Two of the most well-known elements of Korean food are kimchi (spicy fermented vegetables -- usually cabbage -- sometimes referred to as "Korean sauerkraut," which it is definitely NOT) and gochujang (red pepper paste). I don't like either of them.
I can tolerate kimchi only if it's cooked, like in dubu kimchi or cooked on the grill with samgyeopsal (fatty pork -- a bit like thick cut bacon). Dubu is Korean for tofu; dubu kimchi then is tofu with kimchi. Chunks of semi-firm tofu are arranged around the edges of a plate filled with cooked kimchi mixed with pork. (It can be ordered without pork, but many vegetarians have been misled. Koreans tend to eat tofu in addition to meat, not instead of it.) The tofu and kimchi mixture are eaten together, with different textures and tastes complimenting each other. The tofu tempers the spiciness of the kimchi, and the pork adds some extra flavor. This is usually considered "drinking food" as it goes very nicely with beer.
Gochujang manages to be both bland and spicy at the same time, and is, in my most humble opinion, a waste of taste buds. Thai and Mexican food are my favorite cuisines, so obviously I don't mind spicy, but I like it to have more flavor. Korean cooking tends to use gochujang in place of any other herbs or spices. Gochujang is mixed with meat, seafood, or vegetables, and is usually present in at least half the side dishes served with every meal. I don't like any of it.
With that said, there are plenty of Korean dishes I do enjoy.
Since I already introduced the topic of tofu, Sundubu is a tofu stew commonly found in our provice, Gangwon-do. Very soft tofu is cooked in a delicious broth with clams (still in the shell) and thin-sliced green onion. Of course, it's served with rice as is almost any soup here. The idea is that you scoop some rice up with your spoon, then dip into the broth before eating. (The picture is actually of sundubu jiggae. It's similar, but contains gochujang and, evidentally, a raw egg.)
My other favorite soup is galbitang, beef-rib soup. Chunks of rib meat, some still attached to the bone (and therefore awkward to eat), are cooked in broth with japchae noodles (thin, transparent sweet-potato noodles), thin-sliced green onion, and egg (reminiscent of egg-flower soup). This is the ultimate sniffle-busting meal for winter.
Galbi can actually refer to the rib meat of cows, pigs, or even horses, as we learned on Jeju Island (famous for its horse meat). When we go out for galbi, we almost always order pork, since it's half the price and twice (well, almost) as moist and tender. The meat is marinated and brought to the table piled on a platter. Galbi restaurants have grills built into the tables, so it's cooked right in front of you. The waitress usually gets it started and then the women at the table (if there are any) are supposed to keep an eye on it. (Very different from the States where men typically take over grilling duties.) Matthew usually takes over, and the waitresses invariably keep placing the tongs in front of me. The meat is cut into bite-size pieces, and typically eaten wrapped in lettuce or sesame (very tasty!) leaves with soybean paste and sliced garlic (raw or grilled). Galbi seems to be the most common favorite amongst foreigners, probably because it is just straight-up good (unless you don't eat meat).
Another non-vegetarian foreigner favorite is bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in sweetened soy-sauce. At a restaurant near our very first apartment (which disappeared -- the restaurant, not the apartment -- during our absence), the meat was mixed with vegetables and served on a bed of rice. The sauce was a deliciously subtle combination of spicy and sweet. I hope to find another restaurant that makes bulgogi the same way, and hopefully delivers.
Mandu is Korean for dumpling, and refers to a variety of different types. Mandu is typically filled with meat, vegetables and chopped noodles. It can be served fried as an appetizer or in Manduguk (soup) which is similar to galbitang with the exception of the title ingredient. In both of those options, the dumpling part is pasta-like (as pictured). My absolute favorite is steamed mandu, which is more bread-like. There's a small restaurant across from the express bus terminal that serves mandu this way. I wish I could put into words how perfect these steamed mandu are. They are a little bit of culinary perfect, for only $2 for a plate of five dumplings. I'm not really sure what is in the bottles on the table, some type of oil, some vinegar perhaps, and a red-pepper powder that lends the perfect touch of spiciness. The mandu are dipped in a combination of these, which the bread soaks up wonderfully. The tragedy here is that the two times we've eaten there since we've been back, there were no mandu since the owner hurt his finger. He makes the mandu and his wife makes the gimbap...another foreigner favorite which actually comes with vegetarian options.
Gimbap is sometimes referred to as "Korean sushi," but it contains no raw ingredients. Normal gimbap contains thin slices of canned ham, perhaps crab, thinly sliced vegetables like carrot and pickled radish, surrounded by a layer of rice (bap), wrapped in dried seaweed (gim). My favorite variation is chamchi (tuna) gimbap, which usually has sesame leaves and mayonnaise in addition to the vegetables and tuna. (I prefer that it doesn't contain ham.) There's also cheju (cheese) gimbap, bulgogi (beef) gimbap, and even "nude" gimbap which lacks the gim. So it's not really GIMbap, now is it? You can buy gimbap from the refrigerator section of almost any grocery or convenience store, but you should not, unless you are starving. Gimbap should always (again, just me voicing my oh, so humble opinion) be eaten fresh, with most ingredients still at room temperature. (Please ignore the chunk of radish kimchi on the plate. I would not eat that.)
Pajeon, often described as green onion and squid pancake, is considered hiking food. It's also sometimes called Korean pizza. It's neither pancake nor pizza, although it is cooked in a round, flat shape. The batter is mostly egg, with some grated potatoes and the previously mentioned ingredients. It's usually pretty greasy, as it's cooked in a healthy amount of oil, which is probably why many people find it necessary to wash it down with soju (the evil Korean grain alcohol). I've had other variations, of which I don't know the names, since they were homemade. Our neighbor made some with kimchi (again, okay, because it's cooked and not overwhelming) substituted for the onion and squid. Two of my friends (one Korean, the other married to a Korean) make it with just potatoes and eggs (and probably some other ingredients that contribute to texture, but not really to taste). All variations are served with soy sauce for dipping, which nicely flavors the bland potato-egg base.
Finally, I come to hottoek ("ho talk"), a funny name for a wonderful, fattening, tooth-rotting treat. Unlike pajeon, hottoek could accurately be described as a pancake -- not as "pitta bread with sweet filling" as Lonely Planet would mislead you into thinking (crazy Brits can't even spell pita right!). Pitas are baked, this is FRIED, FRIED, FRIED on a griddle. The "sweet filling" part is correct, but that description does no justice to the mixture of brown sugar, honey, nuts, and cinnamon that melts in the middle. If you eat it while it's hot, the filling will inevitably drip down your arms, and you will lick it off, because it is that good. (On a windy day, you may end up wearing the filling as t-shirt decoration.) Because I am a crazy American (see, I'm an equal-opportunity insanity-labeler), I consider such a sugary concoction as breakfast food. I used to occasionally walk about half a mile (from our beach apartment) on weekend mornings to buy hottoek (3 for $1), and, yes, I could eat all three in one sitting.
Korean cuisine is very diverse, and I've tried only a small fraction of the traditional dishes. I know that I've skipped over many of the delicious dishes that I have tried, but I've already made myself hungry writing this much. I need to go find something to eat.
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