In recent years, Korean food has become increasingly popular, not only because of its health benefits but mainly due to the deliciously fresh and fermented flavours, used in this colourful cuisine.
A Korean meal comprises a bowl of rice, a dish of meat or fish which is set in front of the diner. In the centre of the table is a bowl of stew and surrounding these core dishes are various side dishes including stir fried, pickled and fermented foods. The majority of side dishes will be vegetable dishes, and because the vegetables are cooked quickly they retain their bright colours as well as their nutrients.
Key ingredients and techniques
A big part of Korean food is fermentation which creates that distinctive flavour. Two key ingredients in Korean cooking are soy and chilli flakes – they’re used in some form or other in nearly all Korean dishes.
Soy beans are used to make soy sauce, a great flavouring agent, as well as a fermented soy paste called doenjang which is used to add flavour to dishes. A similar process is used with the red pepper flakes, which are used to make a fermented paste, a key flavour in bibimbap.
The use of fermented foods in Korean cooking means that Korean food is incredibly healthy, since it has recently been proved that adding good bacteria, such as those found in fermented pastes, to the gut helps with digestion.
Other popular ingredients include, garlic, sugar, glass noodles, pepper and sesame oil.
Most people when asked about Korean food will know about Kimchi and Bulgogi, however there is much more to Korean food.
This is the most popular party dish in Korea and always looks vibrant due to the many seasonal vegetables included in the dish. Japchae is a combination of two words: ‘jap’ meaning mixing and ‘chae’ meaning vegetables. The main ingredient in the dish is glass noodles made from sweet potato starch. The noodles are flavoured with the seasonal vegetables- including spinach, fried carrot, fried onion and mushrooms- thin strips of marinated beef, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil.
Japchae isn’t spicy at all since no red pepper flakes are added to the dish, making it suitable for everyone. The versatility of the dish allows you to add or remove whichever ingredients suit you. It can be served with a cucumber pickle or kimchi on the side and pairs well with white wine.
This dish dates back to the Goguryeo Dynasty (37 B.C-668 A.D) which was one of the three kingdoms of Korea. Bulgogi is a meat dish, where thinly sliced beef is marinated in soy sauce, sugar, minced garlic, finely chopped spring onion, roasted sesame seeds, pepper and sesame oil, before being cooked on the grill. To tenderise the meat it is often placed in a marinade of pear and onion juices before it is placed in the flavourful marinade.
A variation on grilled Bulgogi, which can be too heavy for one person to enjoy is hot pot Bulgogi. Hot pot Bulgogi has more broth than regular Bulgogi. The meat is boiled and cooked in the broth and served in an earthenware pot which serves to keep it hot.
A lovely addition to Bulgogi is glass noodles which add an interesting texture to the dish. Bulgogi is served on steamed rice and accompanied by various side dishes, making it a deliciously healthy, filling meal.
This dish takes seemingly ordinary ingredients and elevates them. It consists of a bowl of rice that has been cooked in stock, topped with fried carrot, fried onion, thin beef strips, spinach, beansprouts, bracken and a sunny-side-up egg. Gochujang, the fermented red chilli paste that is used in many Korean dishes, is served on the side so that you can mix as much of the fiery paste into your rice as you wish, using chopsticks so that none of the ingredients are crushed.
The beauty of this dish is that each mouthful combines different ingredients, making it a flavour sensation. This dish is so popular that Koreans take the essence of the dish and make Bibimbap burgers and even tacos with it.
Kimchi is by far the most popular dish in Korean cuisine and is eaten in vast quantities by Koreans. It is so well loved that an entire village will get together once a year to make Kimchi to last for the winter. Not only is kimchi flavoursome, but it is also considered one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
It is most often made from Napa cabbages, which are salted to draw out the moisture, then mixed with lots of garlic and red chilli flakes known as gochu. Although the spicy cabbage kimchi is by far the most popular, other types of kimchi are also enjoyed regularly. These include Baek kimchi (white kimchi) or radish water kimchi, which contains no pepper flakes – these are especially popular among children.
Different vegetables are also used to make kimchi such as daekon/white radish and cucumber. These are often eaten as a pickle alongside a dish such as Bulgogi. The unique flavour of kimchi is often added into different dishes to add a depth of flavour.