Not a lot of people know much about Korean food. In fact, I moved to South Korea without knowing anything about it. To be honest, there is some food that takes a little getting used. No matter what the dish is though, Koreans are very proud of their food and it plays a big part of the culture.
I have created a list of dishes that South Koreans are particularly proud of as well as some that I just find delicious and think everyone should try. I may have even thrown in a surprise for you at the end if you think you can handle it.
First off let’s get the big one out of the way- Korean BBQ. This is a dish that is not only popular in Korea but is now making it way internationally to other countries. Korean BBQ is very popular and is loved by both locals and visitors. The interesting thing about this dish is that you actually do the cooking yourself.
As a vegetarian in Korea bibimbap is my savour. This is a meat-heavy culture- as you can see by their love for BBQ. Luckily, the one dish that I can rely on not having meat about 90% of the time is bibimbap. Bibim mean ‘mixed’ and bap means ‘rice.’ Essentially this dish means mixed vegetable rice. To add some extra flavour Koreans add their beloved red pepper paste to spice up the dish. It’s a filling and satisfying meal.
Gimbap is like the fast food of South Korea. Who needs to grab a sandwich on the run when you can have a fresh roll of gimbap made for you in two seconds- and it only costs a couple of bucks!
I will admit that this is not as good as sushi (Korean’s would never admit this) but it does grow on you. Often the roll has pickled vegetables and some sort of meat. I know it sounds weird but it’s really does grow on you.
If you do not want any meat just say the following:
Yatchay gimbap cheuseyo (vegetable gimbap please). Ham, ilang Gogi, lang hamul, ilang sangsong notchi malra cheoseyo (no ham, meat, seafood or fish).
In South Korea they love rice. They eat if with every meal and sneak it into everything. Ddukbokki is no exception. This dish is rice cakes and fish cakes. For how many ‘cakes’ there are in this dish though there is nothing sweet about it- the red sauce is actually quite spicy.
If you are vegetarian you can easily ask for no fish cakes “Sangsang notchi malra cheoseyo.” You can also buy bags of the stuff in a Korean grocery store and make your own.
This is an inevitable part of South Korean cuisine. Just like rice, Koreans eat kimchi at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Kimchi is pickled and spiced cabbage that is eaten as a side dish with, well, everything. Kimchi is certainly an acquired taste. I first came to Korea despising the stuff and now love it- it is espcially good when fried. With over 100 different variations hopefully you can find one that you like.
Unlike kimchi, I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like bingsu. Patbingsu literally means red bean and ice. Okay, now that doesn’t sound appetizing- and you are right. Instead I opt for different flavours of bingsu that are more palatable to my Canadian taste buds. My favourite is the mango cheesecake!
This dessert is made of light ice flakes that are topped with fruit, chocolate, nuts ect. You then pour a sweet cream over to melt all the goodness together. This dessert is to die for and is the perfect treat for sharing.
Now finally fish I can eat! Bungeoppand is a sweet bread fried in the shape of a fish. Traditionally the bread is filled with a sweet red-bean paste, but now it is quite common to see it also sold with a cream filling. My favorite is the cream filling which tastes like a soft and sweet cream cheese filling. Try the red bean if you want to try the authentic dessert.
In Myeongdong, Seoul I have also seen sweet potato and chocolate fillings.
Oh soju. An alcoholic beverage made of, you guessed it, rice. This drink tastes like watered down vodka. Korean’s drink soju straight and if they do mix it with anything it will be beer. These people know how to party.
A few years ago they came out with flavoured soju and are always coming out with new flavours. This stuff is delicious but dangerous. Because the drinks are so sweet you cannot taste the alcohol which is scary when you realize that each individual sized bottle is about 12% alcohol. Soju is dirt cheap and can be bought on every block in the country. Needless to say, I have a love hate relationship with the stuff.
Okay so I didn’t add this item onto the list because it tastes good.
Street vendors sell these boiled silk worms throughout South Korea. As you walk past them you will smell their rancid smell- and the taste is even worse.
I told myself that I would try these nasty things before I left South Korea- after all when would I get the chance to try them again? The answer is never because no one else in the world thinks that these are palatable.
Anyway, when some students interrupted my class and came in with some Beondegi on crackers and offered them to me I decided to break my vegetarianism for a moment and give it a go. My whole class was watching. With all eyes on my I couldn’t back out now.
I bit in. It was horrendous! I made myself swallow but immediately gulped down water. They water did nothing to get rid of the taste and I had to run into my office to grab a piece of gum. My students were laughing hysterically at me.
For the next half hour I literally would randomly feel nauseous just thinking about the Beondegi. I dare you to give it a go!