When people think of Korean food they usually think of Korean barbecue and kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage). And if you are just trying it for the first time, then that’s a great place to start. For those of you who are ready to venture out for more, let’s talk about how vast the Korean menu really is. Because Korean food is wonderful and delicious and makes me do a little happy dance just like this little girl.
First of all, one of the most exciting aspects about a Korean meal is the wide variety of banchan, little side dishes, that accompany every meal. There’s enough of it, and you can ask for refills, to satisfy you before your main course even comes out. Banchan can include all sorts of kimchee, marinated vegetables, bean sprouts, tiny anchovies, fried tofu, egg custard, soy sauce potatoes, spicy crab, pickled radish, seasoned meat, peppers, etc.
A lot of what you see come out as banchan will depend on what you’ve ordered for your entrée. But all Korean meals come with plenty of the tasty side dishes. My family will descend like locusts on the first offering and usually aren’t satisfied until they’ve been refilled three more times. Many a chopstick war has been fought over prized banchan. I always win because my chopstick skills are too fast. And also because I tend to stab any hands that are in my way.
Moving on to entrees, I guess it is only right to talk about the beauty of the Korean barbecue. Everything can be grilled, beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, and seafood. But the most famous is kalbi, beef shortribs.
Tender meat marinated in a soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil concoction and flame broiled right in front of your drooling face. There are many ways to eat it, but the true Korean way to eat it is in a perfect bite of lettuce, soybean paste, pickled radish or kimchee, and rice. In fact, my problem is always that I overstuff my lettuce wrap with too much goodness and end up looking like a chipmunk. But it is all worth it.
If you are getting hungry, I want to introduce you to another quintessentially Korean dish. Bibimbap means mixed rice.
It is a bowl filled with rice and then covered with seasoned, marinated vegetables, meat, a fried egg, and a spicy red pepper sauce that you can add to your spice tolerance level. You mix it all up and the combination of flavors is amazing. Dulsot Bibimbap is mixed rice that is served in a searing hot pot which you must mix quickly before all your rice burns up on the bottom of the pot. Just to be clear, we Koreans do like to have some of our rice crisp up in the hot pot as it adds another textural layer to the dish. But don’t let it all burn or it ruins the dish. Also, remember Don’t Touch the hot pot! Leaving a layer of blistered skin on your Dulsot Bibimbap does not make the food taste good.
So are you starving yet? Great! Now let’s talk about ramen! Yes, the ubiquitous fried noodle package that is the staple of every starving college student’s diet. That cheap $0.29 pack you can get even at a gas station. But I can see you scratching your head and asking, “Ellen, why are we talking about ramen in a Korean food post? Isn’t it Japanese?” Well, yeah, technically ramen is Japanese. But I’m not talking Sapporo Ichiban or Nissin cup’o’noodles. What I want to introduce to you is the Korean Shin Ramen package. If you’ve ever wondered what all those people in Korean dramas are slurping up in their little copper pots, using the pot lid like a plate, it’s Shin Ramen. Yes it is an instant noodle. And it’s a staple that is in every Korean household. Shin Ramen is not anything like boring old regular ramen. It is spicy, bold, deliciousness that no Korean can do without. It is our mac and cheese. It is our peanut butter and jelly. Except burn your lips off spicy.
If you are a spice novice but are still interested in the Shin Ramen, I suggest using half of the soup seasoning packet to start off with. Or if you are an extreme Shinfan, then you can do what this guy does and burn all your nose hairs off. Whatever floats your boat. I will not judge you.
The last thing I will introduce all of you to is kimbap. It’s a Korean version of the famous Japanese maki rolls, except without any raw fish. Bite-sized rice rolls of vegetables and meat wrapped with seaweed. The art to making a perfect kimbap roll is something that eludes me. I can make only ugly ones. Shameful ugly ones that perfect Korean mothers laugh at behind their delicate kimbap making hands. I hide my hideous rolls by shoving them into my mouth, eating my shame. Damn, they still taste good. Ok, so I can’t make kimbap. But I CAN show you a yummy kimbap gifset that shows you how to make it:
Korean food is vast and diverse and I have only given you a very small look into the cuisine. But I hope you all will venture out there and try something new and different. And if you have tried it, leave me a comment and let me know what your favorite Korean food dish is!
Ellen Oh is an adjunct college instructor and former entertainment lawyer who one day picked up a Genghis Khan biography and was never quite the same again. It was the start of an obsessive fascination with ancient Asian history that led to years of researching, which culminated in writing Prophecy, her first novel. She also loves martial arts films, K-pop, K-dramas, and cooking shows, and she thinks the Last Airbender series was the best animated show ever created.