I’ve been lucky enough to explore South Korea a small handful of times over a number of years and I’m starting to think of Seoul as my soul sister. I really like Korean culture, feeding off the energy there and am constantly surprised (and entertained) by the language barriers that exist when a non-Korean speaking Australian and a Korean-English speaking Korean walk into a karaoke bar. All language barriers aside, I love almost every meal I’ve had in Korea.
A Korean meal is normally served with lots of little side plates featuring mostly plant-based foods, and on this basis alone I often find myself eating 6 or 7 different vegetables in one meal. Kimchi is definitely the star of these sides and is served with nearly everything. So far, I’ve seen this funky-smelling cabbage appear in stew, fried rice, water, cold soup and pancakes.
One of my favourite Korean dishes is hot stone Bibimbap traditionally made with pork and Gochujang (I love this red pepper paste, it’s fermented, salty and super spicy). Another loved K-meal is Bulgogi, traditionally made with pork. Tempura king prawns, fish pancake and grilled squid all feature heavily in the street food scene, along with Buldak (spicy, sweet fried chicken, a delicious and sticky mess covered in sesame seeds), and Hotteok – Korea’s answer to the doughnut, filled with an assortment of seeds, nuts and a warm honey drizzle. Must be eaten hot!
I can’t write about Seoul food and not mention Korean BBQ! There seems to be a deep love of do-it-yourself dining as these restaurants are everywhere in South Korea. A large grill or hot-pot sits in the middle of your dining table and with the flick of a burner switch you’re cooking your meal. Popular meat choices for this style of dining are black pork from nearby Jeju Island, Australian beef or my favourite option of all – chicken marinated in red pepper paste.
When approaching Korean cooking at home – a kitchen stocked with basic Korean ingredients goes a long way, and experimentation is key. As a starting point, make room in your pantry for the absolute essentials; Gochugaru, Gochujang, toasted Sesame Oil, Rice Wine Vinegar, Korean Soy Sauce, Garlic, and Spring Onions. Things like Ginger, Roasted Seaweed, Sesame Seeds and Tofu all feature quite heavily too – and if you’ve always got short-grain rice on hand then you’re already one step ahead. If you’re a bit sensitive to chilli, then go easy on the Gochugaru, and use Doenjang instead of Gochujang; it’s milder and naturally sweeter.
There are plenty of simple Korean dishes that are easy to cook at home. Oi Muchim (spicy cucumber salad), Gamjajeon (potato pancake), Bibimbap, Kimchi Fried Rice, and Pan-fried Gochujang Tofu (kind of like a spicy, sticky version of Salt and Pepper Tofu). And if you’re feeling adventurous, why don’t you give Homemade Kimchi a go? You’ll be serving it with every meal in no time!