It’s a sad fact that when most people think of “Asian” food, the first thing that pops into their head is probably a lineup of American-inspired Chinese dishes that could barely be considered Asian at all, possibly followed up by sushi and pad Thai. But Asia is a massive place, a vast wonderland of amazing culinary offerings, and Korea’s cuisine is finally beginning to get the recognition it deserves.
Diving into any unfamiliar cuisine can be a daunting task, so we’ll start with the essentials, and if you click the link to the slideshow you’ll learn about 10 must-know Korean foods. While Korean cuisine has evolved through the centuries and ingredients can obviously vary by province, over the years a national culinary identity has emerged, and it’s definitely one worth celebrating.
Korean cuisine is based on meats, vegetables, and rice, and popular accompanying ingredients include soy sauce, sesame oil, fermented bean paste (doenjang), fermented red chile paste (gochujang), garlic, ginger, and cabbage. Rice, soybeans, and mung beans are staple crops, and are utilized in thousands of ways: rice, for example, is turned into noodles, porridge, cakes, and wine; soybeans are turned into milk, tofu (dubu), and fermented pastes; and mung beans are utilized both for their sprouts and starch.
While beef is the most prized meat in Korea, chicken and pork are also very common. One of the most popular ways to eat meat in Korea is to marinate it and cook it on a tabletop grill; this is known as Korean barbecue, or gogigui. Many of the most exciting Korean restaurants in America revolve around Korean barbecue, and visiting one of these restaurants isn’t just a great way to acclimatize yourself to the flavors of Korea; it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
As for vegetables, they’re also an essential part of Korean cuisine. Napa cabbage (especially in the form of kimchi), Korean radish, sweet potato, potato, cucumber, spinach, mushrooms, lotus root, and wild greens are among the more popular vegetables, and they can be found raw, pickled, in stews, stir-frys, and in many other applications. Soups are also common (usually served as part of the main course instead of before the meal), as are fish and shellfish (either raw, grilled, broiled, or dried). Noodle dishes aren’t as prevalent in Korea as in many other parts of Asia, but a popular takeout staple is Chinese-inspired jajangmyeon, wheat noodles fried with black bean sauce, diced pork, and vegetables.
Obviously, this is just the beginning when it comes to Korean cuisine. Trying to explain a specific cuisine is like trying to explain rock-and-roll; words only get you so far. If you really want to learn about Korean food, the best way to do so is to get out there and try it! But first, for a primer on ten essential components of just about every Korean menu, check out the slideshow.