7 minutes reading time South Korea
Korean cuisine is most famous for Kimchi and a dish called Bibimbap. After living there, I can confirm that every meal is indeed taken with Kimchi and a side of rice, but Bimbimbap is not on every corner, as I expected.
Korean cuisine consists mostly of white rice, vegetables, seafood, and meats, while dairy like milk and cheese is generally absent. A typical dinner consists of rice (bap) and a variety of side dishes (banchan) – one of which is always kimchi. Fermented products like kimchi are an important part of the history of Korean cuisine, with the fermentation process dating back to 1500 BC.
Many historical happenings had an impact on the cuisine development. The first noteworthy cultural influence was the spread of Buddhism, which led to meat products being banned for a period. Creative vegetarian dishes developed, and Koreans still eat a lot of vegetables with every meal.
After the Mongolian invasions of Korea meat was brought back to the table, and greatly at that. The Mongolians brought with them grilled meat, now called Samgyeopsal, and dumplings, now called Mandu, two very popular food items to this day.
The trades that followed with countries like China, Japan, Europe, and the Philippines led to more outside influence on the food items used and served within the country. While Japan occupied the Korean peninsula larger scale farms were developed and rice production increased greatly.
Rice, extremely expensive commodity
An interesting fact about rice consumption in Korea is that it used to be an extremely expensive commodity, which meant that some people only had one bowl of rice a year. After the occupation of Japan, rice became more available and there was less need for other grains like barley and millet, which were often used to add to rice to “stretch” meals.
A rice product called rice cakes (tteok) is very popular for special occasions in Korea these days. Rice cake soup (tteokguk) is eaten by most Koreans to start off the new year for instance. Sweet rice cakes (songpyeon) are also a traditional food eaten over Chuseok with family.
Shaped by nature
Korean cuisine is also shaped by nature, and with all four regions having their own unique geography aspects and climates, the dishes also differ from region to region. About 70% of South Korea is covered with mountainous terrain which results in a wide variety of wild but edible vegetables and fruits. South Korea also has a flourishing fishing industry and well-developed meat production facilities.
The four distinctly different seasons also influence what is available and served. Spring and summer are abundant in foods, while winters see fewer fresh vegetables and more kimchi/dried vegetables. Preserved foods like kimchi are made just before winter, normally around November. This way many fresh items are not lost but kept for months ahead.
Other well-known preserved foods or ingredients include fermented soy (jang) products like Gochujang, Kanjang, and Doenjang and any vegetables in a spicy or savory vinegar sauce. These are served as side dishes (banchan) and have great health benefits like lowering cholesterol and can be cancer-inhibiting.
Korean Eating Etiquette
An important aspect of eating in Korea is eating together. Eating alone is not very common, and sometimes not allowed. Going to a Korean BBQ restaurant alone is unheard of since all the dishes are shared. At other restaurants, large communal dishes can often be served and everyone shares by taking food from it.
As seen in many Korean Dramas, serving other people is important. The youngest person usually pours drinks and people take turns grilling meat or dishing up. Depending on whether it is a business meeting or casual meetup, there is normally a specific hierarchy of who does what. Romantic meetups usually have both parties serving each other.
Paying for meals can be difficult because everyone tries to “out pay” each other. If you do not run to the cashier or sneak off early to pay the whole bill, someone else will. This sounds like a great deal if you don’t want to pay, but if you don’t take a turn to pay, you won’t be invited out anymore!
My Top 5 Must-Try Korean Dishes
- 1. Kalguksu
The word Kalguksu translates to “knife-cut noodle soup” since the noodles are hand-cut before being added to broth with other ingredients. The history of the dish is not exactly clear, but the first recorded recipe is said to be from the 1930s.
The noodles are made from wheat flour and eggs. The dough is prepared, rolled out and cut into traditional long and thick strips. The broth ingredients will depend on person to person, but the noodles are added to the warm broth to cook and then served in an insulation stainless steel bowl and some side dishes.
There are many varieties of the dish that includes jemul (fish), mung bean, hobak (pumpkin) and octopus. Kalguksu is an affordable and very comforting dish, usually selling for 8,000-15,000 won.
- 2. Haejanguk
This soup dish is special to Koreans because it is considered a hangover cure, dating back as far as the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392)! Beware, if you have a bowl of this amazing soup you are going to want it every day and your Korean friends might all think you party every night.
This dish takes hours, even days, to prepare (the good ones anyway). The soup usually has cabbage, scallions, and a range of other vegetables cooked in a meaty broth, together with meat so soft it falls apart. It is served with rice and Kimchi, of course.
As with most other dishes, ingredients will differ from region to region and restaurants all use their own secret recipe. Haejanguk is not as common and you can find restaurants that specialize in it, selling for anything between 10,000-15,000 won.
- 3. Tteokbokki
The name of this dish translates to “stir-fried rice cake” and consists of soft, springy rice cakes as thick as your fingers in a rich, spicy sauce. The tteok resembles pasta but is much softer and chewy but beware of intense spiciness! Especially if you are not used to spicy food.
Tteokbokki is everywhere to be found and is considered a snack for most people, and not really a full meal. Stalls next to the road often sell a cup of tteokbokki for anything from 1,500 to 3,000 won.
- 4. Jajangmyeon
The name of this dish refers to the specific black sauce, served with a big helping of noodles. The sauce is made of black beans and is rich, earthy, and very filling. The sauce sometimes contains pork and various vegetables too. This dish was developed by Chinese immigrants in Korea in 1905.
I did not have a favorite restaurant for this dish but found it was equally good at most places that served it and it usually sold for about 9,000 won.
A fun fact about Jajangmyeon is that single Koreans eat the dish with other singles on Black Day (14th April), exactly one month after Valentine’s Day (called White Day in Korea) to express sympathy for each other’s “loveless” lives.
- 5. Bibim naengmyeon
I wasn’t interested in trying this dish initially, since the idea of “cold noodles” was not appealing to me, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It uses the same spicy sauce as the famous Bibimbap dish but is served with cold noodles, shredded beef, vegetables and topped with sesame seeds. Some places add eggs and even ice.
Bibim naengmyeon is a seasonal dish, served in the summer months to beat the intense heat and humidity that can catch you by surprise if you’re not prepared for it.
The non-spicy version of Bibim naengmyeon is something called Mul Naengmyeon, which is served with chilled beef broth or radish water kimchi. Both dishes sell for about 10,000 won in and around Seoul.
Try everything once and keep the best!
It is important to mention that the different regions in Korea will have different varieties in their dishes, even if it has the same name. The list above is mostly based on dishes in and around Seoul, but there are many more to try!