Keen on Korean

September 1, 2003

19 Min Read
Keen on           Korean

September 2003

Keen on Korean

By Susheela UhlContributing Editor

Korean cuisine boasts many flavorful delights, from bulgogi, marinated beef barbecue, to a variety of vegetable side dishes (namul), to fiery pickled kimchi. Savor the tastes of Korea through its mainstay of rice, fish and pickled vegetables, and an array of side dishes flavored with sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger and red-hot peppers.

Natural diversityKorea’s natural resources give its cuisine a great diversity of ingredients. Water surrounds its long coastline. To the west is the Yellow Sea, which connects Korea to mainland China in the south, and where shellfish and seaweed abound. The deeper east-coast waters facing Japan harbor a multitude of seafood. The interior lowland plains grow vegetables and grains while the uplands produce nuts and fruits. The steep mountains are an important source of mushrooms, wild vegetables, roots and herbs. In addition, the country’s four seasons give meals seasonal variation. The harsh winters have also encouraged preservation of seafood and vegetables, including salting and pickling.

A Korean meal is generally low in calories and rich in grains and vegetables, with moderate protein, low fat and low sugar. Its flavors and textures are well balanced.

Korean ancestors came from Mongolia and Manchuria, and many of the land’s dishes reflect this heritage. Also, Japan controlled it for many years, lending many ingredients and cooking techniques; most Korean dishes, however, are more intense, pungent and spicy. Sophisticated shinsollo, hot-pots once served for royal families, combined with robust, hearty flavors using wild roots, salt fish, vegetables and wild meats, have created a unique cuisine.

Religion also shapes Korean cuisine. Buddhism and Confucianism play significant roles in the daily lives of Koreans, and special meals are prepared during religious and festive days. Buddhism has given rise to a simple vegetarian cuisine, using wild plants, herbs and roots, in dishes such as acorn curd with wild leeks, stewed mushrooms, charcoal-grilled wild roots and pickled wild greens.

American SeoulThe first Korean immigrants settled in Hawaii in 1903. Today, they comprise 10.5% of Asian-Americans, and are the fourth-largest Asian group, after Chinese, Filipinos and Asian Indians. Their growth rate was 135% from 1980 to 1990. Korean communities are found largely in Maryland, California, New York and Washington.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, Koreans have the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the United States, with many owning green grocers, delis, fish markets, restaurants and large supermarkets. These venues commonly sell Korean ginseng, kimchis, barbecue sauces, marinades for bulgogi and grilled short ribs of beef or pork (kalbi), salted dried fish, a variety of fresh seafood and vegetables, seaweed, dried herbs, noodles, mushrooms, and other Asian items. Many Korean-owned stores have self-service salad bars with hot dishes for lunch or as quick meals. Supermarkets have sushi bars, restaurants that serve noodles, barbecued meats, rice dishes and soups, as well as bakeries on their premises. Han Ah Reum Inc., one of the biggest Korean retail chains, has about 15 stores in the United States.

Larger Korean neighborhoods are home to many restaurants featuring native dishes, some of which also serve Japanese foods, sometimes combining both cuisines in one meal. For instance, Kang Suh, a restaurant in Yonkers, New York, serves lunch in a bento, or Japanese-style lunch box, to create kalbi or pulgogi boxes; miyuk (brown seaweed), jogae (clam) or mandu soups accompany the meals, along with Japanese and Korean food items. The menu also has hot-pot and “royal” dishes. Hot-pot dishes include gopchang jun gol (beef intestine and/or tripe with vegetables); kimchi, meat and vegetables; noodles, sliced beef and vegetables; and mixed seafood and vegetables, all served in a spicy broth and accompanied with dipping sauces.

Eating for health and harmonyPanchan, or side dishes, are central to Korean meals. Eating Korean-style means grazing over a whole range of foods, picking and nibbling a bit of this and that with spoonfuls of rice. All dishes are served together, except hot soups, and are eaten with chopsticks and spoons.

Koreans, like the Chinese, eat foods to maintain good health and to prevent ailments. Ingredients and cooking methods are balanced to achieve harmony of body and mind. In a meal, savory spicy barbecue is balanced with namuls; crispy steamed vegetables with fried foods; and fresh, crunchy, cold salads with salted, preserved kimchis. Barley or ginger tea aids digestion after a meal.

A traditional Korean breakfast includes soup, rice, kimchi and an array of side dishes such as tofu (tubu in Korean) or red-bean soup, with water kimchi, dried anchovies, beef strips, steamed fish, eggplant salad, or a cooked egg on top of rice gruel. Lunch is generally light, consisting of a noodle or rice bowl with vegetables; soups with tubu, flavored with soybean paste (twoenjang/denjang) and chili flakes; or steamed rice with side dishes.

Korea’s basic meal is steamed rice, but is sometimes cooked with barley or soybeans, with many side dishes, including cold soup, kimchis, and meat, seafood and/or vegetable side dishes. Fruits end the meal. Each person has his or her own bowl of soup and rice, but shares the other dishes. The panchan might include two or three types of kimchi prepared with vegetables, meats or seafood; grilled or steamed fish; barbecued meats; bowls of raw or slightly steamed namuls; and fried foods.

Rice and kimchi create wonderful flavor and texture combinations in a meal. Fiery kimchi is balanced by bland white rice, battered, fried radish is balanced by cold sesame-scented spinach, and smoky sweet barbecued meats are combined with pungent steamed fish. This diversity of dishes and cooking methods emphasizes the balance of flavors and textures in a meal for overall well-being.

It’s a wrapKoreans enjoy nibbling on a variety of leaves prepared in different ways. Lettuce, sesame, chrysanthemum and perilla leaves are seasoned or blanched, filled with pieces of meat, rice and kochujang, a hot fermented chili paste, and rolled up and eaten. Sesame leaves, which have a light anise-like flavor, are eaten raw or stuffed with meat, then battered and fried. Perilla leaves, which have a mint-like aroma, generally accompany pulgogi. Watercress is blanched and made into namul.

Basic seasonings include red chili pepper, sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, green onion, vinegar and rice wine, which are combined in various ways to enhance dishes.

Koreans enjoy a variety of savory, salty, spicy, sweet and pungent nibblers called anjus, which are eaten as snacks or accompany alcohol and beer. Pancakes, vegetable and meat fritters, grilled cuttlefish, kimchi, grilled pork belly, flame-roasted laver (kimgui), rice rolls, fried or steamed dumplings (mandu), deep-fried oysters, and stuffed sesame leaves are some everyday snacks.

Many variations of pancakes, or jon, prepared with fish, meat or vegetables, are a vital part of everyday Korean diets. They are taken as quick meals, snacks and during outdoor activities. Meats, seafood, vegetables, tofu or chile peppers are dipped in flour, then in an egg mixture and deep-fried. After frying, they are dipped in chojung, a vinegar-chili sauce.

Panjon is a popular rice-flour and scallion and/or green-onion pancake with infinite variations. Gool panjon, an oyster and scallion pancake, and seafood panjon are two traditional types. They are sold everywhere — by street vendors, at restaurants, or served at bars with drinks. Kujolpan is a classic appetizer dish with pancakes in the center, surrounded by different fillings — carrot and cucumber strips, bean sprouts, grilled meats, prawns or eggs. Each person makes his or her own variation of stuffed pancake.

Soup’s onKoreans serve soups, called guk or tang, at every meal generally for comfort or nourishment during winter or for “healing.” These can be simple cold soups or thin hot soups with beef, chicken or pork flavors. Everyday soups contain soybean sprouts, tubu, fresh vegetables, seaweed, clam and chicken. Other soups include hae jang guk, a deep earthy soup with tripe, blood sausage, bean sprouts and vegetables; hae-do-mandoo guk, a beef broth with dumplings, beef strips and noodles; and gom tang, a bone-marrow broth with sweet-potato noodles, black pepper and an egg.

Hot and cold soups contain chicken, meatballs, dumplings, fiddlehead fern or mushrooms. A cold beef-broth soup with noodles and cold cucumber soup are popular during the hot summers. “Healing” soups include cucumber soup with barbecued beef to aid digestion; bean-sprout soup to stimulate digestion; and kimchi soup with pork or beef to help relieve colds and congestion.

Hearty soups and stews become meals during the cold months and include chicken and ginseng, wild vegetables, bean curd, meats or seafood with noodles or glutinous rice. A popular one-pot stew called chongol is traditionally prepared at the table over a burner in a seasoned, simmering stock with vegetables, meats, tofu, seaweed jelly (konnyaku) and/or seafood. Popular rice-based soups, which contain sticky rice with red beans, pine nuts and ginseng, chicken and jujubes (Chinese dates) or mung beans, are taken to renew energy and promote good health.

A Korean meal ends with a variety of fresh fruits. Desserts or sweets such as rice cakes, candied dates or sesame balls are not part of daily meals, but are prepared during festive or special occasions, or taken as snacks. They are generally made from glutinous rice, and include sweet, fried rice cakes; steamed half-moon cakes; sweet spiced rice with nuts, raisins and spices; honey cakes; sesame cakes flavored with cinnamon, brown sugar, sesame oil and pine nuts; and candied ginger or chestnuts.

Beverages include wines from rice, sweet potatoes and barley, and teas made from rice (called poricha), roast barley, ginger or ginseng. Barley and ginger teas are popular with meals, while special occasions call for persimmon punch.

Main grainsAlthough barley, sorghum and millet are mainstay carbohydrates, rice is the most significant grain in the Korean daily diet. A meal is incomplete without rice, and a bowl of it is a must for everyone at the table.

Two rice types are popular: medium-grained, slightly sticky rice for meals, and short-grained, glutinous or sweet sticky rice for desserts and snacks. Boiled white rice (bap) is eaten with everything at any time of day, and it buffers the chili-based, pungent and salty foods. In the north, rice is cooked with pearl barley or millet, which adds a crunchy texture, and the dish is topped with eggs, vegetables or meats. Rice dishes also incorporate bean sprouts, chestnuts, and red or black beans, which give crunchiness or nuttiness.

The classic rice dish bibimbap can be served at room temperature topped with vegetables and/or meats, or served hot, cooked in a clay pot with vegetables and meat. It is seasoned with kochujang, toasted sesame seeds, scallions and sesame oil, and topped with a cooked or raw egg. Anchovy paste, pickled radish, cabbage kimchi and/or sautéed scallion accompany it.

Rice gruel or porridge is popular at breakfast, on special occasions, or as a medicine when sick. It is complemented with fish, abalone, pine nuts, namul and grilled meat, alongside dipping sauces.

Like the Chinese, Koreans consider noodles a symbol of longevity, and eat them at any time of the day. Buckwheat and wheat noodles are popular in the north, while residents of the south favor rice, mung-bean and sweet-potato noodles.

Since Koreans are noodle lovers, vendors in every street corner serve noodle bowls containing fresh or instant noodles for lunch, as snacks or as meals-on-the-go. The three classic noodle dishes include: chapchae, transparent, slippery glass noodles made from sweet-potato starch, topped with vegetables and strips of stir-fried beef, and flavored with sesame oil; kuksu from wheat noodles topped with pork, egg and sharp, vinegary cucumber; and naengmyon, chewy buckwheat noodles in a sharp, vinegary broth, garnished with boiled beef and crunchy sliced pear, or hard-boiled eggs and radish, spiked with chiles. These noodle dishes have many variations depending on the regional preferences.

Turf and surfChicken is a popular meat in Korean cuisine, but beef is the favorite. Pulgogi, or Korean barbecue, is the country’s national dish. Thin strips of beef or chicken (and sometimes squid or octopus) are marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger, and cooked over hot charcoal. Beef is also stir-fried, braised, skewered as kebabs with mushrooms and green onions, or cooked as pot roast. Another popular meat dish is kalbi.

Pulgogi and kalbi also flavor soups and stews. Meats blended with red chiles and other seasonings serve as dipping sauces for cooked white rice. Leftover meat is cooked with fried rice, noodles, or simply stir-fried. Korean minced patties, served with rice and namul, consist of beef or bean curd with fresh chiles, garlic, kimchi and ginger.

Pork, which is less expensive than beef, is more popular in the north. It is barbecued, made into spicy spare ribs, cutlets, or stir-fried with kimchi. Soon day, sausages made from pig’s intestine, are stuffed with rice, seasonings, pork, and beef blood or tomato puree. Marinated barbecued chicken, or takkui, is also a Korean favorite. Other popular chicken preparations include braised chicken in soy sauce, chicken and ginseng soup, chicken pulgogi and skewered chicken with green onions.

Salted and pickled fish are part of the everyday Korean diet. The long stretches of coastline provide a great variety of seafood, including red snapper, cod, herring, mackerel, tuna, sea bass, halibut and sole. Seafood is seasoned and cooked whole, barbecued, braised, stir-fried, skewered, steamed, deep-fried or pan-fried to create endless concoctions. Oysters, octopus, squid, prawns, clams, sea snails, abalone and mussels are added to stews, soups, salads and noodles, or dried or pickled.

Commonly consumed seafood items include oysters in kochujang, soused shrimp, pickled cod’s roe, pickled octopus and salted pollock. Snacks include ojingo, cuttlefish dried or cooked over flame, and marunmylchi, deep-fried anchovies seasoned with red chili paste, garlic and sugar. Salted, shredded pollock strips (pugomuchim) and crab stew with miso and chili paste (gae-chang) are served at meals. Salted or soused fish and salted prawns (saeujot) are pickled for kimchi.

Greens and beansVegetables are an integral part of Korean daily diet. Namuls are fresh salads, or slightly steamed or fried vegetables, seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil, and tossed with toasted sesame seeds. Popular vegetables include burdock root, radish, turnip, lotus root, fiddlehead fern, Korean cabbage, spinach, broccoli, watercress, mustard greens, cucumber, carrot and eggplant. Bean sprouts, both from mung beans and soybeans, and shiitake, wood-ear and stone mushrooms are favorites. Mustard greens or crunchy white radish are eaten as cold salads. Wild vegetables, herbs and roots such as kosari, chui, toraji and todok are eaten fresh or dried. White potatoes and sweet potatoes, including their stems, are also commonly eaten.

Bean curd is added to soups or stews, pan-fried or deep-fried, or braised with meats and vegetables. Roasted chestnuts add texture to soups and stews or are made into sweets, and pine nuts are ground for sweet cakes, or used as a garnish. Gingko nuts are snacked on, or dipped in honey and added as a garnish for festive dishes. Seasoned with chile peppers and vinegar sauce, Korean ginseng is eaten as a rejuvenating food, added to chicken dishes, or made into tea called insam cha. Black soybeans — marinated in soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil — and red beans act as garnish, snacks and desserts.

Kimchi, an indispensable staple in Korean diet since ancient times, is a fermented spicy vegetable that accompanies every meal. It was created as a dependable source of food and condiment for the harsh winter months. There are more than 200 known types of kimchi, with seasonal and regional variations. They have different flavors and textures and are made from cabbage, turnip, cucumber, eggplant, leeks, scallions, fruits and or herbs, mixed with red chiles and other seasonings. Kimchi is also made with meats, salted fish and other seafood. Today, broccoli, tomatoes and other types of cabbages are used.

Kimchi incorporates seven flavors: hot, salty, sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and brothy (umami). According to traditional medicine, the seven flavors stimulate the appetite and help digestion. Each region in Korea has its favorite kimchi: around Seoul and the south, it is a crunchy kimchi with abalone, pine nuts, ginkgo and pickled raw fish; the northwest prefers a fresh, crispy white-radish kimchi with less spicing; in the southwest, a hot-pepper and salt-type kimchi is most popular; and in the east, pickled and fermented fish are added.

In the United States, a number of small Korean-owned companies produce kimchis for the Korean and Japanese communities. Bingre Kimchee Pride Inc., Maspeth, NY, creates many types of kimchi using different raw materials and preparation methods. Its kimchis include cabbage, scallion, whole radish and stuffed cucumber.

Winter kimchi is made in large quantities in late fall, and contains cabbage, green onions, ginger root, garlic and red hot peppers with soused fermented anchovies. The cabbage leaves, seasonings and anchovies are packed tightly into large earthenware jars and buried in the ground, or insulated in huts to allow them to ferment. Tongchimi is made during the spring using white radish.

Fruits and the seaMany varieties of seaweeds grow abundantly along the coastline. They are important in the Korean diet, often added to soups, roasted or fried, or served as namuls. Women take soup made from brown seaweed (miyuk) called miyuk guk after childbirth as a rejuvenator. Like chicken soup, it is taken for its healing powers, and is believed to help counteract toxins in blood and prevent blood clots. Dark-brown, pressed laver called kim has a crispy flavor when toasted with sesame oil. Kelp called tasima, sold as thick strips, turns green when reconstituted with water. Konnyaku, or konjac, adds a chewy texture to chongol and many other dishes. Kimbop is a popular snack of seaweed roll made with rice, beef and seasoned vegetables.

Koreans usually eat fresh fruits raw, as snacks or after meals, while they add dried fruits to stews and make them into drinks. Pears and persimmons are favorites, while strawberries, oranges, apples, plums, bananas, pineapples, guavas and mangoes are also popular. Jujubes are taken for their medicinal value. Refreshing Korean fruit drinks, such as persimmon punch or fruity rice drinks, pair with desserts.

Spices include garlic, red chile peppers, ginger, scallions, Chinese chives, soy sauce, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, black pepper and cinnamon. Garlic (manul) is added to marinades or grilled whole to enhance pulgogi or kalbi. Ginger root (saenggang) is an essential flavoring and widely used for many dishes, especially fish. Korean chile pepper (kochu), similar to cayenne pepper, is another essential ingredient that is eaten fresh or dried. It is sold as flakes, seeded and coarsely crushed, ground, or cut into thin threads for garnish.

Sesame oil and soy sauce (kanjang) are staple flavorings for Korean foods. Toasted sesame seeds give a nutty and aromatic oil. Vegetables and meats marinate or are glazed in soy sauce before cooking.

Seasonings, the soul of Korean cooking, contain a combination of sesame seeds, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, soy sauce, red chili pepper, garlic, ginger and/or green onions. They perk up meats, dress-up vegetables, and transform into delectable condiments when blended with sugar, rice wine or vinegar at meal tables. Chojung, kochujang, fish sauce, sesame salt and denjang paste are indispensable seasonings in Korean cooking. Chojung is an essential condiment at the meal table, consisting of red chiles, chopped garlic, vinegar, sesame oil and fresh coriander leaves. It is used as a dip for dumplings, fried fish and meats and has many variations. Kochujang, made with red pepper, glutinous rice flour and soybean paste, is also a base for sauces and table condiments. Denjang/twoenjang paste, a pungent salty seasoning of soybean paste and/or red pepper, zips up soups, dips and sauces. Toasted white sesame seeds crushed with salt serve as a garnish. A vinegar mustard-based sauce is a popular dip for raw fish or boiled beef.

Meeting the mainstreamKorean foods do not possess the complex, spicy flavors of Thai or Indian cuisine but have the clean-cut flavor profiles and textures of Japanese and Chinese foods, with heat from chile peppers. Korean foods have some flavor and cooking techniques similar to Cantonese and Szechwan Chinese dishes; common elements include steamed vegetables, fermented black-bean paste, spicy-hot red chiles or sesame-soy dipping sauce. They also use flavorings already familiar to North Americans, such as soy sauce, scallions, sesame oil, black pepper, and ginger. Chinese and Japanese cooking have become mainstream in North America, and with some adjustment of flavors, Korean cuisine can be quite easily assimilated into mainstream eating.

North Americans are beginning to discover that dips and condiments enhance grilled meats and seafood, and sauces are slapped on to everything, even at meal tables. With popular Thai and Szechwan cooking, North Americans also enjoy spicy hot foods. The spicy and pungent Korean seasonings and condiments can adapt to suit mainstream palates. Similar to Thai, Cantonese and Vietnamese pungent fish sauces, Korea’s pungent kochujang and twoenjang sauces can be modified with less-intense notes for North Americans, but with a Korean flair.

Barbecues and marinades have become a North American tradition and mainstay. Korean pulgogi and kalbi, which combine savory, sweet, spicy and pungent flavors, can be a success with today’s consumers who desire good health along with a well-balanced meal.

Korean dining, panchan style, is a similar concept to Spanish tapas-style eating, a trend in North American restaurants due to smaller portions and variety. Exciting and assorted tapas-style dishes can be created using the already familiar barbecues and steamed and stir-fry techniques using Korean seasonings.

Pickling salads with vinegar, sugar and light spicing can boost the salad craze in North America, or exciting bowl salad meals can be created with Korean bulgogi and namul. Kimchi is still an exotic item for North Americans, but with proper manipulation of its seasonings and use of vegetables familiar to North Americans, it can meet mainstream tastes. Rice and noodle bowls are growing trends as “meals to go,” and variations with Korean ingredients and flavors will not only appeal to mainstream consumers but Asians and Hispanics as well.

Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons Consulting Inc., a Mamaroneck, NY-based food-consulting firm. She creates culinary concepts and develops ethnic, fusion or “new” American products for U.S.-regional, national and global markets. She provides culinary demonstrations, workshops and presentations on ethnic foods, spices, spice blends and other flavorings, as well as on cultural factors related to trends, product development, menus and nutritional enhancement. Uhl can be reached via e-mail at [email protected], or by visiting

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