Korean food, while not as famous worldwide as neighbouring cuisines like Chinese, Japanese and Thai, is still an incredibly diverse and seriously tasty cuisine. During the three and a half years we spent living in Korea, we learned that food plays an important part in Korean traditions and some Korean dishes are even believed to have medicinal purposes; male stamina being one of these! And anyone who has ever met a Korean person will most likely have heard about the healing properties of kimchi!
Certain Korean dishes are prepared for holidays and traditional ceremonies such as the mass-consumption of songpyeon during Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday. Other dishes are eaten at certain times, or even days, of the year; for example, on April 14th aka Black Day, singles gather together and eat jjajangmyeon or noodles with black bean sauce. This is kind of like an anti-Valentine’s Day where single people who didn’t get a gift on Valentine’s Day or White Day (March 14th – a totally made up east Asian holiday celebrated in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, where women get gifts, usually chocolates, as they are expected to give gifts to men on Valentine’s Day) gather together in the blackness of their depression of not getting chocolates or having a romantic partner the preceding months!
With all of these traditions and customs surrounding Korean food, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Koreans are real foodies and often certain restaurants become famous for just one particular dish.
At first, some of the spicy fermented flavours can be very harsh on a Korean food virgin’s palate, ahem Kimchi ahem! But, once you get accustomed to the tastes and textures, you’ll be hooked! Korean cuisine is definitely quite meat intensive but there are plenty of vegetarian Korean foods and vegetarian- friendly dishes to try. While most people know about Korean barbeque, which we ate more than our fair share of during our time living in Korea, we have since become pescatarians and wanted to highlight tastier, healthier, lesser known and less meat heavy dishes that can be found throughout the Korean peninsula.
Here are some of the staples we loved during our time in Korea, some of which we’d choose over an Irish dinner any day!
Kongnamul-gukbap (콩나물국 밥) – Bean Sprout Soup With Rice
This soup is said to cure hangovers and we put that to the test on many a Sunday in Korea! Obviously, it can also be enjoyed when you’re in full health and it’s also really good in winter if you have a cold, or just are cold! It’s a bean sprout soup with rice, usually made from dried anchovy stock with garlic and green onion. It can be spicy with red pepper flakes or you can ask for it mild if spice is not your thing. If you do like it spicy you should say “mae-un”( 매운) when ordering as sometimes the red pepper flakes are left out for non-natives – there’s an assumption that us non-Koreans can’t handle the heat!
Usually, it’s served with a part cooked egg on the side and some ‘kim’ (김) or dried seaweed which you can use to make little rice-beansprout-egg wraps. It’s customary to spoon out some of the rice and broth in with the egg to make a kind of rice porridge. Often times Kongnamul-gukbap restaurants are 24 hour. We’ve also have seen a whole egg served alongside where you crack the egg into your soup and let it cook a little before stirring. Korean cuisine is all about DIY and if you’re unsure what to do, restaurant staff will always help you out! This is one of our all-time favourite Korean foods. And not just because it’s a great cure – it’s really tasty!
Kimchi-jjigae (김치 찌개) – Kimchi Stew
This is a stew (jjigae) made from anchovy broth and the famous Korean side dish kimchi (pickled fermented cabbage), seasoned with chilli paste( gochujang) or chilli powder (gochu garu). Common vegetables include spring onion, scallions and garlic. Sometimes there is pork inside but you can ask for this to be left out – just say “gogi baego” which means “without meat”. It comes in a traditional Korean dish called a dolsot (돌솥) and is still bubbling as you tuck in. It’s so good and the spice warms you up during Korean winters. As usual in Korea, rice and side dishes (banchan) usually kimchi and danmuji (pickled radish) accompany. Of course, what you need on the side of your kimchi stew is more kimchi!
Sundubu-jjigae (순두부 찌개) – Spicy Soft Tofu Stew
This is a variant of kimchi-jjigae with soft tofu (dubu) added. It contains the same basic ingredients; with tofu being the main feature and sometimes mushrooms. It can come with seafood, usually clams, or meat, usually pork. An egg is added right before serving so this dish has a double protein hit which makes it a great choice for a quick dinner after the gym. It’s also served in a dolsot.
Kimbap (김밥) – Korean Seaweed Roll
Kimbap, literally “seaweed rice”, is Korea’s version of futomaki sushi but where Japanese sushi has rice vinegar, gimbap has sesame oil making it that bit tastier. White rice is rolled in dried seaweed with vegetables, usually cucumbers, spinach, carrots and danmuji (pickled radish). Protein ingredients are usually fish, spam, processed crab meat, cooked egg and/or seasoned beef. Our favourite was tuna or chamchi Kimbap (참치김밥). It’s filled with tuna, marinated sesame leaf, and mayonnaise as well as vegetables. Usually, the spam or crab doesn’t feature in tuna kimbap but kimbap is usually made up at a deli-style counter so you can point at what you don’t want in your roll and say “ego baygo juseyo” (without this please).
Kimbap is a popular snack food or light lunch and is often the first choice to bring on hiking trips because it is so handily wrapped in tin foil when you get it to go. It’s kind of like our version of a sandwich or filled baguette. You’ll find 24-hour gimbap shops (Kimbap World ‘김밥 나라’ and Kimbap Heaven ‘김밥 천국’, the two most common chains) on almost every street corner in Korea which serve not only gimbap but a range of other dishes.
Triangle or ‘samgak’ (three-sided) Kimbap (삼각김밥) is a triangle-shaped gimbap sold in all convenience stores with a variety of fillings. Again, tuna mayo or spicy tuna were our favourites.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) – Rice Mixed With Vegetables
This is one of the most famous Korean dishes after barbeque; it’s a signature dish and there are plenty of restaurants that specialise in this humble meal. Basically, it’s Korean fish and chips – but a whole lot healthier. Bibimbap literally means “mixed rice” and it’s made up of warm white rice in a silver bowl covered with various vegetables; carrots, dried seaweed, cucumbers, sprouts, radish, kimchi and topped with gochujang (red chilli pepper paste). Sometimes sliced beef is added so be prepared with the phrase “gogi baego” if you don’t want meat inside. Bibimbap is topped with a sometimes raw but more commonly fried egg. Some places will give you the red chilli paste separately if you want to control the spice level of your meal. The ingredients should be stirred together thoroughly just before eating.
Dolsot bibimbap is essentially the same dish but served in a hot stone bowl, keeping it warm. Before the rice is put in, the bowl is coated with sesame oil which causes the rice to continue cooking and it goes all crunchy and stick to the sides of the dolsot dish – this is our bibimbap of choice, so much better than the original!
Janchi-guksu (잔치 국수) – Noodle soup with vegetables
Janchi-guksu is a delicious noodle soup dish made from wheat flour noodles in a light anchovy broth with dasima, or kombu, a kelp widely eaten in East Asia. This dish is served with a sauce made from sesame oil, soy sauce, and small amounts of chilli pepper powder and scallions. Thinly sliced fried egg, seaweed, and zucchini are added on top of the dish as garnishes. The name derives from the word janchi, literally “feast” or “banquet”. This dish is traditionally eaten to celebrate special occasions such as Korean weddings – which are quite a different experience to Irish weddings! The word guksu means “noodles” and noodles symbolise longevity – in both life and in marriage. Because these noodles are traditionally eaten at weddings, the expression “When are you going to treat us to us guksu?” is a way of asking “When are you getting married?”. In fact, this dish is such a prolific symbol of Korean weddings that wedding days are often described as “a day to eat guksu”.
Hoedeopbab (회덮밥) – Raw fish with rice and vegetables
Hoedeopbap is a variation of bibimbap and is made up of steamed rice mixed with sliced or cubed fresh ‘hoe’ (pronounced ‘hway’) or raw fish, similar to sashimi, various vegetables such as lettuce, cucumber and sesame leaves, sesame oil, and chogochujang (a sauce made from vinegar, gochujang, and sugar). The fish used for making hoedeopbap is generally either halibut, sea bass, rockfish, tuna, salmon, whitefish, or sometimes octopus and each bowl of rice can contain either one or multiple varieties of seafood. Just like bibimbap, it’s all mixed up together before eating and it’s really, really good!
Jangeo gui (장어구이) – Grilled Eel / Eel Barbeque
When we decided to come back to Korean for a month to housesit one of our biggest concerns was the smells of barbequed meat wafting out onto the streets and tempting us back to a fully carnivorous lifestyle! That, with all the fried chicken and beer places, make Korea difficult country to be a vegetarian in but luckily for us, we still eat seafood! I remembered a trip with co-teachers from the last time we taught English in Korea where we had eel barbeque! Phew!
It’s the same deal as pork or beef barbeque, you usually need to order at least two portions of eel, it comes out raw and you cook it yourself at your table. The best places have actual coal barbeques set into barrels.
All the usual side dishes accompany; raw garlic, lettuce leaves, sesame leaves, kimchi, a soup, ssamjang (a spicy red pepper garlic sauce) and the eel barbeque includes raw ginger too because, well, it’s fish I suppose. You should cut up your eel into smaller bite-sized pieces, if it has not already been, while it’s cooking. When it’s cooked wrap each little piece of eel up in a lettuce leaf with whatever else you want, garlic, ginger and ssamjang is a great combination, and pop it into your mouth. Repeat until full or all the eel is gone. If you’re not full, order more! This dish is usually enjoyed with bokbunja, Korean black raspberry wine, as eel is one of the things that’s good for male stamina… maybe because it’s snake shaped?
Isaac Toast (이삭 토스트 pronounced “ee-sag tos-eu-teu”) – Cheese Toast Sandwich
Okay, while technically this is a Korean take on a basic sandwich there is something slightly addictive about it. I knew I had become a bit Korean-ised when one day back in Ireland I was a little hungover and craving an Isaac cheese toast instead of a typical breakfast roll (basically, a baguette stuffed with an Irish breakfast!). When I described it to my sister she looked at me like I was gone a bit mad!
Maybe I can do better here. It’s two slices of white bread which are grilled on a flat grill with lard/butter/I’m not really sure what, with a fried egg with sweetcorn kernels in the egg, they add an easy-singles slice of cheese and wait for it, a kiwi sauce! It all melts into deliciousness, served wrapped in paper! They have loads of different kinds of toasts on the menu, ham and cheese, shrimp, bulgogi, bacon, chicken but the cheese one is the best and I’ve only ever tried the ham and cheese before and I even used to order just cheese before I gave up meat! It’s so cheap too coming in at less than €2! Score! Isaac toast shops are all over Korea and it’s often touted as a must try if you visit Seoul and they have even opened branches in Hong Kong and LA. It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings when an old Korean woman opened her first sandwich street food stall outside of Chungjoo University in Seoul to make ends meet when her husband was diagnosed with a severe health condition.
And after all that virtual tempting of your taste buds you might be craving something sweet – while dessert is normally not a huge deal in Asia, don’t worry, Korean cuisine has got you covered!
Patbingsu (팥빙수) – Shaved frozen milk with red bean with various toppings
Patbingsu or sometimes just ‘bingsu’ is a traditional Korean dessert with shaved frozen milk and red bean with various toppings. Traditionally these toppings are tteok (Korean rice cakes made from glutinous rice flour), red beans, sesame flour, and soy flour.
Nowadays there are many variations and adaptations of the traditional bingsu with toppings including ice cream, yoghurt, berries, fruit, chocolate, pieces of cheesecake, nuts, sauces – the works! But our favourite is still the traditional black sesame bingsu which is made up of shaved frozen milk with red beans, ddeok, some dried jujube, topped with black sesame flour, soy flour and a little jug of condensed milk to be poured over the top before eating! Mouthwateringly good! Or as they say in Korea – 맛있다! Masshittda!
Korean Cuisine; So Much More Than Meat BBQ
Korean cuisine is so much more than the galbi, barbequed ribs, and fried chicken it’s famous for. It’s incredibly diverse and there are so many variations of lots of the dishes mentioned above. We’ve only touched on some of the vast spread available and we could have written an entire post, or even a book, on the different kinds of side dishes alone! You could spend a lifetime eating your way through Korea and what a culinary adventure that would be. With that said, it’s dinnertime and we’re going to find some tasty, spicy Korean goodness.
What are your favourite Korean dishes? Anything we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
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