Some time ago, Part One of this series focused on some overarching reasons to love Korean food. But now we get to talk specifics.
Banchan, or side dishes, are served free with every meal in Korea. While some restaurants serve the same types of banchan, most are made in-house so the tastes vary according to region, preference, and season. The side dish for which Korea is best known is kimchi, which is made by fermenting cabbage with other ingredients like brine, scallions, spices, ginger, radish, and garlic.
Koreans consume a LOT of kimchi. They’re so far behind in domestic cabbage production, 90% of Chinese cabbages are earmarked for kimchi processing.
It’s tangy and a little spicy, and you may not like it at first. But I found that kimchi is like a gateway drug into all Korean food. Once you develop a taste for it, it becomes addictive. There is kimchi in Japan as well so I tried to satisfy my cravings there. Sadly, it’s not the same.
Aside from the ubiquitous kimchi, common banchan dishes include fermented bean paste, tiny dried fishes, tofu, pickled radish, bean sprouts, and seaweed.
#5: If There’s Food, There’s Soju (and Beer)
Korea has one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the world. On one hand, this may not be the best thing for their population. But on the other hand, beer. This is a good place to come if you love beer. Unfortunately like everywhere else in Asia they only have lager. We’re learning not to be so picky.
Also served with many meals is soju, the local rice liquor (aka Korean firewater). Like kimchi, when you first try soju your throat will burn and you’ll wonder what the big deal is. After a while, though, going out for Korean barbecue won’t be the same unless you have an ice-cold bottle of soju to go with it. Be careful with this stuff – one small bottle is usually plenty, and too much of it guarantees you won’t be sightseeing the next day.
We should also mention makgeolli, a milky wheat and rice liquor that is much lighter and sweeter than soju. Makgeolli is brewed all over the country, and we found that different regions had their own brands to offer.
All of these drinks are enjoyed at any time of day, but rarely without food. And if you’re in Korea, there’s really no reason not to have food in front of you at all times. Which brings us to:
#4: Soups and Stews
Soup is also served with most meals in one form or another. Served in hot pots or bubbling away atop burners on the tables, they usually include some combination of rice noodles, meats, and vegetables. One type that we enjoyed was the aptly named budae jigae, or “Army Base Stew”. A hodgepodge dish that became popular after the Korean War, it commonly features Spam, hot dogs, baked beans, and other random leftover ingredients from the US Army bases.
Another tasty example is sundaeguk, a soup made with Korea’s version of blood sausage. The sundae itself is commonly made of pig intestines stuffed with cellophane noodles, barley, and pork blood. Here it was floated in a spicy tomato broth along with shredded carrots, rice cakes, and spring onion.
A signature Korean meal, bibimbap is a rice bowl topped with vegetables and chili paste. There are many variations of this simple dish, but dolsot bibimbap, made in a stone pot, is our favorite. This kind has raw egg and beef, and the piping hot bowl cooks the ingredients as you eat them. It also fries up the rice at the bottom so there are crunchy bits at the end.
We found this version in Jeonju, a city that claims to have the best bibimbap in Korea.
Given their geography, Koreans have access to some extremely fresh seafood. It was never difficult to find some delicious water creature to eat. Perhaps our favorite experience was trying sannakji, live octopus. Although raw octopus isn’t the most flavorful option out there, eating it is definitely an interactive cultural experience. Our poor little eight-legged friend was chopped up seconds before arriving at our table (the chef was very fast, so I don’t think he experienced too much pain). The tentacles continued to move for a surprising amount of time as we ate them. Some sesame oil is used to help keep the tentacles from gripping onto your mouth and throat (with limited success). Here’s a video, if you’d like to see them in action.
#1: Korean Barbecue
And here it is. The culinary masterpiece that has me contemplating how we might go back to Korea again – not just for a month, but long term – to partake in the unctuous, salty, spicy, sizzling bits of pork skin and brisket on a more routine basis.
Korean barbecue is fun because it’s interactive. As people who loved to cook at home and no longer have a kitchen, it was nice to have some involvement with our food apart from pointing to something on a menu. The process is usually the same: you choose some type of raw meat, normally some cut of marinated pork or beef. The server will bring it out along with many dishes of banchan and start the grill going, and you munch away while the meat cooks on the grill.
After the first flip, you can cut the meat into smaller bite-sized pieces using the supplied tongs and scissors. Sometimes you’ll have vegetables like potatoes and mushrooms, and at times they’ll throw the kimchi on the grill too. Before long the smoke clears and it’s time to eat! Lettuce is provided to make little wraps, but I prefer to savor each piece with a bit of doenjang (fermented bean paste).
Of course, if you don’t feel like making your own food (or if you in any way look like you don’t know the process), the server will gladly take care of the cooking part. We always wanted to do the cooking, but sometimes it’s best to let them prepare the meat since they have it down to a science.
And, Some Things We Didn’t Love
To allay any suspicion that we might be unrealistically enthusiastic about Korean food, I’ll add that we didn’t enjoy every single dish. Our monolinguality occasionally forced us to choose randomly from menus when there weren’t photos or English menus available, a handicap which led to some disagreeable meals. We only had trouble a couple of times, and really, the worst meals were those we intentionally chose to broaden our culinary horizon. Here are a few things we didn’t love as much:
We kept passing them in the markets, and just looking at them you’d think they’d be pretty tasty. It appears they’ll be meaty claws of crispy pigskin and bits of gristle that are full of flavor and texture. Well, the latter is certainly true. We found that the texture is something like pork-flavored rubber gristle Jell-O. We kept searching for meaty morsels that might be hiding amongst the cartilage and fat, but found very few pieces we could really enjoy. The feet aren’t crispy, but a little soggy with the pig’s own lard and the oil used to cook them.
The $23 Vegetable
The small town near the popular Songgwangsa Temple is mostly a stop-and-go for visitors, so there are limited dining options there. We saw a photo at one of the few restaurants and thought, “No problem – that must be chicken or seafood”. What we should have done was test our Lonely Planet Korean skills and ask if it was indeed a meat dish. A short time later we were presented with a plate with some type of plain grilled vegetable. Maybe it was a delicacy, because these few shards of roughage cost ₩25,000 ($23).
Traveling in Asia has shown us just how sweet our deserts are in the West. Here they love the azuki bean, a red bean found in deserts throughout the region. A favorite in Korea is bingsoo, a desert of shaved ice, condensed milk, and sweet chewy rice cakes topped off with a generous spoonful of red bean paste. Overall the taste isn’t bad, but sometimes we just want a sugary hot fudge sundae to round out a good meal.
Thus concludes our culinary journey of South Korea. If you go, pack a healthy appetite!