Everyone knows Chinese food. And most people at least know what sushi is, and have had a bowl of ramen in some way, shape or form and can pretend know what the gist of Japanese cooking is. Thai curries and pad thai have acclaimed much fame, and Vietnamese even kind of has exploded and become a bit of a thing everywhere with pho and banh mi becoming mainstream. But as far as Korean food is concerned, that's been surprisingly under the radar for a lot of people, especially in the South. Defiantly authentic, unlike it's other counterparts which have sacrificed a lot of tradition in favor of dipping a bit into the melting pot for business, Korean food has always been made for Korean people, unfazed by the pressures of American taste buds. Fortunately, it's really delicious, and fairly no-fear stuff, featuring flavors we all know and love in an Asian backdrop. The following is the big information dump that you need to know before entering the big, beautiful world of Korean cooking.
Banchan is your typical set of a bijillion side dishes that unload the table during each meal. They can be a lot of things (I've had up to 16 dishes at once at some places), but the staples tend to be kimchi (we'll talk about this), a spicy cucumber thing, cold potatoes with a sweet cream, japchae (sweet potato noodles, personal favorite) and often some cold blanched beans sprouts. There are many more, all of which are tasty, delicious, and varying in textures and taste.
Kimchi, The Must Know of Korean Food
Spicy fermented cabbage really wasn't a winning name, so we keep to calling it kimchi here in the United States. And it really is so much more delicious then its unglamorous description. Spicy, crunchy, and like wine, full of varying flavors that make each and every jar a bit different, it's the must-have at every Korean meal, whether as a side or incorporated into the main dish in some delicious way. Koreans are known to fly back to the United States with cases of this stuff. The most authentic kimchi is a long and complicated process, but there are also several recipes for quick kimchi you can make at home as well.
Bulgogi, the National Dish for Meatlovers
Every culture has a great meat dish to prey on, and for Koreans bulgogi (sometimes called Galbi, difference is in how thick or thin it is sliced) is the basic signature they like to stand on. Beef, chicken, or pork can be used (almost always beef though), but the key being the special marinade of soy, sesame oil, sugar, garlic, pepper, and other magical things, grilled over open flame that make it so magical. The fanciest serving is often over a burner right at your own table, ensuring the fresh and hottest bites you can get, often making for a fragrant meal. Bulgogi often goes into various dishes as well, particularly their big rice dish, bibimbap.
Bibimbap, What Fried Rice Wishes it Could Be
One of the most comforting Korean things you can have after a long hard day, bibimbap basically means "mixed rice." It comes in two ways, the basic way where a rice is topped by a variety of vegetables, usually kimchi, shredded carrots and various greens along with a fried egg on top, or the spectacular and often worthy of the extra dollar or so dolsot bibimbap, which puts the rice in a hot stone bowl which caramelizes and crisps the rice to perfection. Both bowls usually come with a bottle of magical red pepper paste sauce, which gives the dish a deep sweet and spicy flavor. It's really pretty when it hits the table, but the secret to eating it is to get everything together and mash the hell out of it until you get something like a fried rice consistency, and then enjoy.
Panjeon, It's the Savory Person's Pancake
No really! Usually vegetables thinly sliced with chunks of seafood depending on the type of panjeon, or just vegetarian, it's a thin savory pancake often served as an appetizer. I sometimes wake up in the morning and fry up a batch for breakfast for a hearty breakfast (surely breaking some ancient rule).
Duk Bokki, Let's Pretend That's What it is Called
Think of it as the Korean version of gnocchi, these chewy pieces of dough are made from rice cakes, pan-fried lightly and then tossed in a spicy sauce for a warm and comforting bite. Really addicting with the chewy rice cakes and sauce.
There's plenty more to explore as far as Korean food is concerned, but this guide hopefully acts as a decent head start into the world of Korean cooking. It's really tasty stuff that's fairly healthy and just flat out good. Do yourself a favor and head out to a local restaurant to get a big, giant bowl of bibimbap with all the fixings now!
Places to Try:
DJ House, in Columbia, SC
Blue Cactus, in Columbia, SC
Tasty Korean BBQ, in Greenville, SC