Anyone living in the US these past few decades has witnessed firsthand how Korean food has grown in popularity. Authentic Korean restaurants were not that common even 30 years ago. Among East Asian cuisines, it trailed the ubiquitous Chinese, as well as Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese varieties. Every major city has a Chinatown and every truck stop has a Chinese restaurant, but how often did people take trips to Koreatown?
The picture has changed. Hundreds of Korean restaurants can be found in every major city. Koreatown in New York city had less than 10 restaurants back in 1990. Nowadays, there are over a hundred – from the high-end Michelin Rated restaurants to Korean Barbecue spots, the hole-in-the-wall places serving authentic dishes and ever-popular coffee houses.
Korean cuisine may have developed in fits and starts in the mother country, fueled by strong influences from various other cultures. But right now, South Korea boasts close to 30 Michelin rated restaurants. Korean chefs are in demand the world over – including brand name Japanese sushi restaurants. The cuisine has arrived!
Among the factors that helped drive recognition is the reputation of how South Koreans value quality of life. The 2019 Global Wellness Index ranked South Korea as the 9th healthiest spot in the world. Younger generations around the globe are aware of the positive aspects of the culture – highly educated population, advanced technology, cool music (you’ve heard of K-pop, of course, and Gangnam Style?) and people that live longer. Isn’t it natural to gravitate towards one of the most important markers of a popular culture, namely their food?
Let’s see what we can expect to find in typical and exotic varieties of Korean cuisine. First, a stop to examine some history.
The History of Korean Food Culture – Origins and Traditions
While the human history of the Korean Peninsula goes back over 10,000 years, the evolution of the cuisine into the distinctive flavors, types and influences really began about two thousand years ago. The stages of the evolution of Korean food can be traced into a few distinct eras:
The Three Kingdom Period
During this period, Korea was divided into three kingdoms – (i) the Goguryeo ruled the Northern part along the border with Manchuria during 37 BCE to 668 CE, (ii) the Baekje ruled the southwestern portion of the peninsula during 18 BCE to 660 CE and (iii) the Silla ruled the southeastern parts over 57 BCE to 935 CE. Each region, based on the regions it inhabited, discovered and popularized various cultural and culinary traditions. For example, kimchi – a cold dish that could be preserved for a long time – was first popularized by the Baekje kitchens in the cold north.
The Mongol Invasions during the Goryeo Period
Mongols invaded North Korea during the latter Goryeo period. They brought many food ingredients and cuisines with them, including black pepper, all types of noodle dishes and dumplings.
International Influences in the Middle Ages
During the so-called Joseon Period (15th to the mid 19th century), new world foods such as corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts and squash began to appear in Korean kitchens, fueled by trade with China, Japan, Europe and other nations.
Different varieties of chili pepper also began to appear. This led to cultivation of certain crops on suitable terrain – for example, potatoes and sweet potatoes were found to grow on soil that were previously deemed unsuitable for agriculture.
Towards the very end of this period, such influxes increased and/or were made more permanent due to a number of trade treaties with the Western world, especially countries such as the UK, US and France.
Colonial Period and War
The post Joseon period was marred by war and colonial occupation. One of the major events was the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910, which saw great depravity at times – including a scarcity of white rice for the lower income classes.
Soon after the occupation ended with Japan’s defeat in WWII, the Korean War and the US presence ushered in a different era of deprivations and cultural influences – which led to a variety of other influences and improvisations.
One prime example is the Budae jjigae, a cheap stew made out of inexpensive meats such as spam and sausages, which Koreans on food rations could afford to make. After the Korean War and the creation of the Demilitarized Zone, there was a sharp diversion in the consumption of meat between North and South Korea – with beef and pork consumption growing steadily in the south over time.
Korean cuisine continued to evolve through all these changes, trials and tribulations. Over the past decades, the reputation of Korean barbecues has been well known, along with the family (banchan) style presentation with many side dishes. Then there was bibimbap and kimchi. But lately, people have grown to appreciate a wider selection of authentic Korean food.
Traditional Korean Food Culture is Influenced by Many Factors
The rich variety of foods coming out of Korea goes far beyond the popular and famous dishes and types – e.g. kimchi or bibimbap or Korean BBQ. Foods have evolved region by region, based on the geography, culture, customs and habits endemic to the area.
Foods are regulated by Korean etiquette. Availability of food became a factor during periods of deprivation. Over time, many regional cuisines have become popular nationally and spread to other parts of the country – this includes certain food items that at one time were only available during certain seasons or were meant to be consumed during holiday festivities.
Here are brief overviews of a few factors that have helped influence Korean cuisine.
Geography Influences on Korean Food Culture
Korea is a peninsula. Certain grains, such as wheat, barley and millet, were common. Certain others, especially rice, were not natural to the environment. This was why rice was traditionally served as a mix with barley, soy or other staples and used to be a delicacy served to honored guests. Rice was also used to pay taxes. Over time, Koreans have developed a taste for white rice, which has the bran removed.
Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
Many ingredients used in Korea today arrived from China (primarily Manchuria) or Japan – examples include Napa Cabbage which came from China, Doenjang which evolved similar to miso paste in Japan or the use of Dasimi which was exactly the same as Kombu paste used in Japan. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European influences (especially Dutch, French and American) also became common.
Traditions, Customs, Cultures and Habits
Traditions, customs, cultures and habits have played a significant role in how Korean food is prepared. For example, rice is traditionally cooked in iron pots called sots or musoe sots, a practice that dates back to the Goryeo period at least, possibly even further back to the Silla kingdom.
The uses of rice then stretched into making juk (congee), mieum (gruel) and tteok (rice cakes). Even the traditional methods of “stretching rice” by mixing it with maize, barley or soy still persist. Adaptations to improved circumstances also played a role in the evolution of cuisine. For example, as meat became more plentiful in South Korea in the decades after the Korean War, different types of meat dishes became more common, including a number of bulgogi style preparations.
The Impact of Regionalism and Seasonality
The colder climates to the north had a propensity to prepare foods that would last a long time. While the south and coastal regions enjoyed fresh vegetables year-round, northern climates favored items like Kimchi that were preserved due to natural fermentation.
The coastal regions are richer in seafood, while meat is more of a staple of the inland areas. After rice became popular, it was more common in the Baekje and Silla kingdoms to the south and west, where it was easier to cultivate. Jeotgal, a salted fermented fish, was developed in the south for longer term use.
While a number of these influences have spread out more evenly over the country or in international Korean cuisine, their evolution can often be traced back to their roots.
Meals for Special Festivals
Six of the major festivals observed in Korea are listed below, along with the traditional food Koreans eat on such occasions:
- Dongzhi Festival – celebrated around the Winter Solstice (December 22) every year. During this time, Koreans follow the Chinese tradition of eating Tanguyan, a Chinese dessert made from balls of glutinous rice flour and water, either deep-fried or served in a hot syrup or both. Another variation is Tanguyan skin made from pumpkin flesh, stuffed inside with black sesame seeds mixed with sugar.
- Seotdal Geumeum (New Year’s Eve) and Seollal (New Year’s Day) Festivals, during which time it is traditional to eat Tteokguk, a soup made with rice cake and Yakwa (Honey Cakes).
- Hansik Festival (start of farming season) is held 105 days after the Dongzhi festival. Traditional cuisine calls for cold food, including Mugwort cakes, dumplings and soup.
- Chopeil (Buddha’s Birthday, the magnificent lantern festival held on the 8th day of the 4th month) is celebrated by the roughly quarter of Koreans who are Buddhist. Others will also celebrate with Tteok, dumplings and special dishes made of fish during this time.
- Sambok Festival (held somewhere during the sixth or seventh month, on what is believed to be the hottest day of summer), Koreans eat hot dishes such as Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup/Stew).
- Chuseok (Harvest Festival, held on 15th day of 8th month), Koreans will eat Songpyeon (pine flavored rice cake stuffed with beans, sesame or chestnuts) and Torangtangi (Taro soup).
Korean Cooking Styles and Techniques
Korean food can be prepared in a variety of styles. The traditional table setting is called bansang, which consists of bap (cooked rice), guk or tang (soup), gochujang or ganjang (hot chili-paste or soy sauce), jjigae (stew) and kimchi.
In addition to the main dishes, there are many banchan (side dishes) which could number anywhere from three to twelve – the higher the number, the more honor is being paid to the dinner guest.
A few examples follow:
- Grilled Dishes: Korean BBQ is a fan favorite. A large number of meats are grilled. Some examples are beef – Galbi and pork – Samgyeopsal or ones that could be either – Bulgogi (each described in detail below).
- Stir Fries: There are a number of Korean stir-fry dishes, including Nakji bokkeum (Octopus marinated with garlic, ginger, Gochujang and sesame seeds – sometimes served as a banchan) and Ojingeo chae bokkeum (Dried Squid Strips stir fried with Gochujang, Ganjang or rice wine).
- Steamed Dishes: Many Korean dishes and/or sides are served steamed, including bap (rice), various types of vegetables, tofu and sprouts.
- Soups and Stews: Koreans enjoy a wide variety of soups (guk or tang) and stews (jjigae), including ones that are served family style with other main courses (a must with more elaborate meals) and others that are meals unto themselves (e.g., Samgyetang, Yukgaejang or Doenjang jjigae, all described below; and Budae jjigae, described above).
- Curry Dishes: Due to the style of cooking, curries are not as common in Korean cuisine as they are in (say) Malaysia and India. However, there are some preparations that use traditional curry ingredients, including Korean Curry Rice and Ottogi Curry.
- Dishes Served Cold: There are many cold dishes from Korea, the most familiar being Kimchee. Other dishes include Naengmyeon (Cold Noodles), Memil-guksu (Soba), Kong-guksu (Noodles in cold soybean sauce) and Hwachae (watermelon punch).
- Noodles: First introduced from China during the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, noodle dishes have become a staple of Korean cuisine. Naengmyeon, described below, is an example.
- Fresh Food – Seafood, Meat and Vegetables: The most famous Korean seafood dish served raw is possibly Sannakji (Raw, Chopped, Baby Octopus drizzled in Sesame Oil). The dish is often served so raw, the parts are still twitching. Gejang (Marinated Crab) is another. There are also fresh meat dishes served raw, such as Yukhoe, a raw meat dish resembling a steak tartare that can be made with beef or other prime cuts of meat. A wide variety of vegetables can be served raw, though they are often treated with a quick boil or saute to soften the texture.
- Grains: Traditional Korean grains included barley and millet, later supplanted by sorghum, wheat and buckwheat. As discussed earlier, rice was imported into Korea and was prohibitively expensive for a long time. As a result, mixing rice with barley, soy or other staples became popular.
- Legumes: The most frequently used legume is of course soy, which is used to make a vast array of pastes, dishes and side dishes, some of which are discussed here. Another main bean that is extensively used in Korean cuisine is the green mung bean, which is a necessary ingredient for some soups and stews and also used to make dangmyeon (cellophane noodles) and sundae (blood sausage). Azuki beans are also used widely, including as an ingredient for Tteok.
- Fermented, Dipping Sauces: As we describe below, there are a wide variety of dipping sauces that are prepared with condiments that form staples of Korean foods. Among the fermented foods, the best known one is Kimchi, of course. Sweet fermented rice is also used extensively.
- Side Dishes (Banchan): Are a traditional feature of the Korean meal setting. They come in many varieties, traditionally in small portions served beside the main course. The portions can be made out of meat, poultry, seafood and a vast array of steamed, sauteed or raw vegetables – including a portion of Kimchi. The table setting runs to 3 cheop, 5 cheop, 7 cheop, 9 cheop or 12 cheop, based on the honor being shown to the dinner guest.
Popular Korean Spices, Ingredients, and Condiments You May Need
The staples can be organized into grains (rice, maize, barley, wheat etc.), vegetables, meats, seafood and spices. We present below some of the key ingredients that are popularly used in Korean Food
- Garlic: Every Korean family will stock large amounts of pre-minced garlic. On the one hand, you get garlic breath. On the other hand, you get the great taste and health benefits of garlic. Either way, you cannot escape garlic if you have Korean Food.
- White Rice: Plain rice used to be a delicacy in Korea, since it was not naturally grown in the peninsula. Now, it’s traditional to serve individual servings of unseasoned, short grained, white rice (Koreans eat white rice almost exclusively) to each guest at the table.
- Napa Cabbage: First cultivated on a wide scale in 15th century China, napa cabbage has spread into Korean kitchens like few other common vegetables. One of the most common uses is to manufacture kimchi, where the cabbage is fermented with salt and soy on a bed of chili, garlic, scallions and oil.
- Scallions: Fresh green scallion is used as a garnish in almost any Korean dish that’s not 100% meat or fish based.
- Rice Vinegar (Sikcho): While some Korean dishes pick up natural acidity via fermentation (think Kimchi), others need to use some form of vinegar to counter the oiliness. Koreans prefer Rice Vinegar, which is less tart – meaning it has lower acidity and a milder flavor – compared to wine or synthetic vinegar.
- Korean Chile Pepper (Gochugaru): This Korean version of the hot chili powder is unique in its blend of tastes. Intensely spicy, the coarse and sun-dried flecks pick up a hint of sweetness as well. Gochugaru is added for extra spice to many marinades, dipping sauces and soups.
- Hot Pepper Paste (Gochujang): Gochujang is prepared by mixing Gochugaru, glutinous rice, fermented soy bean and salt. The mixture creates a divine blend of spicy (chili pepper), sweet (fermented rice) and salty taste with the umami that is produced by the fermented soy bean. Cheap knock-offs may feature corn syrup, but the original is everywhere, mixing sauce in bibimbap, dipping sauce for Korean barbecue, hot dressing on fried chicken and a host of other dishes.
- Fermented Soybean Paste (Doenjang): Doenjang is more pungent than miso and is used extensively in Korean cooking. One of its visible uses is as the classic dipping sauce served with Korean barbecue – mixed with sesame oil, garlic and gochujang. It’s also used in traditional modes of cooking – a spoonful of Doenjang may be mixed in with Dasima and Myulchi to add oomph to stock used in soups or stews.
- Soy Sauce (Ganjang): As with all East Asian cuisines, the Koreans use darker soy sauce for seasoning, marinades and cooking for all types of dishes, including fried rice, banchan and main dishes involving meat, seafood and vegetables. Lighter soy sauce is used in soups as elsewhere.
- Toasted Sesame Oil (Chamkircum): Sesame oil is to Korean cuisine what olive oil is to Italian and Mediterranean dishes. Typically used as a dipping sauce or as a light sprinkle to flavor bibimbap, banchan, fried eggs or meat, good sesame oil is treasured.
- Sesame Seeds: Toasted sesame seeds are often used as garnish or sprinkled into seasoning while preparing Korean dishes.
- Fish Sauce (Aekjeot): Jeot is fermented fish sauce that overlays a deep umami taste on the naturally salty, fishy taste. Jeot is used primarily as a flavorful alternative to table salt – for example, it can be sprinkled on vegetable (banchan) or soups or as an alternative to soy sauce. It is also an essential ingredient of kimchi.
- Kelp (Dasima): Dasima is the Korean name (Kombu in Japanese) of a form of kelp or seaweed that was commonly used in Japan for millenia. It was used in Korea as well and its use spiked during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Currently, it is used with Myulchi to provide soup stock to all Korean food. Dasima must be removed once the water is boiling to avoid bitter tastes.
- Korean Stir-Fried Anchovies (Myulchi): Myulchi are dried anchovies that are simmered with Dasima to form a mixture that is used as basic stock in almost all Korean stews and soups. Larger anchovies are usually used to make stock, after removing the head and guts. Smaller anchovies are reserved for being served with sticky rice and various sauces as banchan.
All of the ingredients above are condiments to be used in the preparation of, or served alongside, Korean dishes. There are no ends of experiments and things can be prepared milder or spicier based on taste – the beauty of the many types of ingredients that are available to be mixed or matched in various proportions is how the taste can be altered with a few drops or dollops here and there.
15 Popular Korean Dishes Around the World
A guide to traditional Korean food would rarely be complete without a sampling of the following dishes. Variations in taste and style may occur, but many of the basic recipes have stayed the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
(Cabbage Fermented in Jeot, Garnished Liberally with Gochugaru)
This spicy, fermented preparation is the national dish of South Korea. There are over one hundred varieties of leafy vegetables that are used to produce kimchi – the most common being the variety made with napa cabbage. Even spicier variations such as kkakdugi (chopped radish kimchi) are available. The first recorded production of Kimchi was during the Baekje and Silla dynasties some 2,000 years back.
(Rice, Meat and Fresh Vegetables, mixed with Gochujang): The ingredients are mixed together in the spicy chili paste, though certain vegetables may be served separately along with a fried egg on top. For best flavor, mix in with chopsticks and spoon and take large mouthfuls, allowing the tastes to mix.
(Thin sliced sirloin marinated in Ganjang): The meat can be beef or pork which is grilled after being marinated in Ganjang, honey, garlic, scallion, sesame seed salt and black pepper. It can be served with rice or by itself.
(Barbecued Pork Belly): The flesh and fat from pork bellies are juxtaposed in three layers, then grilled on an open fire. Once prepared, Samgyeopsal is wrapped in lettuce and garnished with extra garlic, green onions and kimchi.
(Grilled Beef Short Ribs): This is the signature rib dish from Korea. The meat is sliced into slices 7 cm long and 1 cm thick. It is marinated in a flavorful sauce with Ganjang, Chamkircum, garlic, black pepper, sea salts and scallions before being BBQ’d. Variations are sometimes introduced, as with the Jang Hyang Galbi described below.
(Ginseng Chicken Soup): This traditional soup is popular during the Sambok festival, the so-called hottest day of summer. The main ingredient is a whole chicken stuffed with ginseng, with sticky rice, gingko nuts and dried jujube mixed into the comforting white, gelatinous broth.
(Spicy Shredded Beef Stew): This is a staple of Korean restaurants, hot and spicy stew flavored with Gochujang, with extra garnishing sauces served on the side. The meat is simmered for hours till it falls apart and the vegetables are mushy.
(Anglerfish on a Bed of Dropwort and Bean Sprout): This seafood dish is spicy enough to imbue the entire concoction in a bright red color due to the abundant use of Gochugang and Gochugaru used in the seasoning – green and red chilis are sometimes chopped on the side. The meatiness of the Anglerfish, along with the tartness of the dropwort and the crunchy bean sprouts adds to the experience.
(Noodles in Beef Broth): This is a traditional lunchtime dish – buckwheat noodles with thin slices of meat, hard boiled eggs, pear and cucumber slices and various vegetables – served in a beef broth.
10. Doenjang Jjigae
(Soybean Paste Stew): This stew was originally a homebody’s meal, which has now become universally popular, with different variations in terms of spice level and ingredients (meat, vegetables, seafood) prepared to taste.
(Potato Stew): This hearty stew is common fare among Korean street fares, served around the clock and often compared with Hangover Stew. The stew gets its distinctive taste from ground perilla seeds, which are mixed with gamja (potatoes), scallions and bits of pork in a pork bone broth.
(Korean Salad made from cellophane noodles): Japchae could be made sweet or savory. The main ingredient is dangmyeon, glass noodles made from ground moong beans and/or sweet potatoes, topped with meat, vegetables and mushrooms and topped with Gangjam and Chamkircum.
(Rice Cake): This has become an iconic tradition in Seoul, where an entire section of the city is devoted to the steamed, sliced, orange-red rice cakes cooked in a sweet and spicy Gochujang paste. Fish cakes and scallions are common additions.
14. Haemul Pajeon
(Korean Seafood Pancake): This is a classic, crunchy, filling Korean pancake, which makes a perfect meal for a rainy or cold day. The pancake can be prepared in many ways – Haemul Pajeon refers to the varieties studded with shellfish, cuttlefish or other seafood.
(Rice Wine): This is the traditional Korean rice wine, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
There are literally a hundred different variations of many of the dishes outlined above. But enjoying them in their original forms is something that will allow you to savor the essences of Korean cuisine.
Some Famous and Expensive Korean Food
All the dishes mentioned in the section above are popularized in Korean restaurants the world over. There are a few dishes, though, that are more difficult to prepare, including a few that were known as foods made for the royal palace.
- An elaborate dish, served in a large silver vessel with hot embers below, is Sinseollo, a rich broth with special cuts of meat and a variety of fresh vegetables. The broth is usually prepared mild, additional spice and texture can be added with the use of Gochujang, Ganjang or Chamkircum.
- The Gujeolpan or Nine Sectioned dish is served on special occasions, such as national holidays or weddings. Originally made for the royal palace, the dish consists of prime cuts of meat and different vegetables served with thin pancakes.
- A number of traditional Korean dishes can cost an arm and a leg depending on the type and cut of ingredients. For example, unmarinated Hanwoo (Korean beef) short ribs can cost over $190 at Myongwolgwan restaurant at the Sheraton Grand Walkerhill in Seoul.
- Another specialty high priced item at Myongwolgwan is the Jang-hyang Galbi, prepared in a base of Doenjang instead of the traditional Ganjang to produce a spicier taste than the traditional Galbi.
If you get a chance to sample authentic versions of the above, jump right in. They are hard to prepare in authentic style, so any chance to partake in one should be savored.
A Few Fun Facts About Korean Food
Did you know that Kimchi is so popular that when snapping a photo in Korea, tour guides will often ask you to yell “Kimchi” instead of “Cheese”? What about the fact that the chopsticks used in Korea are metal? You already read about how rice was used to pay taxes at one time and how the number of side dishes are directly correlated with the status of the guest. Like any rich culture, there are many such stories to enjoy.
The Verdict…Korean Food is Amazing!
Hopefully, you are not among the unfortunate few that have never tasted authentic Korean cuisine beyond a taste of Kimchi out of a jar. If you are, don’t wait. A quick internet search will show dozens of restaurants where you can try out one of the traditional dishes discussed above. If you are a veteran, you have probably come across many of these dishes over the years. But keep trying out new things, Korean chefs are among the best in the world and their experiments keep the cuisine fresh and adventurous.