Korean food–I’m not going to lie and say I love it. There are some things I really enjoy (tteokbokki) and others I actively avoid (nearly all seafood), but as the months roll by, I’m finding more and more things that I like.
The first thing I ever ate in Korea was a dish called cold noodles, or naengmyeon. The name is pretty self explanatory. Cold noodles (generally buckwheat) in broth with crushed ice. I’ve had them with beef strips, various vegetables and onions, hard boiled egg, and a variety of spices/pastes added for flavor.
If you’ve ever experienced a summer with 80-90% humidity, you can understand the appeal of a giant metal bowl full of ice cold broth. It’s like the Korean answer to a salad.
The lack of crisp, crunch, and fresh have been my major issues with Korean food. Produce tends to be expensive here and in my opinion, poor quality. It’s also rarely served raw. My school lunches will occasionally have a “salad” with them but that’s a meager portion of cubed vegetables drenched in a mayonaisse-y type dressing. When vegetables are in dishes, it’s normally shredded and far from the key ingredient. I do love noodles and rice, but I want to really CHEW something, sink my teeth into it, etc. There’s just something really satisfying about biting into a crisp bunch of salad greens or a crunchy raw carrot or a chewy sandwich and I miss that a lot.
There are however three plants that I’m finding myself eating a lot of here that definitely were not part of my diet back home–lotus root, pumpkin, and seaweed. Lotus root, if you’ve never had it, is starchy like a potato but more the consistency of a pear.
I’ve had it fried, stir fried, mixed into food, nearly raw in a bento box…. I will never turn down an opportunity to eat some lotus root. Pumpkins aren’t the huge orange gourd that you use to make jack-o-lanterns here. They’re green and about the size of a softball and baked. I see pumpkin used a lot as a filling for pastries, stewed and stirred into porridges (delicious!), and eaten in slices. Seaweed seems to come in two main forms: laver ( dried sheets) or geem (dried thin strips that you can sprinkle on food or stir into soup). There is also a really thick version (like the heart of a leaf of romaine lettuce) that is also dried and has some sugar on it. I have had it in soups before in a non-dried form, but most seaweed soups are in fish broth, which I do my best not to consume. The super fishy smell is just too much for me and I’ve had two mild cases of seafood-related food poisoning since I came here in August. The only amendments to this are fish balls (my favorite is the Japanese version with little bits of potato and spices), sometimes fish cakes, shrimp flavored potato chips, and almost always squid. Eating tentacles is not for the squeamish!
A good non-fishy way to eat fish is to try out bungeoppang. They’re a delicious fish shaped pastry filled with either sweet red bean paste or a creamed banana. They’re about the size of the palm of my hand and available from street vendors only in the winter.
Street food is really popular in Korea and perfect if you want a cheap, quick meal (think$1-3). Earlier in the entry, I mentioned tteokbokki, which is cylindrical rice cakes in a spicy red sauce with pieces of vegetable and fish cake. Its consistency is more of a stew than a soup and you can get the vendors to chop up pieces of whatever else you order (squid legs, fried vegetables, kimchi pancakes, fried hard boiled eggs, spring rolls… endless possibilities) and stir it in. It’s a very filling winter meal.
Rice cake is actually a pretty generic term. There are filled rice cakes that are for desserts, there are ones eaten only at certain holidays, they can be fried, steamed, the size of a marble or the size of an orange.
I prefer the savory version of most rice cakes to the sweet ones, but it is definitely not a try one and you’ve tried ’em all situation. This may not quite classify itself as a rice cake, but glutinous rice doughnuts (can be filled, plain, or soaked in honey) are one of my preferred ways to ingest rice flour.
Same goes for kimchi, which is the national dish of Korea. Most commonly, it is a dish of fermented napa cabbage with red chili paste, salt, sugar, onions, and fish sauce. It is eaten as a side dish (aka banchan) at every single meal and considered to be a great health food to Koreans. Honestly, I don’t get what’s so healthy about it, but it’s generally best to just go with the flow in Korea. My favorite version is ggakdugi, which is cubed daikon radish. Others I see a lot of and enjoy are mung bean sprout, cucumber, and scallion. Spiciness and ingredients used depend on your location in Korea and most households and restaurants make their own. You make love kimchi at one place and hate it at the next.
Kimchi is so popular it has even taken on form as a main dish, which is normally a place reserved for rice. Kimchijigae is a kimchi stew with diced onions, scallions, tofu (not just a health food here and often eaten in dishes alongside meat), and either pork, beef, or seafood. Sometimes you’ll be served a raw egg with soups to be dropped into the HOT broth before eating. This is something I really enjoy doing no matter what kind of soup it is but I find particularly appealing with kimchijigae. Eggs are a major protein source in Korea and I love a fried one a-top a plate of kimchi fried rice.
Dishes like kimchi stew and kimchi fried rice can often be found at what’s called a kimbap shop. Kimbap is a cheaper, more portable version of sushi, where cooked rice (called bap in Korean), vegetables like carrots, cucumbers and pickled radishes, and meat or seafood are all rolled up into sheets (laver) of seaweed. It’s often processed meats similar to Spam or fish cakes but it is delicious and filling to boot. Kimbap shop is the destination for an inexpensive meal with friends. They also offer a variety of ramen dishes, other noodles, dumplings (called mandu), omelets, soups, and tonkatsu.
Tonkatsu is a breaded and fried pork cutlet, usually served in a set with rice or noodles, a shredded cabbage salad or other side dishes. It’s a huge meal that can often be shared between two friends, which is an important part of Korean cuisine. One almost never eats alone and food often comes in sharing portions for 2 or 3 people. Sharing food and simple acts like pouring your table mate’s water are considered signs of friendship. My friend Anthony, who is from Rhode Island originally, introduced me to a grilled meat dish called galbi. We always get chicken, but there are other kinds available. You sit down at a table with a large, round cooking dish in the center and your server prepares the marinated meat and rice for you, which stays hot over the burner at your table. Since your table is the cooking stove, place of socialization, and your plate, I consider this the ultimate in Korean sharing dishes.
Speaking of grilled meats, this whole time you’ve probably been wondering when I’m going to discuss Korean barbecue. Well, I’m not. That will be its own separate entry, coming to you soon!
If there is anything else you’d like to know about Korea or my life in Asia, please let me know in the comments sections or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kansamnida!