15 Classic Korean Dishes You Need To Know
You’ve watched the K-dramas, and danced along to the K-pop hits, but are you an expert when it comes to the dishes and delicacies that the K-wave is bringing to the table?
The Korean Wave continues to hold sway over popular culture, whether it’s Netflix’s vast array of binge-worthy Korean dramas, the onslaught of hits from K-pop stars like BTS, the success of Korean movies such as Parasite, or the rise of Korean beauty and its multi-step regimes. Korean food is also having a moment. To round out your K-wave cultural awareness and ensure you know the hottest Korean dishes and what they consist of, we’ve prepared a primer including key Korean dishes, from the small plates that begin a Korean feast, known as banchan, to that classic Korean side, kimchi. We want to make sure you know your japchae from your jjigae, and your jajangmyeon from your galbi jjim.
In Korean dramas, you might see small dishes resting on the table, adding splashes of colour to a meal. These are known as banchan, a collective term for the cold side dishes served at the start of a Korean meal. The concept of banchan is thought to date back to the era of the Three Kingdoms when Buddhism was introduced to the country. As eating meat was prohibited, Koreans came up with creative ways of cooking vegetarian dishes, and these endured to become banchan, served in small sharing portions and eaten either as an appetiser or condiment. A traditional Korean meal will include at least three banchan and as many as 13 or more—though usually an odd number of dishes. Kimchi, steamed aubergine, seasoned bean sprouts, spiced radish, braised potato, seasoned spinach are among the most common.
A sizzling hot bibimbap is a Korean classic. White rice is served in a hot stone pot and topped with a variety of vegetables, and often meat and an egg. En route to your table, the hot stone can add a crisp crunch to the rice at the bottom of the bowl before it is all stirred together with gochujang (Korean chilli paste) and doenjang (soybean paste). There are various origin stories of bibimbap, but most believe Koreans cooked it after attending outdoor rites, as not a lot of crockery is required. One thing everyone can agree on is that the dish has become an icon of Korean food culture.
Mandu are Korean dumplings. While dumplings feature in many cuisines, what sets Korean-style ones apart is the fillings, which often include typically Korean ingredients, such as kimchi and seasoned bean sprouts as well as tofu or meat. Mandu come in a range of incarnations—shapes vary, as do cooking methods, with boiled, fried, steamed and baked all on offer as well as manduguk, or dumpling soup, a popular option. A stalwart of home cooking, many Koreans grow up watching their mothers make dumplings from scratch before joining in as they get older. The compact treats are usually made in bulk and can be frozen for later use; they are enjoyed as part of a main meal or as a simple snack.
Kimchi is undoubtedly a symbol of Korean culture. The salted, fermented vegetable dish appears on almost every Korean dining table. Kimchi is usually made with napa cabbage and radish fermented with chilli sauce and other seasonings, and is usually prepared at home. Simply combine rinsed cabbage, salt and the spiced paste in a jar and leave to ferment for several days at room temperature. The gases produced by the fermentation process may need to be released intermittently by pressing down on the vegetables. Once fermented to taste, the jar can be stored in the fridge and used in a variety of different ways—eaten alone or incorporated into rice dishes, stews and soups.
If you have ever been to Korea, you may have seen street vendors selling plates of hot, spicy tteokbokki or Korean rice cakes. The chewy snack seemingly first appeared in a 19th century cookbook named Siuijeonseo, and was originally made with soy sauce. A spicy variant reportedly came about in the 1950s, when hot sauce was accidentally poured into the rice cakes yet turned out to be surprisingly good. Nowadays, rice cake dishes have broken away from tradition, and can be found filled with cream or Greek yogurt—particularly appealing to those with a sweet tooth.
A typical accompaniment to spicy tteokbokki, fish cake soup or eomuk guk is another Korean street food not to be missed. Featuring a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth, the soup is lighter in colour and less strong in taste compared to its Japanese equivalent, from where it reputedly originated. A cup or bowl of steaming fish cake in broth on a freezing, snowy day in Korea is always a good idea—especially when paired with a glass or two of soju.
Incorporating spring onions as a key ingredient, pajeon, or Korean pancakes, are similar to Chinese pancakes but are less dense in texture, and made from an egg and flour-based batter instead of dough. The batter is pan-fried with a range of ingredients—Korean seafood pancakes (haemul pageon) featuring oysters, squid, shrimp and clams are a popular choice—and then the savoury treats are served as a side or appetiser and dipped in soy sauce.
This popular Korean noodle dish is dominated by glass noodles made from sweet potato starch, which are stir-fried along with mixed vegetables and egg, though meat and/or seafood can also be included. Sesame oil and soy sauce usually feature too. Once a royal dish, japchae has long been a celebration fare offered on special occasions due to its ease of bulk preparation and its versatility as it can be served hot, cold or at room temperature.
A Korean meal will almost always include either a jjigae or a guk––a stew or a soup. And nothing beats a bowl of rice bathed in a warming Korean jjigae, whose flavourful base is typically seasoned with gochujang and/or doenjang. While a range of ingredients can be added into the stew, fatty pork is most favoured, as the sourness of the broth helps cut through the heaviness of the pork belly. A variation is budae jjigae, also known as army stew, which features ham, sausage, spam, baked beans, kimchi and instant noodles in a spicy soup base. This Korean fusion stew was invented after the Korean War when food was scarce but a surplus of American processed food was available––and which Koreans made good use of.
Similar to Japanese norimaki––and reportedly from where it takes its inspiration––kimbap (or gimbap) is a Korean rice roll filled with vegetables and/or meat that is wrapped in seaweed sheets and sliced into rounds. Instead of the rice vinegar favoured in sushi, sesame oil is usually used in kimbap, while ingredients such as pickled yellow radish and burdock root often feature in the filling.
Topped with a thick sauce made with black beans, this noodle dish, which also features diced pork and vegetables, may not look appealing, but it tastes salty and earthy with hints of sweetness. The story goes that the dish was brought to Korea in 1905 by a Chinese immigrant who ran a restaurant in Incheon Chinatown. Soon after the Korean War, the dish became popular, as it was both affordable and filling.
Korea has given new meaning to “KFC”, where the ‘K’ denoting the Fried Chicken stands for Korean instead of Kentucky. With a thinner, crispier crust than its American counterpart, Korean Fried Chicken is also generally more tender and juicy––these characteristics are thanks to the smaller, younger chickens and the double-fry technique used in the dish’s preparation. A frequent screen star in K-dramas, Korean fried chicken served with a cold beer has sparked something of a craze in Asia so expect to see it on many a bar snack menu.
Galbi are short ribs, while jjim refers to the practice of steaming or boiling meat marinated in a sauce or soup. Generally, in galbi jjim, beef or pork ribs are slowly simmered in soy sauce, sesame oil and garlic in a large pot over a medium heat, making the ribs tender and evenly seasoned. Traditionally, this dish is eaten during Chuseok, the harvest festival for both North and South Korea, but today these ribs are a mainstay on the menus of many Korean restaurants.
When it’s hot outside and you need something to cool yourself down with, a bowl of naengmyeon cold noodles works wonders. As the noodles are usually made from a combination of buckwheat and potato or sweet potato starch, they have a chewier texture than other noodles, and are served in an iced broth (typically beef), and usually accompanied by slices of Korean pear, cucumber, radish and a boiled egg. Long and thin, Koreans traditionally ate the noodles without cutting them to symbolise longevity, but today they are usually cut with a pair of scissors for ease of eating.
Often find yourself fatigued? A bowl of samgyetang, or Korean ginseng chicken soup, might be just the fix. The major ingredient of this soup, ginseng, is a “heaty” herb believed to boost blood circulation thereby helping to restore lost energy and reduce stress levels. The making of Korean ginseng chicken soup involves stuffing glutinous rice into a young, whole chicken, which is then boiled in a broth of ginseng, ginger and dried Chinese jujubes. Why not indulge in this healthy dish after a week of hard work?