If you visit South Korea, there are two things you have to keep in mind. Kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine and is also a word you say when posing for a picture. In Korea, it is, “Say kimchi!” instead of “Say cheese!”
Kimchi is a banchan (Korean for “side dish”) that you will find on any Korean dining table. There are over 200 varieties of kimchi, which is part of the Korean history that goes thousands of years back. It is made from spicy, salty fermented vegetables, mainly cabbage. The fermentation process can take from two days to two weeks, depending on the method. The taste may be strong and spicy, but Korean cuisine has a variety of other healthy mild dishes that could actually be bland for some.
If you want to immerse yourself in the Korean food culture, you have to adapt yourself to manage with a pair of chopsticks and a spoon next to your plate. This set of utensils is called sujeo.
On a recent visit to South Korea, a local told me that it is believed that teaching children chopstick skills at a very young age makes them smarter. She said there is a correlation between chopsticks and brain development as using them is complex and moves more muscles than using a fork and knife. The common belief is that the activity stimulates the brain and helps children concentrate.
Eating with chopsticks can be difficult, especially with rice, but sticky rice might make it easier. Plain steamed rice is an essential ingredient in Korean food, from main dishes and soups, to dessert. In Korean culture, bap or rice is considered the best medicine and the main source of energy.
Interestingly enough, it is now understandable why one of the most popular Korean greeting phrases, especially in the countryside, translates into “have you had rice today?” If you answer by saying that you did, that means you are doing well.
Apart from the white rice, multi-grain rice is also common. It combines barley, sticky rice, brown rice and millet.
One of the most popular rice dishes in Korea is bibimbap. This colorful dish consists of rice topped with minced meat and assorted vegetables. It can be cooked differently depending on the region. A more theatrical presentation is to bring it to the table in a sizzling hot stone pot before you mix the ingredients together, adding the Korean chili paste gochujang.
Second to rice comes guksu or noodles as a main traditional ingredient in Korean cuisine. Noodles are considered traditional treats on special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and especially the 60th birthday, which is a major celebration in the lives of Koreans. Long noodles symbolize long and healthy life and marriage.
Some noodles are served hot, like janchi guksu (banquet noodles), in a broth made from anchovy or dried kelp (large seaweed), while others like naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) are served cold. According to locals, this dish was introduced to South Korea by North Koreans who settled in the country after the Korean War. Noodles are added to beef broth and watery radish kimchi. Another variation is to add raw fish.
If you are into soups, you have to try pumpkin and mushroom soups with a Korean twist. The texture is somewhere between that of a soup and porridge, as rice or oats are the main component. The pumpkin soup leaves a sweet taste on your palate, while the mushroom soup is slightly spicy yet delicious and filling.
As rice is a main ingredient in the Korean kitchen, dessert is not excluded. Tteok or rice cakes are not only delicious, but they are also beautiful to the eye with their vibrant colors and floral shapes.
There is the pan-fried flower rice cake hwajeon; the steamed rice cake rolled in bean powder injeolmi; the festive rice cake balls gyeongdan and jeungpyeon the white fluffy yeast rice cakes.
After you finish eating, impress your Korean hosts by saying “jal meogeosseumnida!” and they will understand that you have “enjoyed your meal.”
- Useful expressions:
- Banchan: side dish
- Ganjang: soy sauce
- Deonjang: soybeans paste
- Gochujang: Korean chili paste
- Jeotgal: salted seafood
- Jangajji: pickled vegetables
- Bap: rice
- Jeotgarak: chopsticks
- Sutgarak: spoon
- Chaesik ju-uija imnida: I’m vegetarian
- Maewoyo: spicy
- Gyesanseo juseyo: May I have the check, please?
1. 1 large napa cabbage (about 5 to 6 lbs), or 2 small (about 3 lbs each)
2. 1 cup Korean coarse sea salt for making kimchi
3. 5 cups of water
4. 1 pound Korean radish
5. 1/4 Asian pear (optional)
6. 3 - 4 scallions
1. 1 tbl glutinous rice powder*, (*Mix it with 1/2 cup water, simmer over low heat until it thickens to a thin paste and cool.
2. 1/2 cup Korean red chili pepper flakes, gochugaru, (adjust to your taste)
3. 1/4 cup saeujeot (salted shrimp), finely minced
4. Raw shrimp (about 2 ounces), finely minced or ground
5. 3 tablespoons myulchiaekjeot (fish sauce),
6. 3 tbls minced garlic
7. 1 tsp grated ginger
8. 1 tsp sesame seeds (optional)
9. 1/2 cup water
10. 2 large bowls or pots (7 - 8 quarts)
11. a large colander
12. kitchen gloves
13. 3/4 - 1 gallon airtight container or jar
1. Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters by cutting the stem end in half only about 3-4 inches in and then slowly pulling apart to separate into two pieces by hand. Do the same for each half to make quarters. (Running the knife through all the way would unnecessarily cut off the cabbage leaves.)
2. In a large bowl, dissolve 1/2 cup of salt in 5 cups of water. Thoroughly bathe each cabbage quarter in the salt water one at a time, shake off excess water back into the bowl, and then transfer to another bowl.
3. Using the other half cup of salt and starting from the outermost leaf, generously sprinkle salt over the thick white part of each leaf (similar to salting a piece of meat). Try to salt all the cabbage quarters with half cup salt, but you can use a little more if needed. Repeat with the rest of the cabbage quarters. Pour the remaining salt water from the first bowl over the cabbage. Set aside for about 6-8 hours, rotating the bottom ones to the top every 2-3 hours.
4. The cabbage should be ready to be washed when the white parts are easily bendable. Rinse thoroughly 3 times, especially between the white parts of the leaves. Drain well, cut side down.
5. Meanwhile, make the glutinous rice paste and cool. Prepare the other seasoning ingredients. Mix all the seasoning ingredients, including the rice paste and water, well. Set aside while preparing the other ingredients in order for the red pepper flakes to dissolve slightly and become pasty.
6. Cut the radish and optional pear into match sticks (use a mandoline if available). Cut scallions into 1-inch long pieces. Transfer to a large bowl and combine with the seasoning mix. Mix well by hand. Taste a little bit. It should be a little too salty to eat as is. Add salt, more salted shrimp or fish sauce, if necessary. If possible, let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour to allow the flavors to meld nicely.
7. Cut off the tough stem part from each cabbage quarter, leaving enough to hold the leaves together. Place one cabbage quarter in the bowl with the radish mix. Spread the radish mix over each leaf, one to two tablespoons for large leaves. (Divide the stuffing into 4 parts and use one part for each cabbage quarter.)
8. Fold the leaf part of the cabbage over toward the stem and nicely wrap with the outermost leaf before placing it, cut side up, in a jar or airtight container. Repeat with the remaining cabbage. Once all the cabbage is in the jar or airtight container, press down hard to remove air pockets. Rinse the bowl that contained the radish mix with 1/2 cup of water and pour over the kimchi.
9. Leave it out at room temperature for a full day or two, depending on how fast you want your kimchi to ripen. Then, store in the fridge. Although you can start eating it any time, kimchi needs about two weeks in the fridge to fully develop the flavors. It maintains great flavor and texture for several weeks.