With kimchi pizzas, bulgogi tacos, and gochujang ribs popping up on menus of in-the-know, non-Korean restaurants all over the country, and with the rise of celebrity chefs like David Chang of Momofuku fame to Roy Choi of the Kogi food truck, Anthony Bourdain has said, “what chefs want to eat — and increasingly everybody — is Korean food.”
As a first-generation Korean-American, I’m gratified to see a wider audience come to appreciate the wonders of Korean food and sometimes slightly dismayed at what I see as gross misinterpretations (usually not to the benefit of the dish, in my opinion). So what is Korean food? In this post, I delve into the basics of Korean food, from an overview of the geography and cultural influences that shaped Korean cuisine to the basic vocabulary of Korean food.
Let’s start by digging way down… into the dirt, landscape, and geography of Korea that shapes what kind of food people grow, raise, and catch. Korea is a narrow peninsula (only about 160-200 miles wide in many places) separating the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. The peninsula is bordered to the north by China and Russia, and by the ocean on the other three sides. Therefore, Koreans have always looked to the sea as a source of food – whether it’s fish, shellfish, or sea plants.
It’s a short distance over water to China towards the west and Japan to the east. Korea has been invaded by both countries over the centuries, which means that Korean food bears their influence and vice versa. It’s also a fairly mountainous strip of land, especially in the eastern and northern parts of the peninsula. So while crops are grown in the plains, there isn’t a whole lot of space to raise animals for meat. Foraging mountain vegetables and mushrooms was often necessary to supplement crops. It also gets pretty cold, with average temperatures in Seoul hovering around 27 degrees Fahrenheit in January. Lastly, the fact that the peninsula extends roughly 700 miles from north to south, along with the mountainous terrain and hundreds of miles of craggy shoreline, means that the country is fragmented in terms of the types of vegetation and fauna best supported in each geographical pocket.
Put this all together and what do you get? A food culture that is mostly, though not exclusively, plant-based (since it can’t afford to grow many animals for meat), seafood-heavy (given the miles of coastline), attentive to foraged foods, and obsessed with local and regional specialties. Throw in the good fortune of developing fermentation and pickling to preserve vegetables through harsh winters and the appearance of (and subsequently Korean’s growing obsession with) chili peppers around the 1400s through trade. Add in Buddhism and its emphasis on vegetarianism as a dominating religion for a couple hundred years. All this resulted in a rich Korean culinary tradition that can only be glimpsed in the meat-heavy fare of most Korean barbecue restaurants in America. Sadly, non-Koreans don’t get to see fully too often.
The plant-heavy nature of traditional Korean food is also reflected in the way the table is typically set. The bare minimum Korean meal is a bowl of rice (sometimes mixed with another grain to ‘stretch’ the rice) and kimchi. The next step up is a bowl of rice, kimchi, and a bowl of clear broth. The soup often will usually have very little or no meat in it, but it may be made from a meat bone stock (a way to stretch out animal protein) or a vegetable stock (made with seaweed, radishes, and sometimes dried anchovies). Solid pieces in the soup are most often tofu or vegetables such as greens, bean sprouts, daikon radish, and mushrooms, and the soup will be seasoned with daengjang (a soybean paste that is rather like a darker, more pungent miso), gochujang (a fermented chili paste), or soy sauce, as well as other ingredients. The next step up is to add banchan to the table – or small side dishes that are shared by everyone. Many banchans are vegetables such as squash, eggplant, various types of greens, bean sprouts, tofu, potatoes, seaweed, and mushrooms that are cooked and heavily seasoned. Some banchan may feature meat as the main ingredient (for example, seasoned mini anchovies, boiled and seasoned eggs, or preserved fish roe), but everyone is expected to share the small bowl. For many Koreans still, a bowl of rice, soup, kimchi and 1-6 banchans make up a normal meal.
To make the meal more special, some kind of animal protein might be added to the table, such as a salted and roasted fish, a squid stir-fry, or cooked chicken, pork, or beef. Again, like the banchan, one plate will be provided for the entire table and rather than have everyone scoop a portion onto their own plate, it’s typical for everybody at the table to eat straight from the common dish. Even as Korea has become more wealthy, meat is still served relatively sparingly by Western standards, usually in smaller quantities and stretched out in some way, like using it for meat broth or chopping it into small pieces and cooking it with vegetables. To put some numbers around it, the per-capita consumption of meat in South Korea was 54.1 kgs in 2009, while in Brazil it was 85.3 kgs, and in the US it was 120.2 kgs per person.
While the above describes a typical meal, there are of course variations and exceptions. One of the most common is jigae, which perhaps is most adequately described as a stew. Jigae is more concentrated in flavor and when it’s present, the soup broth may be omitted. On special occasions, Koreans might also indulge in more meat-heavy dishes like Korean barbecue that is common among Korean restaurants in America or a meat-heavy soup like sam-gye-tang, which is a whole Cornish hen stuffed with rice and herbs and boiled to tenderness in stock.
There are many other aspects of Korean cuisine that one can explore, from table etiquette to street foods, to the common flavor profiles, to its never-ending list of regional specialties. And for better or worse, Korean food is constantly changing, especially as the standard of living continues to rise and international influence becomes more pervasive. Today, one can enjoy authentic pho, tacos, and pasta joints in Seoul, though most Koreans don’t go long before returning to their rice, kimchi, soup, and banchan. As interest in Korean food grows in the West, I’m hopeful that people’s interest will carry them beyond the superficial aspects of Korean cuisine. The complexity, taste, and passion of this culture compare to any great food tradition around the world.
J. Park is a first-generation Korean-American who has cultivated a life-long passion for eating, cooking and sharing great food. She will look for great food wherever it can be found, whether it’s on a street-side cart or a Michelin-starred restaurant. As part of her mission to see everyone eat well, she has launched SomaPersonalChefs.com to create a place where busy families and individuals can find customized in-home cooking help and chefs can share their cooking talent.