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Basic Korean Foods and Ingredients

Food For the Seoul: A Korean Cuisine Primer

Source: Flickr User aemosion

The Korean Peninsula's position between China and Japan might lead you to believe that the cuisine is heavily influenced by both countries, but over the centuries, Korean food has developed into a genre quite distinct from its neighbors. Perhaps best known for smoky barbecue and spicy pickled cabbage kimchi, the cuisine actually is heavy on seafood and vegetables with plenty of nonspicy options. Of course, we'll never turn down piping hot charcoal barbecue or bubbling, peppery stews, but we're happy to sample any of the region's deliciously diverse dishes and soulful seasonings. For some popular dishes and ingredients keep reading.

Popular Dishes:

  • Mixed casserole (bibimbap). Cooked in a stone pot, bibimbap contains rice, assorted vegetables, egg, and meat, which is stirred together with sesame oil and spicy dressing.
  • Spicy tofu stew (soon dubu jjigae). Silken tofu, vegetables, meat, and seafood simmer in a spicy fish-and-kelp based broth and arrive at your table still simmering in an earthenware pot.
  • Seafood pancake (haemul pajeon). Assorted seafood (squid, octopus, mussels, shrimp, etc.) and vegetables are tossed in a rice flour batter and pan-fried into a savory pancake, served with a sesame-soy dipping sauce.
  • Barbecue wraps (ssam). Barbecued meat is served alongside fresh lettuce, fragrant perilla leaves, raw garlic, and spicy bean paste to make delectable lettuce wraps. The most popular types of meat are bulgogi (marinated paper-thin rib eye), kalbi (marinated short ribs), dak gui (marinated chicken), and daeji bulgogi (spicy marinated pork), but even seafood and vegetables find their way onto the wooden charcoal grill.
  • Cold noodles in broth (mul naengmyun). Perfect for a sweltering day, these skinny, chewy noodles swim in a chilled broth and benefit from a squirt of hot mustard and tangy vinegar. Julienned Asian pear, cucumber, and radish provide a nice crunch.
  • Kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae). A fast and easy meal, kimchi is added to simmering vegetables and pork belly for a bold and hearty stew.
  • Japchae (stir-fried noodles). Clear potato starch noodles are sauteed with vegetables and meat in a sweet soy-sesame sauce.
  • Side dishes (banchan). A Korean meal isn't complete without an assortment of small side dishes. Banchan come in unlimited varieties, including but certainly not limited to spicy, tart cabbage kimchi; tiny dried and seasoned anchovies; sesame-soy spinach; marinated fish cake; and pickled radish.

Basic Pantry Items:

  • Sesame oil and seeds. The fragrant oil gets drizzled over meats and soups, and finds its way into marinades, vegetable dressings, and stir frys. The seeds can garnish virtually any dish.
  • Gochujang (hot pepper paste). A fermented hot pepper paste that's just slightly sweet, gochujang gets stirred into stews, stir-frys, and other sauces for a spicy kick.
  • Gochukaru (hot pepper flakes). Dried hot peppers are pulverized into a coarse powder, which is fantastic for seasoning dishes as well as providing a pretty garnish.
  • Doenjang. This fermented bean paste serves as the base for soups and sauces thanks to its nutty, salty flavor.
  • Seasoned seaweed. Similar to Japanese nori, kim is seaweed that is toasted and seasoned with sesame oil and sea salt. Eat it with rice, crumble it as a garnish, or munch on it as a healthy alternative to potato chips!
  • Dried anchovies. These little fish provide the flavor base for many Korean soups. Since they are whole, make sure you remove their heads and innards before cooking to avoid a bitter flavor.
  • Soy sauce. A staple in any Asian pantry, ganjang (as it's known in Korea) is definitely an essential!
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