Monday, 16 September 2013

Adventures in Korean Cuisine

One of the most exciting things about living in Korea is getting to sample its unique and diversified cuisine, one which I had not experienced before moving here. Both the food itself, and the manner in which it is eaten, are quite different to back home, and I always knew I should make some kind of blog entry exploring the different foods and drinks I've sampled here.

This is not a very comprehensive account of Korean cuisine, since I haven't branched out and experimented anywhere near as much as I could have. But hopefully it provides a quick sampler of some of the stuff I've been eating here.


First thing you need to do when you get to a restaurant is choose your food. A lot of Korean restaurants don't have English menus, so ordering becomes something of a guessing game, unless you have google translate on your phone. Whenever you want to actually order, you have to either shout "Yogiyo" at the waiters or, if the restaurant is equipped with one, click a button on a table to ring a bell.
I'd previously fumbled with chopsticks when I travelled in China, but Korea has helped me grow very accustomed to using them. Though I still don't find them as practical as a knife and fork, especially for eating larger portions, there is something relaxing and zen about using them to eat.
Although most restaurants here have regular chairs and tables, there are still a bunch of sit-down restaurants where you have to remove your shoes and eat close to the floor. Eating like this isn't very comfortable, but it really gives you that fun "Yeah! I'm in Asia!" feeling that's so important to worldly traveller wannabes like myself.

The food I've probably eaten the most out here - besides ramen and school dinners - is Korean barbecue. For this you usually order one type of meat - such as bulgogi (grilled beef) or galbi (marinated ribs) - which is then served on a grill at your table and eaten with rice and various side dishes. Not only does it taste great, but it's quite a fun and unique eating experience since you generally cook the meat yourself, slicing it with scissors and turning it with tongs, before mixing it with whatever sides you want. A common way to eat the meat is to combine it with rice and wrap it up in lettuce to form a sort of dolma.
Despite the influence of Buddhism in Korea, vegetarian dishes can be hard to come by here. But perhaps the most ubiquitous and famous vegetarian meal is bibimbap, a mixed dish usually comprising rice, sauteed vegetables, egg and gochujang (spicy pepper sauce). For aesthetic appeal, the different ingredients are generally arranged separately so their colours complement one another, but when it's time to eat you mix it all together into one thick mass. I'm someone who generally prefers a bit of meat in his meals, but this stuff is tasty enough that it doesn't need any. I'm quite lucky as there's a restaurant at the bottom of my apartment block that does a really good bibimbap, so I've had it a number of times.
Another popular meal here is jjimdak, a dish originating in the Andong region and comprised of steamed chicken and mixed vegetables mixed together in a tasty stew. It doesn't look like the fanciest meal in the world but it tastes pretty good.
Dakgalbi is a meal I need to try more often, as I've only had it once so far. This chicken-based dish has lots of cabbage, potato, scallions and tteok (rice cakes) mixed together in gochujang sauce. 

There are several dishes and foods that have been imported from Chinese cuisine, such as jajangmyeon, which is essentially noodles and vegetables in black bean sauce.
Among mine and Angela's favourite things to eat here are these yang-gogi (lamb) skewers, which are served in various restaurants. They also originated in China, and you can eat the lamb with rice, mandu (dumplings), as well as some delicious curry/paprika powder.
This is pajeon, a pancake-like dish made with green onions.
Korea has some really delicious soup dishes as well, such as this yukgaejang (spicy beef and vegetable soup). 
Probably the tastiest soup I've had here is tteokguk, a rice cake soup traditionally eaten during Seollal, the Korean New Year.
As well as standard Korean restaurants, there are many establishments that serve a fusion of various Asian cuisines. There's a great chain here called The Noodle Tree that serves Chinese, Japanese and other Asian meals with a Korean twist to them.
For example, this Nagasaki Jjambbong originates in Japan but also has ties with Chinese cuisine. I don't usually like seafood but this was pretty good.
Of course, when even the Asian fusion restaurants aren't doing it for you, you can always opt for the pleasantly familiar (if rather pricey) western restaurants. Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Subway, KFC, Outback Steakhouse...I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been to my fair share of these franchises during my time here.

Sides, Snacks and Desserts

A pretty essential part of Korean cuisine is its copious use of side-dishes. Almost every meal is accompanied by at least two - but in some cases dozens of - sides, and sometimes they're even more delicious than the meal itself.
Probably the most famous of these sides, and one that you can't really escape from if you spend time eating in this country, is kimchi. This fermented vegetable-based food is considered the national dish of Korea, despite only being a side. It's so popular and so important to Korean culture that there's even a Kimchi Museum, which Angela and I visited last year.
Another delicious accompaniment to any meal is mandu, the Korean name for dumplings. These are often absolutely delicious, especially when dipped in soy sauce.
Korea basically made me discover that I love radishes. Known as musaengchae here, they are diced and served as a side with many meals.
This is dotorimuk, or Acorn Jelly, as I like to call it. Made from the starch of cooked acorns, it originated in mountainous areas of ancient Korea, where the many oak trees provided acorns as a viable food source. It's also famously very healthy.
There's a whole wealth of street food available on every corner here. Most of it's greasy, fattening, and undeniably tasty.
As for sweets and desserts, from what I can tell, Koreans aren't as big on confectionary as we are back in England, but they do have their own range of different sweets. They especially like sweet rice cakes, or tteok, as they're called, like the ones above.
A popular summertime dessert here is patbingsu, a delicious mix of shaved ice, azuki beans and ice cream. It's a shame it's hard to come by outside the summer months, as it's freaking delicious.


This is perhaps Korea's most well known and beloved of beverages: Soju! It's a distilled spirit similar in taste to vodka (though nowhere near as vomit-inducing, for me at least). I have this stuff nearly every weekend, and although it's supposed to be taken neat, it actually works pretty well mixed with fruit drinks.
This Korean rice wine is known as makgeolli. It has a sweet, milky quality, and although traditionally popular among farmers, it has in recent years grown on younger, city-dwelling folk.
As for beers, there are a bunch of local and imported brands to choose from, but the cheapest and most popular is Cass. Despite the cheapness, I actually think it's a pretty tasty beer, so I've partaken in quite a few pints of the stuff during my time here.

The "Adventurous" Stuff

Well, I did call this blog entry "Adventures in Korean Cuisine," and Korea is certainly not lacking in exotic, outlandish eating experiences. I never did get round to trying dog meat, which has become so controversial in recent years that it's a little tricky to find without a Korean-speaking friend, but I did try a bunch of other equally unusual foods.

This is a pretty modest one to start off with, but as someone who's never been into seafood, I'd never eaten a whole fish before, head and eyes included.
This is hongeo, or raw, fermented stingray. The fermentation process gives it a pungent, ammonia-like odour, so strong that it stings the nose. In fact, we were told it's one of the stinkiest foods in the world! Once it was in my mouth, however, I actually didn't mind the taste of it all that much.
I believe this is called haepari naengchae, or cold jellyfish. Research suggests that some Koreans only consider the dish credible if it stings your mouth as you eat it! Thankfully, there were no such stings when I tried it, and I remember it actually tasting pretty good.
Here I am sampling dalkbal, or skewered chicken feet. These had exactly the sort of rubbery texture that you'd expect from chicken feet, and I could only finish one of them.
Another "food" I had to give up on after one mouthful. These beondegi or steamed silkworm pupae are eaten like peanuts by some folks here. They're supposedly quite healthy, but I don't think I'll be adding them to my diet program any time soon.
Some restaurants here will serve you flaming squid, letting it cook and simmer on the table in front of you. You then eat the pieces of squid as a snack to go with your cocktails.
Finally, to the end this post, is perhaps the weirdest meal I've ever had. Octopus sannakji takes the form of a live baby octopus chopped into pieces, doused in oils and sauces, and then served immediately, so that the tentacles and body parts are still wriggling while you eat it. In fact, they continue squirming for a good twenty minutes or so. I actually quite liked the flavour of the sauce they were drenched in, but that doesn't change the fact that this was one of the strangest, slimiest meals I've ever had.
Bottom's up!

Well, that rounds things off pretty nicely. As I said before, there's a ton of amazing Korean dishes that I'm too ignorant to have experienced yet, so this post doesn't really do justice to the variety and depth of this country's cuisine. But hopefully it at least gives a good overview of some of the stuff I have sampled so far.

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