Korean cuisine comes from long lasting traditions and recipes, which have been passed down from generation to generation and span the course of the centuries. Considering the fact that Korea has been around since the 3rd century, you can imagine how established these traditions are, even in modern Korean society…
Universally, it is often said that food is a way to gather with the people you love to share good times. In this respect, Korea is no different. Everyone is expected to be at the table for dinner and all share the same ban-chan, or side dishes; eat out of the same plates; eat soup out of the same bowl and drink soju out of the same glass on special occasions. In my experience, there is no “eat whenever you want” or “custom-made individual meal”. Meals are carefully thought out and you partake with your community. Such things took me a while to adjust to. Yet now more than ever, I see these customs as a emblems of community, of trust, and of the bonds of friendship.
Throughout my experience of living in Korea, I have learned much about sharing through the food culture and through my co-workers, home stay family members and friends I have met during my time here. One does not simply eat Korean food. With traditional foods and a traditional setting, come customs and tradition which accompany the meal. I will share with you a few ground rules (note: These rules are based on my experience. Ergo, some ‘rules’ may be specific to my situation, others more universal.)
- You are on time
- You wait for your seniors to eat first
- Before and after you eat: you thank the chef or whoever paid for your meal
- If you are the youngest at the table, it is your responsibility to pour water for your elders
- If you prop your chopsticks on a bowl or plate, never point them towards another living being. (Grandma tells me to point chopsticks towards another person, it to wish them ill.)
- Never stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice (Chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice is used during ancestral rites)
- A spoon and chopsticks should not be held in one hand
- Only use your spoon for rice and soups
- Try to avoid making noise with your chopsticks (or a lot of noise in general)
- When dining with elders, the lower-ranked person sits closest to the door.
- When drinking (or coughing) turn your head away from the elder at the table and cover your mouth
What have I missed? 😛
…Rules aside, today I want to focus on a basic introduction to Korean food.
I’ve been doing some digging into local restaurants, cook books, recipes and have questioning my host mom and host Grandma for months about Korean food. (In fact, Grandma and I now have a ritual where she will point to each side dish and say the Korean name and I will repeat. This has helped me momentously. We are all about culinary discovery!) Never before have I been so captivated, so curious and made to be so adventurous by the cuisine of a nation.
Korean food is so diverse from table to table and from region to region that there is no single definition of a Korean meal. As there are so many variants of dishes I will do my best to give you a crash course and some of the basics you should know in trying Korean food for yourself (This a crash course for beginners, so please bear with me!).
The backbone of a Korean meal:
In my town of Yuchon, Gandwon-do, on a typical day in a family setting, a meal will indisputably contain rice and kimchi accompanied with other ban-chan, or side dishes. These ban-chan are eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner, so preparation is relatively simply and ingredients are typically those that are found in the community garden.
Ban-chan: vast array of side dishes
Here is a sampler of ban-chan… Get yourself a piece of paper and put your ban-chan know-how to the test. What Korean side-dishes can you identify? No cheating!! You can see the answers afteeer !! 😛
Are you positive? 🙂 …..
Ready for some answers?….
- white kimchi (baek kimchi 배김치)
- cucumber pickles (oijangajji 오이장아찌)
- cubed radish kimchi, (kkakdugi 깍두기)
- black beans and garlic (kong and maneul콩과 마늘)
- fried and dried gochu peppers (gochu tigim 뒤김)
- sweet potato shoots with onion (gogumasun namul with yangpa 고구마순나물와 양파)
- Korean omelette roll (gaeran mari 계란 말이)
- Napa cabbage kimchi (tongbaechu-kimchi) *CLASSIC and iconic.*
How did you do? If you didn’t score 100%, never fear. 😀 You gave it your best shot, and even if you weren’t 100%, by the end of this article you will be one step closer to becoming a full-fledged Korea cuisine connaisseur. Hoorah for learning! ^-^
Before we move beyond the ban-chan, I want to site some of my personal side dishes that I have been able to enjoy with my home stay family.
- caramelized shrimp
- dried anchovies with nuts
- dried squid
- quail’s eggs
- perrilla seed cabbage
- sweet and sour bok choy
- braised baby potatoes
- soy bean sprouts
- gochu peppers with anchovies
Okay, as far as ban-chan are concerned, you need to know that there are hundreds of ban-chan and I’m sure that some haven’t even been discovered. My list is barely the tip of the ice burg. Dying to learn more? Well, you could always come visit me in Korea!! I could give you the grand culinary tour! Haha, if this request is not so reasonable, there are websites which document Korean food and side dishes ‘to a t’ and are definitely worth checking out. I frequently use these sites for recipes, to check for food names and for other interesting tidbits. For the Korea-foodie in you, check out the sites I link at the end of the article. I promise your taste buds won’t be disappointed 😉
- Kimbab: seaweed rice roll typically stuffed with veggies and/or meat
2.Bibimbab: sautéed in-season vegetables, beef and egg (sunny-side up) on a bed of freshly cooked rice
3.mandu– Korean dumpling typically filled with pork or beef, but also kimchi and vegetables from time to time.
4.tteokbboki: a spicy dish composed of cylinder-shaped rice cakes, fish cake, sweet red chilli sauce and spicy guchujang (pepper paste). One of my favorite Korean dishes!!! I could literally eat tteokbboki for days. A word of caution: if you don’t do spicy, proceed with caution! In Korean cuisine, if it’s red, then there’s a 99.9% chance that it’s spicy!
5.hae mul pajeon: a delicious seafood pancake often containing oysters, shrimp, clams, octopus, or squid. This melt-in-your-mouth pancake can be sold as street food or can accompany a meal.
6. samgyeopsal: Korean pork-belly bbq. Samgyeopsal is cooked on a grill at your table and accompanied by an assortment of side dishes.
7. makguksu: a buckwheat noodle dish topped with gojujang sesame seeds, cabbage and other vegetables. This dish (RED) tends to be quite spicy! As I live in Gangwon-do, I can’t end this blurb without saying that makguksu originated in the city of Chuncheon and every year, there is a festival held there where you can enjoy this dish….as well as the main attraction: dish #8
8. dakalbi: Chuncheon’s culinary claim to fame, this marinated chicken dish is a delicious fusion of sweet and spicy chicken, rice cake, cabbage, sweet potato, onion, perrilla leaves, garlic, gochujang (and cheese is another popular topper to this dish). Much like samgyeopsal, this dish is cooked on the table of the customer and is eaten fresh out of the pan. Spicy but delicious, I definitely recommend this dish to any first-time foodies in Korea. Specifically, visit the Myeondeog Dakalbi Street in Chuncheon for the best dakalbi. I swear you won’t be disappointed!
9.kimchi jjigae: or kimchi stew is often made with fermented kimchi, tofu and pork belly. It’s a common stew that accompanies many meals.
10. miyeokguk: this seaweed soup, often cooked with beef filet, is typically given to women who are pregnant, as an old superstition was that the slippery seaweed would give the women ease in birth. It is also eaten on birthdays to remind children of the pain they caused their mothers in coming into this world. Ergo, it has come to be known as ‘birthday soup.’ Superstition or not (you decide), this soup is a classic I felt needed to be included on my top ten list.
Time for Dessert!!
- Bingsu:think Korean shaved ice coupled with fresh, creamy icecream and topped off with deliciousness. Bingsu is typically a summer dessert. Pictured below: yummmy berry bingsu with… dessert toast? Yes! It’s called ‘injeolmi toast’ Toasted white bread with grilled rice cake in between, lightly drizzled with honey and generously dusted with powdered soybean, azuki and sesame seeds. Give it a try sometime! It’s a good treat to share with friends.
2. tteok: Korean rice cakes. You can find these almost anytime, anywhere in many shapes, forms, colors and variants. *A true classic!
3.hotteok: this typically fall-winter season dessert snack is filled with sweet sugar syrup and walnuty goodness on the inside. It’s typically found as street food and might be right up your alley as a Korean foodie. Delicious when venturing the cold outdoors, or when you just happen to need a sweet fix.
4.persimmon and hangwa (a traditional deep-fried snack) are popular in the fall and during the Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving season.
5. kkultarae, or dragon beard candy is composed of hundreds of strands of spun sugar and honey and often contains nuts on the inside. Delicious and reminiscent of cotton candy but, at the same time, it’s own entity. A sweet which should be tried at least once
How it’s made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgdTq_wXn8c
6. sikhye: Korean rice punch. Sweet and cold with floating rice, this drink is popular in the summertime, when you just need to cool down with something refreshing.
Although, I have much to discover as far as Korean cuisine is concerned (live octopus being a must-try before the end of the year) and have covered only some basic dishes, I hope that this brief introduction to Korean cuisine has stimulated your appetite and curiosity for the food of this beautiful country. I have shared with you some of my top favorites, but these are only a few!!! I encourage you to explore more dishes on your own and to try your hand at cooking some of them yourself. I myself have been compiling my favorite recipes in the hope of trying my hand at the art of cooking Korean style when I’m living on my own.. I’m old-school: recipe cards are my thing 😉
If you want a further explanation or recipes for Korean dishes, here are some websites I recommend. Sneak a peak!
Happy reading and Good eats to all. Thanks for reading and embrace that inner foodie in you!
Peace and Love,