Why you should love Korean food!
I don’t live in Korea anymore and I miss it all the time. Being in the US now has its perks but there’s one thing I really miss above everything else—easy access to Korean food! There are just so many little things that I want to eat right now and I can’t have them. It sucks! If you’re not familiar with Korean food, you might be wondering why I’m going on about this. Well, I’m going to explain why you should love Korean food as much as I do.
Hands down, my favorite chicken meal is spicy marinated chicken or dak galbi (dalk galbi닭갈비), which even led me to drive all the way up to Chuncheon for a taste of that wonderful dish at the source. When I go back to Korea someday, that’s the first of my food demands. I also saw barbecue chicken (닭귀) pop up during the summers and really loved it when we ate some near Gwangyang.
Fried chicken (usually paired with beer 치맥) has grown into a big problem for older entrepreneurs looking to make the most out of their retirement years, with too many restaurants leading to bankruptcies and foreclosures. I tried to support their ventures thanks to a love for that crunch and must include it here. When not helping out mom and pop, I was also buying chicken to be eaten at baseball games. Honestly, you shouldn’t eat anything else at those. Other chicken hall of fame entrants include jjim dalk or dalk jjim (닭찜)—another favorite when living in Korea that I wish we had more time to explore.
Probably one of the greatest food experiences I had while in Korea was that first time a plate of barbecued pork belly (삼겹살) was placed in front of me and I was instructed to throw it on the fiery grill. This was such a foreign experience that I really had no idea how to proceed. The man in charge of this restaurant was allowing me to freely cook my own food, really? Fast forward to now and I truly miss kicking back on a cool evening and warming up by the charcoal grill while wrapping up perfectly cooked pork belly or beef into lettuce leaves along with sauces and other veggies. Even better was when an egg, kimchi, and sometimes an onion moat formed the ring surrounding our meal!
When I’m not firing up these lovely bits or some other form of meat, my wife and I were usually happy with some steamed pork, tofu and kimchi (보쌈두부김치). Something I don’t see much of in the U.S. but enjoyed in Korea was duck. In Korea, I absolutely devoured a lot of duck bulgogi (오리불고기) or grilled duck (오리고기), or whatever Aflac mascot dishes were available at the time. One time, we joined friends for a 7-course meal that included various duck dishes, bbq pork ribs and a full side of gluttony! More meat dish favorites include deokgalbi (덕갈비) and spicy pork (제육) but I could go on forever!
Cold weather months mean many things in Korea but the one thing I miss most during cold and flu season there is the soups that bring warmth to my body and belly. Gamjatang (감자탕) and its close brother Haejangguk (해장국) are great ways to eat and recharge, with both packing enough power (pork spine) and punch (red pepper) to revive the most downtrodden and tired workers and students. Shabu shabu (샤브샤브) might not originate in Korea but was one of my favorite ways to wind down on the weekend, of course choosing the spicy option over the regular one.
Samgyetang (chicken soup) should get thrown into the chicken category but its mythical heat-beating properties as soup help it live here. One myth buster set out to prove the legend wrong but I have no qualms with this delicious bowl of yumminess. Other soups I love include mandu guk (만두국) and ddeok guk (떡국) with the latter being a rite of passage for most Koreans celebrating the start of each Lunar New Year. Ah, how I wish I could just rail on forever about the beautiful soups coming out of Korea!
Rice (밥) Dishes
Other than kimchi, bibimbap is the first Korean food I can remember trying. It took a minute for this formerly vegetable-fearing man to get used to it. Now I love the stuff and crave just another taste, with my favorite memories being the Jinju variety that comes with raw beef. I’m not really a dessert person but in Korea, I grew addicted to ordering rice after a meal and fried rice (복음밥) was the best way to complete a meal. Many hikers will vouch for rice wine and pancakes but my favorite mid-trek meal was dolsot bap (돌솥밥) in between two temples in Suncheon.
Noodle (국수) Dishes
Thankfully my boss agreed and loved taking us to a local restaurant that served this mightily powerful meal. It incorporates tons of ingredients thrown into one bowl. On the noodle front, Kalguksu (갈국수) or bibimguksu (비빔국수) are two great after-dinner options though they can both be eaten by themselves if necessary. Mul naengmyeon (물냉면) was my favorite summer treat and a great way to cool off from the hot weather. Makguksu (막국수) is a change of pace because it incorporates buckwheat noodles and is also best when served cold.
How can I forget the seafood that graces the menus of many wonderful Korean restaurants, and swims around in its tanks outside? It’s easy to find in many parts of the country but best found around the coast. Yeah, there’s a lot of strange stuff that I grimaced and tried or just couldn’t eat. I’ll always fondly remember the time we went hiking in Samcheonpo and ordered a raw fish platter that came out with more unnamable organisms than things I actually wanted to try. I hate to say that most of us tried our best to eat as much as possible before retreating to a barbecue restaurant nearby.
Korea does have a lot of great seafood dishes and my favorites start with grilled fish (생선귀) and raw fish with rice (희덮밥). Steamed oysters (굴) and mussels (홍합) are a great cold months eat that accompany a fine Hite or Cass, depending on which brand of water—ahem, beer—you choose. More adventurous eaters might prefer to something moving like freshly chopped octopus (산낙지). Others eat spicy octopus stew (쭈꾸미) and each time I’ve tried, it was an interesting measure in how many people could withstand the powerful red pepper broth that accompanied it.
Street and Market Food
I left America at a time when the whole food truck thing started taking off but honestly didn’t care. Why? Because of street food and Korea has plenty of it. Known as pojangmacha (포장마차), you can walk through any busy neighborhood in Korea and you’ll find it good, hot and served within close reach. There are many standard options found throughout the country, but my favorite was in Busan’s Nampo Dong. There you can find just about everything, especially the famed bindeddeok (빈대떡) and hotteok (허떡), otherwise known as heaven. Festivals always had great street food and I’ll have to say that Jinhae’s Cherry Blossom Festival had the best!
The big cities have so many great street food offerings but the markets are where the best really shine. Seoul’s Gwangjang Market is certainly the most well known and with celebrities including Anthony Bourdain coming to try it out, that status won’t change for a while. I’ll always love walking through the markets for the smells, the action, and shouting that take over the whole place. Plus there’s the possibility that you can sit down somewhere and eat some cheap yet really good food. That’s also good.
Ban Chan and Honorable Mentions
Ban chan (반찬) are those wonderful side dishes that come out as you wait for your meal. These typically include kimchi and the rest is really up to the restaurant. If they want people to keep coming back, then the side dishes have to help guide the experience. Beer places offered sugary chips and pretzels while restaurants sometimes stepped it up with fresh veggies and mayonnaise-covered fruits. One of my favorite places in Korea always brought out these beautiful omelet rolls that I always factored in when gauging pre-meal hunger levels.
Kimbap Nara/Kimbap Cheonguk/Kimbap Joints
Honorable mentions include those quick runs to the Kimbap Nara/Cheonguk/Insert Chain Name for some fast food ala Korea. My old coworkers are probably still laughing at my love for a nice curry fried pork (카레돈카스) or some kimchi dumplings (김치만두) but I’ll never forget. This quick menu breakdown might be a bit outdated but still persists in 99% fashion! There’s always the Korean version of Chinese food and its sketchily fast delivery times that never failed to help when I was too hung-over or sick to go outside. Then there are the random times when people would just offer me something to eat, for no reason other than as a nice gesture. I’ll always remember the man who loaded me up with persimmons on harvest day or the people who offered us freshly caught raw fish and soju while hiking on Geumodo Island.
Maybe it’s not just that I miss Korean food but the people as well. I know that I never really fit in while there and probably never would have but that place really left a mark on my life. From the moment you walk through the arrival gate all the way to the time you walk past immigration and head towards your final flight home, something happens. Korean hospitality really grew on me and thinking about the food has triggered a bit of homesickness for that tiny peninsula across the sea. I’ll not only miss Korean food but Korea as well and maybe someday I’ll find something delicious that can remind me of it.
What do you think about Korean food? Do you have access to the good stuff? I’d love to read your thoughts and comments below!