Bulgogi is a popular Korean dish usually consisting of marinated beef that is thinly sliced and cooked over a grill. It translates to fire (bul) meat (gogi), referring the grilling of the meat over an open flame, however it is common to see this dish being pan-cooked as well. There are different variations of the marinade, but they are all usually slightly sweet, making it especially appealing to those that don’t like spicy food. Soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, onions, pepper, ginger, and sugar are common ingredients for the marinade, and you’ll sometimes find fruits such as crushed pear added for sweetness (my favorite!). When bulgogi is pan-cooked, vegetables like mushrooms, carrots, green onions and bok choy are often added, resulting in more of a soupy dish rather than just the grilled meat. I still haven’t decided which way I prefer bulgogi to be prepared, but I have come to the conclusion that I like to eat pan-cooked bulgogi with rice and grilled bulgogi with lettuce or perilla leaves for wrapping. I can’t wait to get in the kitchen and try my own version!
Mandu guk is a simple, yet very satisfying soup. The literal translation is dumpling soup, a meal typically eaten in the fall and winter. The hearty, non-spicy broth is usually beef based in which the dumplings are boiled, along with green onions, garlic, kelp and sometimes anchovies. This soup often comes garnished with egg and dried seaweed.
Tteok mandu guk, or rice cake and dumpling soup, is traditionally enjoyed by Koreans on Lunar New Year’s Day. This version of soup includes slices of rice cake in addition to the dumplings. The whiteness of the broth symbolizes purity and the tteok, shaped like old currency, represents a prosperous year. Maturity also comes into play since Koreans turn another year older on New Year’s Day rather than their birthday. It is said that you won’t become a year older until you’ve consumed your tteok mandu guk. Maybe I’ll skip the soup this year and be 30 again.
Mandu (Korean dumplings) are not just found in this soup, they are frequently eaten on their own as a snack, appetizer or side dish. More often than not I see them steamed, but they can also be served pan fried or deep fried with a side of soy sauce for dipping. So far I’ve only seen two kinds of mandu—gogi (meat, usually pork) mandu and kimchi mandu. Both kinds usually include minced onions, mung bean sprouts, garlic, ginger, and sometimes glass noodles. I still haven’t decided which one I prefer, but I do think I enjoy them best in soup.
‘Tis the season to bundle up and eat hot soup, so I thought I’d post about another traditional Korean dish that I like particularly like when it’s cold out. Doengjang jjigae is a stew made with fermented soy bean paste, or doenjeang, which is an essential element in Korean cuisine. I think many foreigners are initially turned off by this dish, mostly because doengjang is so pungent. Fermented soy bean paste doesn’t necessarily sound too appetizing, either. However, the hearty flavor of this dish is unlike any other soup or stew I’ve tried, and I love it.
The broth is usually comprised of doenjang, anchovy stock, garlic and Korean red pepper powder or flakes (gochugaru), which creates a perfect blend of spicy saltiness. Onions, zucchini, tofu, mushrooms and potatoes are added to the broth, making a deliciously balanced stew (clams, pork or beef are also sometimes included, depending on the recipe). Doenjang jjigae is often served as a side dish at barbecue restaurants, but lately I’ve been ordering it on it’s own with a bowl of rice for a cheap, healthy and quick dinner. If you ever have the opportunity to try it, I highly recommend doing so.
One of the things I love about Korea is the sense of community built around food and the interactivity that happens right at the dinner table. Many meals are “family style” where dishes are shared and cooked on your tabletop. Korean barbecue is one of those meals and one that I never get tired of. Samgyeopsal, which is pork belly, is the quintessential cut of meat for Korean barbecue. It’s ordered by the gram, usually 100-200 per person, and is brought to your table raw, unseasoned and un-marinated. That may sound a bit boring, but once it starts sizzling on the gas or charcoal grill built into your table, you won’t be disappointed.
Samgyeopsal is always served with ssamjang (a thick dipping sauce made with red pepper paste and fermented soybean paste) and either a little bowl of course salt or a sesame oil and salt combination. Once the pork is nice and crispy on the outside, I like to dip it in the two and wrap it up in a lettuce or perilla leaf which are also always served with samgyeopsal. I also like to add garlic, cloves of which are grilled at your table alongside the pork. Sometimes grilled kimchi is a nice addition as well. Like all Korean meals, an array of banchan (side dishes) will be brought to your table along with the samgyeopsal, kimchi, garlic and lettuce. Typically you’ll get a soup, pickled radish, onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and some marinated seaweed, among other things. It varies from place to place, but they’re always free with your meal and refillable at no extra cost.
Usually one person in your dinner party takes charge of the grill at your table. I’ve had a few different experiences in terms of how much the staff help out, however. The first time David came to visit I was so excited to share a traditional Korean barbecue meal with him, but we were both disappointed when the woman working there wouldn’t leave our table. She just stood there, manning the grill until all the meat was cooked (at the time I was still fairly new to Korea and didn’t know how to politely ask her to leave and let us grill our own meat). That is the only time I’ve had the staff babysit the grill like that, though. Most of the time they leave you to do it on your own, or they might step in and flip your meat over if they see you’ve left it too long on one side. Either way, if you feel like you do need help or a refill of some sort, you can call the staff over by simply pushing a button at your table.
I suppose some people might not enjoy the aspect of cooking your own food at a restaurant. Isn’t not having to do the cooking the point of going out for dinner? For some, maybe. I happen to love the communal, interactive dining experience, and the fact that I don’t have to wash any of the dishes afterwards makes it even better.
Shabu Shabu is not a traditional Korean dish, it’s Japanese. Actually, the idea originates from Chinese hot pot dishes, but it is very popular in Korea (not to mention delicious and healthy), so I had to share. There are various kinds of shabu shabu, but what you will always find at these restaurants is a pot of boiling stock in the middle of your table, to which you’ll add an array of vegetables and then cook your meat in it. Sometimes there is also a grill along the outside of the pot for cooking meat, and at Vietnamese style shabu shabu restaurants you’ll find rice paper on the table to wrap up your meat and vegetables and then dip in various sauces.
The important thing to remember when going to a shabu shabu restaurant is you must bring a big appetite because you will eat a lot (the first time I experienced this meal I could barely walk home, I was that full). This is because there are several “courses” involved, and it’s hard to stop eating when it tastes so good. You begin by choosing a set of meat which will automatically come with loads of vegetables, plus noodles and rice. You’ll also get a variety of traditional Korean side dishes (called banchan). Originally, this dish was made with thinly sliced beef, which you only need to briefly dip in the stock to cook, but you will also see pork, duck, and seafood listed as options in meat sets.
One of the things I love about this meal is how beautiful it is, especially right when they begin arranging all the dishes on your table. I tried to capture it on camera, but I found that a little hard to do because I was so distracted by the deliciousness.
Its been a long time since I was in elementary school, but I don’t I recall anyone ever saying they were looking forward to their school’s lunch. I hear they’ve improved since I was kid, but I’m guessing you still can’t really call them balanced, nutritious, or delicious. In Korea, since all students, staff and teachers eat together, school lunch is something I actually look forward to as I find them really tasty and quite healthy. While there’s variety in what ingredients are used each day, there’s always a soup of some sort, a vegetable, a protein, kimchi, rice, and either a piece of fruit, fruit juice, or yogurt. In other words, a pretty balanced meal.
Perhaps part of the reason public school lunches are better than American lunches is they aren’t free (with the exception of Seoul, where after much controversy in 2011, free lunches are now provided to all elementary and middle school students). As a teacher in a rural school, 3,000 won (just under $2) is deducted from my paycheck per meal and students pay roughly 40,000 won per month. Eating the school’s lunch is not mandatory, but I really don’t see how I could pack a lunch that would be just as good for any cheaper. I also think it helps that the smaller of my two schools has a large vegetable garden, providing the freshest ingredients.
Bibimbap was one of the first traditional dishes I had after arriving in Korea (I even had an airplane version on the way over, and though it was quite tasty for airplane food, it didn’t compare to the real deal). It basically translates to mixed rice and traditionally consists of warm rice topped with seasoned vegetables, an egg and a modest amount of thinly sliced beef. Bibimbap is famous in the city of Jeonju where it was first found in a cookbook—Siuijeonseo from the 19th century—and is believed to have been a royal dish/snack from the Joseon Dynasty. (I was lucky enough to enjoy a large bowl of traditional Jeonju bibimbap during my EPIK orientation, but unfortunately didn’t get a picture of it.)
Usually, bibimbap is served either cold with a fried egg on top or in a sizzling hot stone pot with a raw egg which cooks when you mix everything together. The latter, called dolsot bibimbap, is my favorite. The stone pot is lightly coated with sesame oil and because it’s so hot, the bottom layer of rice gets slightly crispy. Gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) is typically served right on top in the bowl alongside the vegetables and the egg. Once mixed together thoroughly, you’re in for spoonfuls of deliciousness (yes, Koreans eat bibimbap with a spoon, not chopsticks).
Kimbap, also known as gimbap, is the ultimate picnic food of Korea. It’s cheap, easy to make (or purchase) ahead of time and easily eaten on-the-go. The two main ingredients are dried seaweed (kim or gim) and white rice (bap). Various veggies and meats accompany the rice which is wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed. It looks very similar to sushi, however raw fish is not used in kimbap, and the rice is seasoned with sesame oil and sesame seeds rather than rice vinegar. The most common ingredients in basic kimbap are cucumber, carrot, fried egg, radish, imitation crab and spam (yes, spam is everywhere in Korea). You’ll also see canned tuna (chamchi kimbap), cheese (chijeu kimbap), beef (soegogi kimbap) and of course kimchi as ingredients as well.
This healthy Korean dish is another one of my favorites so far, and I haven’t even tried it in its originating city yet. Dak galbi, which translates to chicken ribs despite the fact that chicken thigh or breast is usually used, is a specialty of Chuncheon in Gangwon Province. It consists of marinated diced chicken cooked in gochujang (hot pepper paste) along with green onions, sweet potato, cabbage, and tteok (rice cake). It’s quit spicy (surprise!) but oh-so-flavorful. Like many Korean dishes, it’s cooked at your table and is meant to be shared. Oftentimes dak galbi is served with leaves of lettuce as well as ice cold bowls of pickled radish for when the heat really gets to you.
What do you do when your fermented cabbage becomes a little too fermented? Make a soup! At least that’s what Koreans do and it’s delicious. Kimchi jjigae is one of my favorite Korean dishes so far. Right now I’d say I could eat it everyday and not get tired of it (ask me again when summer comes).
Jjigae, meaning soup or stew, is a regularly consumed dish in Korea and there are many different varieties, although kimchi jjigae is the only type I’ve tried so far. The more fermented the kimchi the better, as it creates a fuller flavor. Tofu, green onions, and pork are often included and it’s seasoned with garlic and dongjang (bean paste) or gochujang (red pepper paste). As you can imagine, it’s quite spicy. You also might think it would taste quite sour (you are eating aged kimchi), however I don’t find it to be at all. In fact, I forget that I’m even eating kimchi by the spoonful. The combination of the pork, veggies, gochujang and kimchi boiling in one pot creates an awesome flavor.