Friday, January 8, 2016

More Korean Food!

Now that I've gotten past all the cultural things, I can talk more about specific Korean dishes! I'm going to miss Korean food a lot.

Basic Dishes

-Bibimbap (비빔밥), one of the most well-known Korean dishes, is popular among many foreigners, especially those seeking some vegetables in their food. It’s kind of like a meal version of a kimbap. The basic kind has rice, a fried egg, a mixture of stringy vegetables, and gochujang, a spicy red pepper paste sauce used in lots of Korean food. I grew to like this sauce so much that I actually bought my own and started putting it in my own cooking for extra flavor and a little kick. In nicer restaurants, you can get bibimbap with raw beef that actually cooks on the surface of the sizzling hot pot. If you treasure your fingers, touching the bowl directly is not advised.

-Donkasuh (돈가스), which actually originated in Japan, is a giant fried and breaded pork cutlet with a sweet "cur-ray" sauce. It's very cheap and can be found almost everywhere. You can even get a version of it that's just fried cheese.

-Jjim-dak (찜닭), which means "steamed chicken," is a flavorful, soupy, and spicy glass noodle dish with steamed potatoes, carrots, onions, and chunks of chicken. It comes in a giant plate that you share with others, and very often, despite the presence of noodles, it's still eaten with a small bowl of rice on the side. Sadly I'm not yet skilled enough with chopsticks to gracefully remove the bones from slippery, sauce-covered pieces of meat.

-Jajangmyeon (자장면), or black bean noodles, originated in China but are a popular dish in Korea. Supposedly it's a tradition that people who are single on Valentine's Day come together to eat jajangmyeon in sad solidarity.

-Pajeon (파전) is kind of like a non-dessert pancake eaten with a very strong, salty dip. It can be made with green onions alone or also with seafood. I can't say I'm a big fan of the chunks of squid, though.

-Kimchi chigae (김치 찌개) is a hot-pot soup made of kimchi, noodles, and pork that comes out of the kitchen literally still boiling. It’s spicy, full of flavor, and served with rice. Of course.

-Toppokki  (떡볶이) and rappokki (라볶이) are my guilty pleasures. Toppokki, sold by both street vendors and small kimbap restaurants, is made of soft, cylindrical rice cakes swimming in gochujang sauce. It's nothing but spicy, carby goodness. But even better, though I feel like I'm killing my insides every time I eat it, is rappokki: the usual toppokki rice cakes and sauce plus fish cakes, a full serving of ramen, and maybe a boiled egg on top. It is to die for.

Multi-step Meals

What I really like about some Korean meals is that they're prepared in front of you and require multiple steps. This forces you to slow down, appreciate your food, and socialize with your company. Here are a couple of my favorites:

-Dakgalbi (닭갈비) is a delicious combination of chicken, cabbage, potatoes, rice cakes, cheese (optional but always recommended), red sauce, and, if you’re still hungry at the end, rice. It’s slightly spicy and absolutely delicious. The waiter starts by putting a big pan of the stuff on the stove in the middle of the table. (He also puts a tall metal ring around it so no one gets splashed; some restaurants even supply aprons.) As it heats up and starts sizzling, the waiter periodically comes by and stirs it temptingly in front of you. After a few minutes he adds the cheese, and a few minutes later it’s ready to eat. When the food starts to dwindle, you have the choice to add rice to the pan. The waiter mixes the rice with the rest of the sauce and food and the eating continues.

-Shabu shabu (샤브 샤브) is truly wonderful. It’s the longest meal I’ve had—2 to 3 hours from start to finish, if you like your company—and is definitely not a good option for a rushed lunch hour. It’s such a long process that I’ve even divided it up into five steps.

1) Let's begin with the elaborate layout of the shabu shabu meal. Each person gets a bowl, a plate, and three dipping sauces. The shredded veggies and thin rolls of raw beef are for sharing. 

2) First you add some meat, leaves, and sprouts to the pot of boiling water in the middle of the table and wait patiently while they cook in front of you. Once they're done, you add some of the soup to your own little bowl. 

3) Then you pick up one of these seemingly inedible plastic-looking things (left) and dip it in a bowl of hot water. It turns out that thing is actually the wrap for your little hand-made spring roll. I've learned since that these are common in Vietnam. You put it on your plate and quickly add some cooked meat, shredded veggies, and sauce. If you wait too long, the wrap will get too sticky. Roll it up and start eating.

4) Once you've finally run out of wraps, then it's time for…noodles! A waitress comes and adds a bowl of white noodles into the main pot. You wait a bit for them to cook, and then dive in.

5) BUT WAIT! You're still not done! After you finish all the noodles, the waitress comes back to your table and dumps in a small bowl of rice. Because no Korean meal, no matter how large, is complete without rice. She stirs it around in the remaining liquid until it becomes a sort of porridge. You wait for the mixture to cool down, dig in, and then finally, the marathon of deliciousness is over. 

Strange Foods

Everyone always wants to know the weird foods people have eaten in other countries, so here's my selection:

-The strangest food I've eaten in Korea is hands down beondegi (번데기), or silkworm larvae. They're a popular street food with a very distinctive smell and a very unappealing look. They're essentially little slimy brown pre-bugs that taste like dirt. I've found that most people either love them or hate them. My non-Korean coworkers insisted I try one as an "initiation" for my first dinner out, and I gave them another chance a few months later, but they were gross both times.

-Next is jellyfish salad. I've only ever had it at one restaurant, but it's strangely yummy. Its texture is exactly what you might expect from a jellyfish: kind of like a long, thin gummy worm. There are also stuffed pig intestines, but I was never brave enough to try those.

-And then there's fried octopus. At the restaurant I went to, it was served on a plate with fried chicken, just as a whole fried package deal. I tried it just to be culturally open but the chewiness (and the suckers) really put me off. While I have never and will never eat this, a delicacy in Korea is actually live octopus whose tentacles are still moving as they go in your mouth. There's a real risk of the suckers sticking to your throat, but I suppose that's part of the thrill. There's also a popular Korean myth that octopus, especially live, is "good for men's health"—aka their sexual stamina. Koreans like octopus so much that you can even buy small slices of octopus in the cinema as a movie snack. (I'll pass.)

-Korean convenience stores are known for having great, cheap ice cream. And trust me, I'm all for ice cream. But many Korean street vendors make eating ice cream a potentially awkward experience with their very phallic, J-shaped ice cream cones. The cone itself is porous and a bit dry, but the ice cream itself isn't bad. Just maybe don't post a picture of yourself eating one of these cones online.

-Finally, my favorite strange food: squid chips! It sounds nasty, I know, but there is only a slightly fishy flavor to them. These chips are filled with air but are actually quite oily and addictive. I bought them for myself as an occasional treat on the way home. And then there's "Honey Tong Tong," the snack trend that swept the nation and then, like most trends, quickly died down. These chips are an interesting combination of sweet and buttery, and I have mixed feelings about them. However, I was told that during their peak, stores would sell out of them within hours. Whenever a kid brought a bag to class, all the other students would run after him for a taste and then walk off with crumby, satisfied smiles. (Then again, they did that for most food.) This is an addition to the more traditional Korean snacks, which I always found rather stale and not very flavorful.


Koreans like to put sugar on or in everything in general, including tomato sauce, bread, and even corn dogs (along with the usual ketchup), but they also have some distinctive desserts that I've come to love.

-Red bean (팥) was one of the first new things I tried in Korea. It's found in bread, pastries, rice cakes, and even ice cream. It's a sweet mush of brownish-reddish adzuki beans that can be an acquired taste, but I quickly learned to love it. My favorites are red bean rice cakes and red bean "fish," pastries that are sold by street vendors in cold weather for three a dollar.

The red bean/custard "fish" truck
that conveniently parked
outside my school in the winter
My favorite red bean
rice cakes
I was so sad when I found
out these weren't sold
in the summer

-Bingsu (빙수) is kind of like shaved ice cream, if you can imagine it. It's not cheap and often comes in a giant, heaping bowl easily shareable between two or three people. It’s offered in different flavors and with various toppings, including fruits, brownie chunks, actual ice cream, or the more traditional red bean. The bingsu special I ordered once, shown on the bottom left, even had cheese puffs, a piece of candied orange, and actual slices of cheesecake, in addition to frozen berries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. What's nice about bingsu is that it's generally light and fluffy and doesn't make you feel five pounds heavier once you've finished it. In fact, it's good enough that I have to show you four pictures of what you're missing out on.


-Although Korean apartments don't have ovens, Koreans love their bakeries. One of the most popular is called Paris Baguette, and I've found some very interesting pastries there. Many include red bean, but then there are things like giant sugary hotdog twists that make you question the traditional definition of a pastry.

-I also can't leave out the cafes scattered all over the country which offer some amazing desserts. Caffè Bene (yes, I spelled that right) is especially notable for its fantastic, though expensive, desserts. Behold the cheesecake smothered in chocolate sauce and sitting on a bed of melted marshmallow:

-Finally, I've seen a few crepe shops around Korea that not only offer delicious savory crepes, but also amazingly good-looking dessert crepes that I somehow never tried. Other than the usual fruits, whipped cream, and syrup, these things include entire scoops of ice cream and whole slices of cake or cheesecake. It's ridiculous. I'm not sure how you would even start to eat something like that. But at the same time it's so, so tempting…

(I assume the weird green color in these plastic models is
a result of age, so maybe just ignore that part.)

Have you ever eaten Korean food? If not (and you should), what do you want to try the most? Leave a comment below!

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