When Koreans greet each other, they often say “Did you have lunch (dinner)?” instead of saying “Hello”. Some say that this kind of greeting originated in the experience of extreme hunger from the Korean War. However, Korean War happened almost 70 years ago. In my opinion, this greeting resulted from our culture that we’re so closely related to one another as one ethnic race. If my brother or cousin starves, I may feel guilty and responsible for their hunger. Koreans are all related anyway. So, I feel like I have to feed someone if she (he) didn’t eat. Eating is that important to Koreans, and most Korean foods are based on the culture of feeding and sharing.
I went to the US in my thirties, lived there for over ten years, and I came back to Korea recently. While I lived in the US, I cooked a lot of Korean food and let other people (mostly non-Koreans) taste the food. I have been observing their reactions, and learned which types of Korean food was a hit and which were not. They may say “this is…interesting”, meaning “I don’t want to try it again”. However, cooking and feeding was the easiest way to get closer to curious Americans, and Korean food worked very well to introduce myself and my country.
I was often asked to show how to cook Korean food by my foreign friends. I selected these ten Korean dishes based on my experiences with them in the US.
1) Kimchi (김치)
Kimchi is one of the most representative foods of Korea. It’s not a main dish, but a side dish that accompanies almost every Korean meal. Kimchi is a fermented food made of Napa cabbage, fermented fish, garlic and red pepper flakes (these are main ingredients). It has some similarities with Sauerkraut, but with more complicated taste. The texture of Korean cabbage (or Napa cabbage) is very strong, so when it’s fermented with salt and fish sauce, it can last for a long time in cold temperatures (like in the refrigerator). The red pepper based marinade is absorbed into the cabbage texture and the fermentation turns the taste of cabbage attractively sour. Fermented fish (or fish sauce) and starch porridge help it fermented, and red pepper flakes (or powder) and garlics add wonderful depth. You can also add green onions, radish, yellow onion, sugar, pears and apples to amplify the taste. Fermented kimchi is also applied for other Korean dishes such as kimchi-fried rice, kimchi stew, kimchi pancakes and so on.
2) Sundubu Jjigae (순두부찌개)
Sundubu Jjigae or Korean Soft Tofu Stew is a spicy stew made with soft tofu and a few vegetables such as zucchini or mushrooms. Meat or seafood are additional ingredients. As soft tofu itself doesn’t have a particular taste, the taste of the broth is very important. Koreans usually use anchovy broth and add chili oil at the end. Chili oil is made of red chili (pepper) powder and garlic, and add very savory taste to the stew.
This stew is truly a “comfort food” for Koreans. When it’s raining or cold, people like to eat Sunubu Jjigae to warm their bodies and souls as well.
3) Bibimbap (비빔밥)
Bibimbap is a world famous Korean food, and also known for the late Michael Jackson’s favorite Korean food. “Bibim” means “mixing”, and “bap” means “rice”.
It’s a type of rice bowl, topped with various kinds of cooked vegetables and some meat. Before eating it, you should mix the rice and the toppings with Gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) and sesame oil. As Bibimbap is a one bowl meal, you don’t need any side dishes. For eaters, Bibimbap may seem like a very simple and convenient food, but for cooks, it’s a totally different story. You have to prepare and cook each ingredient separately. So, when you have to feed a big group of people at once, making Bibimbap could be a very smart choice.
Bibimbap is also very versatile, because you can make your own style of bibimbap, depending on your situations and taste. You can make it very fancy with tens of cooked vegetables and meat, but you can also make it very humble with a few left-over vegetables.
4) Japchae (잡채)
Japchae or Korean Glass Noodles are among “Americans’ Most Favorite Korean Dishes”. The basic sauce is composed of soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. It is characterized by the unique texture of transparent glass noodles made from sweet potato starch, and the overall sweet taste of vegetables and meat.
I have been making this for many American friends for over 10 years, and most of them like it. They often ask me how to make it, but they seem to give up learning while listening, because the recipe sounds somewhat complicated.
Actually, the traditional recipe is quite complicated. To cook the glass noodles, you have to soak, boil, rinse, drain and stir fry the noodles. So I tried to simplify the process, but still make it delicious. You will just “soak” and “boil” the noodle with my recipe.
5) Tteok-bokki (떡볶이)
Tteok-bokki is made with “white” cylindrical rice cakes and gochujang seasoning which includes sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil and so on. Rice cakes are made in a variety of forms, and ordinary rice cakes are desserts which have very sweet taste, but these cylindrical rice cakes for “Tteok-bokki” are not sweet at all. Because the rice cakes do not have a particular taste, the seasoning and soup around the rice cakes eventually characterize the taste. In addition to the gochujang seasoning, vegetables such as cabbage, carrot, and green onions are added to the soup to amplify the taste.
Tteok-bokki is one of the most familiar foods to Koreans, and I could say that I was raised on Tteok-bokki especially when I was a teenager. There was a small Tteok-bokki restaurant around my school, and my friends and I went to eat Tteok-bokki almost every day. Eating Tteok-bokki after school was our way of beating stress. Tteok-bokki has been evolving, so there are various types of Tteok-bokki. Today, I’d like to make my hometown style Tteok-bokki, which reminds me of the Tteok-bokki restaurant near my high school.
6) Bulgogi (불고기)
Bulgogi is grilled or stir-fried beef that is sliced thinly and then marinated with soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil. Since beef used to be expensive in Korea, bulgogi was a food that we could only enjoy on special days like birthdays or holidays. However, cheaper beef is imported from United States or Australia nowadays, Bulgogi has become more common. Almost all foreign friends of mine liked Bulgogi, but only one Israeli friend did not like it. She explained, “It is hard to accept that a meat dish is sweet.”
In order to make Bulgogi, you have to ask a butcher to slice your beef wafer-thin. (Or you can just buy a pack of frozen sliced beef at a Korean grocery store.) As the beef slice is so thin, any kind of beef can be used for Bulgogi. You don’t have to buy fancy Rib-eye steak. Sirloin is good enough for Bulgogi. Actually, I prefer sirloin for Bulgogi, because it has less fat than rib-eye. Bulgogi is truly easy to make, and takes under 20 minutes. The key ingredients are only sliced beef, soy-sauce, sugar, garlic and oil.
7) Pork Bulgogi (돼지불고기)
We will also call it Pork Jumulleck. “Jumulleock” means a “tossing” of ingredients. So, you gently toss the sliced pork with gochujang marinade, and stir fry or grill it. It is very easy!
I would use pork neck, and my local butcher advised me to slice pork neck a little bit thicker than beef for bulgogi. Pork is more tender than beef, so you don’t have to slice it too thin. You can also use pork sirloin or pork belly. If you cook it over charcoal fire, the taste will also be most fantastic.
The recipe is very similar to that of beef bulgogi, but you have to add some red-pepper paste to the marinade. This red-pepper paste or Gochujang goes really well with pork. If you are a spicy food lover, you can add more Gochujang or red-pepper powder!
8) Buchimgae (부침개)
If memory serves me correctly, Buchimgae or Korean Pancake was one of “the most loved” dishes by my American friends. It translates to Korean pancake, but it has no butter or baking powder. It’s more similar to fritters, but Buchimgae batter has the water ratio of pancakes. Buchimgae is a great food for potluck parties like fritters.
I usually make Buchimgae with my leftover vegetables in the refrigerator. You can use any kind of vegetables, but Koreans prefer green onions, yellow onion or chives. These are all relatives of garlic, and they become very sweet and flavorful when cooked.
You can make Buchimgae thick or thin as you wish, like pizza, but my favorite is thin and crispy Buchimgae. Let me show you my secret recipe!
9) Gimbap or Kimbap (김밥)
Gimbap is a Korean dish made from cooked rice and other ingredients that are rolled in a sheet of seaweed and served in bite-sized slices. For Koreans, Kimbap is stamped with the image of a ‘picnic’ or ‘autumn sports day’ of elementary schools. In other words, it is associated with the most pleasing days for children. On the day of a picnic, I would wake up in the morning to find that my mother already made Kimbap lunchbox for me. As soon as I opened my Kimbap lunchbox at the picnic place, I compared it with my friends’ lunchbox. So, we decided whose Kimbap was the most beautiful or tasty. Now, Kimbap places can be found all over the streets, so you can buy and eat Kimbap any time, but the taste of my mom’s Kimbap is incomparable and unforgettable.
10) Budae-Jjigae (부대찌개)
Budae-Jjigae is a type of stew, made with ham, sausage, spam, baked beans, and gochujang based sauce. The stew is usually cooked in the middle of the table and served instantly on the spot.
Budae-Jjigae is related to the tragic history of Korean War. During the war, foods were scarce and many Koreans were hungry. So, some Koreans created a stew with the canned rations from the American Army Bases and available Korean ingredients such as potatoes or kimchi.
As you see, Spam, sausage, baked beans must have been from American canned foods, and other ingredients are kimchi and any kinds of vegetables. So, you can improvise but the Spam ham and the spicy sauce are a must. I tried to use the minimum ingredients. In order to enjoy the real taste of Budae-Jjigae, you must have an empty stomach and feel very hungry!