Expand your mind and tastebuds…
Korean cuisine hasn’t been popular for all that long, but in a short time its impact has been huge. Before moving to a small town in the rural center of Korea I had only tried the ubiquitous Kimchi, and that was at a Wagamamas in Birmingham. Now, my friends confess to eating Korean food for lunch often and a Korean BBQ restaurant just popped up in my 40,000 person English town! Korean food is quickly gaining traction and I’m going to help you to do it right.
We’ll start with the basics.
1. DOLSOT BIBIMBAP
Bibimbap is based around that one food all Koreans absolutely love. No, I’m not talking about Kimchi, I’m talking about a humble bowl of rice. But of course, it’s not just any old bowl of rice; dolsot bibimbap is the sexy, hot stone variety.
Bibimbap means mixed-rice and it’s meant to be literal. It starts with a piping hot stone bowl filled with steaming white rice, on top of which assorted vegetables (differing from restaurant to restaurant) are lovingly placed. It is then garnished with a healthy dollop of spicy gochujang and a raw egg. The rest, dear reader, is up to you. I urge you to wait just a moment for the rice to crisp up on the sides of the bowl and, with a spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, mix it all up with hungry ferocity.
This dish is simple, but incredibly satisfying and quintessentially Korean.
Check out SORTEDfood’s take. You can try it at home.
2. KIMCHI JIGGAE
No ingredient is more famous, more loved or more hated, than Kimchi. If you’ve tried it before you’ll know it’s potent stuff but what you might not realise is that Kimchi is not the same everywhere and there are some very bad versions. The public school Kimchi for instance, made in tasteless abundance, is usually bad. So if you’ve tried Korea’s spicy, fermented cabbage and not liked it, I urge you to try again in its many forms.
The dish that finally helped me fall head over spoon for Kimchi is Kimchi Jiggae, that is Kimchi stew. The fermented taste is softened through the cooking of the Kimchi and its spicy taste competes with the added heat of chilli paste and fresh chillies. A soybean paste brings the umami vibes, and pork belly adds a meaty depth of flavour. Served with a bowl of plain white rice as the foundation to the hot red stew, this is one of the most traditional and comforting dishes around.
Of course, I just admitted to 3 different levels of spice in one dish, so this is not for the faint hearted.
Korean BBQ is the food that seems to have translated best into the Western restaurant scene and I think there is one main reason for that. It’s fun, plain and simple.
Paying to cook your own food in a restaurant may seem counterintuitive to some, but there is such a pleasure in BBQ-ing a perfect piece of meat and constructing a little bite of perfection with the accompaniments of lettuce, sauces, dips and adorably sliced vegetables. The communal style of eating, with one big grill and plenty of side dishes for everyone, is also so integral to Korean life that you are totally being cultural as you stuff your face with meat.
The one type of Korean BBQ you simply cannot miss out on is Samgyeopsal, or 3 layered pork. The pork belly, cut into thin strips, cooks in layers; first the meat browns, then the fat melts and caramelises and that tiny, scary looking piece of skin crisps and curls in the heat. It is a perfect blend of textures and is offset so well by the fresh green leaves. It almost feels healthy to stuff your BBQ-ed meat into salad rather than a burger bun! And do not forget the fried garlic and sesame salt dip, for a truly authentic experience.
Samgyeopsal is traditionally eaten with Soju, Korean rice wine, which is said to cut through the fat and help with digestion. Koreans also love to drink. A lot.
Move over Colonel Sanders, Korean Fried Chicken is where it’s at! Seriously, I didn’t really understand fried chicken until I had it in Korea.
Why is it so unbelievably good? I think it has something to do with the fact that they slow-boil the chicken first so that it is incredibly moist and only then do they deep-fry it. It also might just be magic… who can really say? The traditionally fried and crispy style is fantastic, but also try out the super spicy Yangnyum chicken and garlic chicken versions too.
Just like with Samgyeopsal and Soju, the Korean food scene has also married chicken and beer (maekju) in such perfect matrimony that they have their own celebrity couple style name fusion: chimaek. If you can get your hands on it then try, try, try!
5. PAT BING SU
Korea very much has a sweet tooth and when summer rolls around, there is nothing better than digging into a bowl of Korea’s finest dessert, Pat Bing Su.
This wonderful dish consists of shaved ice, soft rice cakes, a healthy dollop of red bean and a sprinkling of crushed or powdered nuts. Some places will add a scoop of ice cream but the best ones come with a side of sweet, creamy milk to pour on top. The coolness, the multitude of textures and the sweet, sweet red bean make a phenomenal combination that I’ve never found elsewhere.
If you’re feeling adventurous, there are 100 more varieties including chocolate shaved ice topped with a mountain of Oreos and a decidedly healthier mountain of melon balls. Either way, it will usually be the size of your head so bring some friends!
So there you have it. 5 very different dishes that should set you up with a lifelong love of Korean cuisine and one very happy belly.
Jade is currently living in Hanoi, Vietnam enjoying a whole new culinary adventure but first caught the expat life bug in South Korea. She enjoys eating, hiking and beer drinking, not necessarily in that order. You can follow her journey at journey-count.com and devour foodporn on her Instagram @jade_house.