I often label Korean food as one of the significant plus points to living in Korea in my posts, but I am regularly amazed how so many people come back to me asking me in puzzlement how I can justify this. I have also had a number of people state that Korean food lacks variety. I simply cannot understand this; in my opinion Korean food is delicious, varied, and super-healthy. It is going to be difficult to list everything, so I am going to stick with some of the things I like best and hopefully some of you might be so kind to add your favourites to my comments section below (wait until I finish part 2 though!).
These are the Korean foods that everybody should be well-aware of, even the newcomers.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) - is still one of my favourites as it is packed with lots of different vegetables so it is healthy, fairly cheap, quick to prepare, and delicious. It is fast-food Korea style. Bibimbap is also extremely varied and different ingredients are combined in different places. Fresh seafood bibimbap is often enjoyed in coastal regions, which varies from place to place according to what is caught (I recently had Sea Urchin bibimbap in Geoje Island, for example). It can also come sizzling in a stone bowl or on a flat plate and is generally a favourite with most foreign visitors. If you want the best bibimbap in Korea, head to Jeonju in Jeollabukdo.
Kimchi Jiggae (김치찌개) - this has become a regular feature of my diet, even when I was back home in England, as it is actually very easy to cook at home (although a little tricky to cook really well). All you basically need is Kimchi and water really and obviously other ingredients add to the flavour. My father in-law always cooks this dish extremely well, often adding the cheapest and fattiest bits of pork to make the flavour even better.
Kimbap (김밥) - cheap, delicious, comes in a few different varieties, and it is portable; who doesn't like kimbap? I used to make it for lunch in England and take it with me before the start of my cricket matches. When I handed it to friends to try, they looked at me like I had given them a piece of dog poo to eat. But once they tried it, they almost always liked it. An older, wiser friend told me, "You know, I think you can't not like that." I agree.
Doen Jang Jiggae (된장찌개) - there are a few key ingredients that pop-up in many Korean dishes; kimchi, gochu jang (chili paste), and doen jang (fermented soy bean paste). Like miso soup in Japan, but with a stronger flavour, this soup is often served with or after some other foods at various restaurants. Again, this is another easy one to cook at home and I personally like adding a little gochu jang when I make it for a little spicy flavour. A very simple and delicious soup.
Korean Porridge (죽) - is made with rice, not oats, in various varieties and different ingredients. Doctors always prescribe this when you are feeling poorly as it is usually not spicy and doesn't have strong flavours or fermented ingredients, making it easy on your stomach. As always, very healthy food.
Korean BBQ (갈비 Galbi) - I have hardly met anyone who doesn't like going out to eat at a Korean BBQ restaurant, whether it be pork or beef. My personal favourite is Dakgalbi (chicken), which is not so much BBQ, but the cooking of chicken in a spicy sauce on a hot pan. There are, however, many other varieties of Korean BBQ, as well.
The Non-Spicy Alternatives
Something that I hear often from many foreigners living in Korea is that Korean food is basically one flavour and that is spicy. Therefore, if you don't like spicy food, you're screwed. While many of my personal favourite foods in Korea are indeed spicy, I would have to disagree that this is all there is and I managed to find a great many alternatives for my very spicy food-shy mother to try when she visited last year. I have in fact already listed a number of them in porridge, BBQ, doen jang jiggae, and kimbap, but here are a few more:
Samgyetang (삼계탕) - This is basically a whole chicken in a pot of warm soup and rice, stuffed with various things to add to the flavour. It is supposed to be extremely healthy and is most widely eaten on the hottest days of summer. Even though the meat almost falls off the bone, I do however, find it a bit of a drag to eat with chopsticks and a spoon, but it is very tasty and healthy nonetheless.
Miyeok Guk (미역국 Seaweed Soup) - also known as "Birthday Soup" because it is usually given as breakfast on many Korean people's birthdays. I believe this is because mothers often eat this while carrying their child and after labour as it is thought to be very beneficial for mother and baby. My wife often talks about making sure she is in Korea after giving birth so her mother can take care of her and cook her seaweed soup. I would say that this soup is a bit of a grower in the taste department, however, and probably doesn't suit the foreign tongue straight-away.
Note: Not to be eaten before a big exam as the seaweed's slippery nature will cause your grade to slide downwards!
Kal Guk-Su (칼국수) - These are knife-cut wheat flour noodles, usually served in a soup, hence the name ("Kal" means knife in Korean). Not usually spicy, and in many varieties to suit individual tastes, is especially famous in Myeongdong in Seoul. Often served with Mandoo.
Mandoo (만두) - Korea's version of Dim Sum (Chinese Dumplings) are also not usually spicy, although Kimchi mandoo can be. Good to snack on or as a bit of a side dish. Personally, I like the huge mandoo that some shops specialise in that are really delicious dunked in soy sauce.
The Cheap and Delicious and Street-Foods
Korea doesn't quite match-up to somewhere like Thailand when it comes to street food, where you really can get anything from a snack to full meals with great variety that is cheap, healthy and tasty. In Korea, I consider street food as more of a snack and I am sure Koreans do to. Still, I really enjoy most of the street food and the small shops that sell a quick tasty bite to eat, especially in winter. Let's start with my favourite:
Sweet and Spicy Chicken (닭강정) - usually found in small shops and sold in a cup. Sometimes I feel like I could step over my own mother to get a cup of these crunchy chicken pieces. They can be fiery hot, but also sweet at the same time, so I often have a small cup as kind of a dessert after a meal. Occasionally, my school serve them for lunch and I become seriously excited - along with my students. However, one day a teacher decided to load my tray with southern fried chicken instead (as he thinks I am a spicy food shy foreigner). I thanked him for the sentiment, but actually felt like beating him to death with my food tray as I felt compelled to eat at least some of his fried chicken, which left less room for the 닭강정.
Spicy Rice Cakes (떡볶이) - easy to like and again is sweet and spicy. Is a favourite with high school students, so if you really want to find the best places to eat this ask some students, they will know. 떡볶이 really comes into its own when you combine it with some deep-fried squid, sweet potato, and those little noodle rolls (I don't know what to call them in English).
Fish Cake (오뎅) - good for a quick snack and a winter-warmer with the fishy hot broth it is cooked and kept in. Not spicy and dipped in soy sauce it is a favourite with many other foreigners I know.
Red Bean Fish-Shaped Snack (붕어빵) - crispy sweet-battered coating with sweet red bean paste inside, really great in winter.
Sweet Korean Pancake (호떡) - sometimes comes with a few nuts in the middle, again really nice when the weather is a bit chilly.
Sweet Red Bean Dumpling (국화빵) - I have to admit, I was very sceptical of the widespread use of red bean in stuff when I first arrived here, but it has really warmed on me; it is a little healthier than just loading everything with sugar or jam and it is not too sweet. This particular one is my favourite and is similar to 붕어빵 but less crunchy, a bit eggier and a bit doughier.
For a Great Lunch
Rice Soup (국밥) - having real difficulty getting a good translation of some of these foods into English, so this is not as bland as it sounds in English. 국밥 comes in many different varieties and, as always, is usually very healthy. I like my local 콩나물국밥 restaurant (bean sprout rice soup, much better than it sounds) and 순대국밥 (noodles stuffed in pig intestine in rice soup, again this really tastes much better than it sounds).
Cold Noodles (냉면) - this can come in a few varieties, but the spicy one is my favourite (비빔냉면). This is mainly eaten in summer, for obvious reasons in that it is cold.
Koreanised Chinese Food Spicy Seafood Noodles and Black Sauce Noodles (짬뽕 and 짜장면)
Very popular in Korea and is often ordered as a delivery for lunch. The former gets a real sweat on and the later tastes really good when you mix the left-over sauce with rice.
The Cheap Cuts that are so Delicious
In many countries in the world the history of some of the most popular foods has been intertwined with poverty. People living in hard times tried to make the cheapest and most abundant ingredients go a long way and flavour them to make them taste good. This is how many of Korea's most sought after and tasty dishes today came about.
Pork/Beef Spine Potato Soup (감자탕) - I have to admit that I find it more than a little fiddly and frustrating trying to scrap away the meagre amount of meat hiding between the vertebrae in this dish, but the broth is truly delicious. Like a little boy, I usually let my wife take all the meat off the bone for me, but I could just as easily simply eat without bothering with the meat.
Pig Intestine - this was once very cheap but now, due to its popularity, not so much. I have never been too keen on this as there is a definite flavour of poop in it that I just can't seem to like that much.
Chicken Feet (닭발) - again, like the pig intestine this was once very cheap but now is a little expensive, although still very affordable. Spicy chicken feet is one of my favourites and has a chewy, crunchy texture that is quite unique.
Sundae (순대) - most commonly pig intestine on the outside with a filling, but when ordered at a street food stall, comes in a few different varieties, usually the leftover parts of a pig or cow, i.e. the heart, lungs, intestine, liver and kidneys. Many people, especially foreign visitors can't stomach this, but although I am a vegetarian back in England I have no problem tucking into this as long as there is a little bit of samjang (common Korean table sauce 쌈장) to hand.
Pigs Trotters (족발) - often served sliced, I have to admit I have never tried it, but my wife assures me that it is amazing.
Again, you can see that all these foods are derived from the parts of animals that are normally thrown away. Also, even going back not that long ago Korean people could not afford to waste any food at all and this is where this admirable attitude of not wasting food comes from. I have noticed that there is not much of a sense of humour about food wastage either in Korea. On many occasions, Koreans I have known have turned their noses up at food fights on Western TV shows and films and festivals like La Tomatina in Spain. On the whole, Koreans certainly do take their food very seriously and appear to have a genuine love for it and this is something that I share with them.
Korean people also harvest and eat a wide variety of foods, many of which Westerners find repulsive, but again I think this is a admirable trait as we really can't afford to waste any sources of food in this day and age. In part 2, I will start with some of the more ambitious Korean delicacies, yet another reason to enjoy Korean food culture, this time though, perhaps not for the flavour.