for the bladder and the kidney.
When eating a meal in a Western restaurant, the food is served in courses. This is not so with Korean dining. All the foods for a meal are served together, main, and side dishes. Rice or bap is always there. Although mostly always served steamed, there can be multiple versions. Korean porridge or Juk is an old staple which contains grains that have been simmered for a long period. Guksu or noodles are home-made, kneaded with either buckwheat or wheat flour.
Koreans love accompaniments for their meals. Most of us have experienced this when dining in their eateries. Kimchi, seasoned fermented veggies, could be the most famous of these and has become a standard side dish. So is Guk or soup. Other accompaniments are Jorim, a braised dish, Gul, which is grilled fish, and more. Each dish represents its style of cooking and is crafted with greens, seafood or meat. The Korean practice of table setting started in the Joeson era, the country’s most well-known dynasty which ruled for more than five hundred years. Settings could be from samcheop, which has 3 side dishes, to the sibicheop bansang which was referred to as the king’s table with 12 side dishes.
First-timers in Korean restaurants could face a challenge as they may not be familiar with the foods. Furthermore, the initial servings of free accompaniments could be surprising. But once a person passes this initial stage, he will come to experience a delightful culinary experience. The foods are good, exotic, flavorful, and healthy. Even vegans could enjoy the journey if they look close enough.
The Most Common Korean Dishes and Drinks to Try
Koreans love beef, and they love it as much as the Texans love their steaks. On the average, Koreans consume about twenty pounds of beef each year. But this average is starting to increase because of how the meat is cooked and served.
About $500 million of beef are imported from the USA each year, and this is expected to rise by significantly. Beef is an expensive commodity in Korea but not so much in America. This makes the relationship between the two countries ideal, at least when it’s based on cattle meat.
Beef may be a favorite item in Korea, but that is hardly the most of it. Korea has a lot, lot more to offer. Kimchi, for instance, that spicy, fermented Korean condiment, is starting to move up the charts in American cookery. Aside from being a side dish, kimchi has now found its way in ramens, toppings for dishes, and even fries. Let’s not jump the gun, here. An introduction to Korean foods should start with the basics as it will give you a better appreciation of their cuisine:
Jeon. The dish is usually part of a Korean banchan, a collective name for small side dishes. Jeon is simply any kind meat or veggies that have been battered in flour and tossed into a skillet along with eggs. Aside from meat, the battered item could be tofu, squash, liver or even kimchi. Discovering what you would find served in your banchan spread is a fun experience.
Gochujang. If you enjoy sriracha, you will love Gochujang. This is a spicier version of the already very spicy sriracha sauce. Gochujang is made from the fermentation of red hot chili peppers and together with its partner-in-crime, doenjang which is a soybean paste, they make up the most relevant condiments in Korean cuisine.
Bulgogi. This is the Korean version of barbecued meat. Although the meat used can be pork or chicken, it’s usually beef in Korea. The beef is sliced very thinly, then marinated in a sauce containing sesame oil, ginger, sugar, soy sauce and other ingredients before placing them on a hot grill.
You can do the grilling yourself in Korean restaurants, right there on your table. And if the beef becomes tough, you can find only yourself to blame. Anyway, this style is one reason why eating in bulgogi in a Korean restaurant is fun. Try eating in a group, it’s a guarantee for more fun.
Galbi. This is bulgogi but this time using short ribs, instead of the thin slices of beef. These beef cuts can be used for stews and similar dishes. Of course, the best way to savor them is cooking them by the grill on your table and devouring those tender and juicy bits, caveman style.
Soju. Another great reason for a Korean night-out. Vodka, Korean style. This one is made from rice but with a slightly sweet taste. But the punch is as strong. By Korean custom, it is a drink that is eaten throughout a meal.
Too much of soju can make a person, a spectacle of himself. This is the reason why Koreans hold their parties in a sequestered area as the effects of too much soju imbibed can lead to loud and raucous dinners. After a few shots of soju, you’ll start to find your voice shifting to a different pitch.
Bibimbap. Dining on Bibimbap over some glasses of soju is an ideal way to spend time with your friends. This is a dish made of stir-fried vegetables and rice. These two constitute the base of all bibimbap dishes. The dish is served in an extremely hot bowl made of stone which will further cook the rice until it becomes crispy and chewy.
When the rice has gained the desired consistency, the whole mixture is stirred up with some gochujang then devoured. There is usually an egg yolk on top of it which will cook with the dish. Meat is optional. Either way, it’s a healthy dish.
Jjigae. Another wholesome and healthy lunchtime favorite is Jjigae. This is a stew that’s served extremely hot. The soup broth is thin but very spicy. Other ingredients can be added to the soup, but the two best Jjigae is kimchi and sundubu.
The latter one is made with a soft type of tofu and has now become a standard offering in many American restaurants. A reminder to vegetarians though: the tofu stew contains shellfish and seafood which gives the soup that sweet and salty flavor.
Hwe. In Korea, there are beef lovers, and there are fish lovers. With this dish, let the Pescetarians rejoice. Where you would find sundubu Jjigae, there also will be Hwe. This dish is the Korean version of sashimi but with slight differences. For one, Hwe is sliced from a live fish. The meat cannot get fresher than that. Such style will retain the almost crunchy texture of freshness.
As for the other parts of the fish, they’re boiled into a maeuntang soup which is spicy, making sure nothing goes to waste. The Koreans have a different style when eating raw fish. They eat Hwe by dipping it in chogochujang, then wrapping it in lettuce leaves. Experience the taste of raw fish in Houston by dropping by Dadami with your circle of friends.
Eating Those Famous Korean Side Dishes
Dining for the first time in Korean restaurants will be an experience. Of course, you would be expecting that ever-delightful dish, kimchi. But there is more than that with Korea. The country’s food is healthy and delicious. Familiarize yourself with some of its side dishes before venturing inside the restaurant. They will be your first encounter. A collection of side dishes called banchan will be presented to you, and this will be the start of a great journey into Korean food.
Traditional Kimchi (fermented cabbage) The most popular of the condiments which are technically called baechu kimchi. All Koreans love this dish, and they have it on their tables on almost all meals. It’s made from napa cabbage which has been fermented with seasonings like Korean chili and salt.
Kkakdugi Kimchi (fermented radish) Kimchi with a slightly sour flavor because it is made from radishes. It’s less popular than traditional kimchi but is crunchier.
Musaengchae Kimchi (shredded fermented radish) This is the same as Kkakdugi Kimchi, but instead of being chopped, the radish is shredded. Also, this radish kimchi comes in several varieties of spiciness, from sweet and mild to sharp and hot.
Kongnamul (bean sprouts) This is the most popular among the namul family. Kongnamul is made from soybean sprouts. They are mild but still pack a lot of flavors.
Sigeumchi Namul (spinach) Same namul but with spinach instead of bean sprouts. Like kongnamul, sigeumchi namul is made with the same seasonings, so it is also relatively mild.
Myeolchi Bokkeum (dried anchovies) In Korea, bobbeum refers to small dishes that are stir-fried with a sauce. With Myeolchi bokkeum, it involves whole dried anchovies stir-fried in a sauce. In case you don’t relish foods with faces, you can skip this one.
Dubu-Jorim (tofu) This should be a vegetarian’s dream regarding Korean food. The tofu is simmered in a mix with soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and green onions. Spiciness can vary but is usually mild. Use soy sauce as a dipping mixture.
Gyeran Jjim (egg casserole) This is Korean quiche, or close enough. An egg is the main ingredient, and the dish has a very fluffy consistency.
Korean-style potato salad. Except for the “Korean” in its name, it might as well be “American.” The dish also consists of the same ingredients: potatoes, mayo, eggs and sometimes, vegetables.
How Do Koreans Eat Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner?
Comparing meals from different countries can be surprising. Take for instance America where breakfast involves cereals, toast and spreads, and season fruits that are available. For Korea, the usual fare would be seaweed soup, turnip, and fish, served with kimchi, and rice.
Most Koreans are always on-the-go during the daytime. You would find them having their lunch ordered from “pojangmacha,” a street cart selling food items. Or an “ajima,” a Korean Mother cafe. Or a “shik dang,” which is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where you can order soup, noodles, kimbab and any food. Ever tried deep fried squid? Ask, try and enjoy.
BBQ is often the fare for dinner in a Korean BBQ House, a Chicken Hof or pub. You should experience their sauces. They are as amazing as they are exotic. Preferably, have it with a partner. Try dinner at least once where you would find yourself cutting your meat with a pair of scissors, cooking the meat, and laying it on lettuce or other leaves. Then dress it up with kimchi, fried garlic in sesame oil, bean sprouts and any other combinations that have been laid out on the table.
For Koreans, use the spoons with rice and everything else with chopsticks. For yourself, the sticks could be quite intimidating but getting used to it would spell the difference. It’s even harder for Koreans using chopsticks because they prefer slick metal chopsticks rather than the bamboo or wooden ones. In a way, it solves the recycling problem. Korea is an environmentally friendly country but wrapping each cookie contained inside a cookie box is utterly frustrating.