The Korean diaspora is vast: 6.5 million of us scattered around the globe, from Uzbekistan to Brazil. Just as we carry a range of food memories from different eras and regions, different communities of diasporic Koreans incorporate local ingredients in different ways, and everyone’s grandmother is going to have her own take on the best everyday kimchi: Which vegetables to use, how spicy or fishy it should be, and how long it should ferment. (There are even—yes—Koreans who don’t like kimchi.)
That being said, there are some dishes that serve as culinary touchstones, ones that most Koreans would recognize as being, well, Korean. Korean families might quibble with the inclusion of a dish here and there, but if you’re looking to become more familiar or reacquainted with Korean cuisine, the list of dishes described below is a good place to begin. Think of it as a starter pack.
Most Korean meals are served communally, with shared dishes in the center of table and (often) individual servings of rice and soup placed in front of each diner. As a result, serving sizes in recipes can vary: A recipe for a batch of radish greens kimchi could yield enough to last you a month, a banchan recipe might produce enough for three or four meals, but a pot of rice or porridge might only suffice for dinner and the next day’s breakfast. Further, heartier banchan can be served in smaller portions, and the amount served can be adjusted depending on the number of people dining.
Most of these dishes can be made with ingredients from a well-stocked grocery store. Emily Kim (better known as the YouTube sensation Maangchi) told me that most basic Korean dishes can be made with the ingredients you’d find at any chain grocery store in the US. If you're building a Korean pantry from scratch, start out with some basics, depending on what you want to make—soy sauce, doenjang, and sesame oil, for example, if you want to make some basic vegetable banchan—and progress from there.
Deciding how to organize this list was difficult: Some dishes cross categories (for example, juk is a rice porridge, and typically takes the place of both rice and soup on the Korean table). And there isn’t really a concept of a "main dish" in Korean cuisine, which several of the cooks I interviewed pointed out. But, hopefully, grouping dishes under broad categories will give you a sense of how to get started.
Essential Korean Dishes
The question, “Have you eaten?” is a common greeting in Korea—and the word for “meal” is interchangeable with the word for cooked rice, or “bap.” For generations, a meal without rice was inconceivable. “Rice is the very foundation of the Korean table. We eat everything with rice,” says Hyosun Ro, the recipe developer behind the popular blog Korean Bapsang. “It doesn’t matter how delicious everything else is, if you don’t have rice, you’re missing something.”
That being said, Koreans eat smaller portions of rice than they used to, and often mix rice with beans, roots, and other kinds of grains, like millet and barley.
Juk (pronounced “jook”) is Korean rice porridge. It’s often served to the young and infirm, but it’s also enjoyed by anyone looking for a warm and comforting meal. Beombeok is a heartier, more rustic version of juk that incorporates other starches like flour, buckwheat, potato or pumpkin. Sweeter porridges, like some red bean and pumpkin porridges, tend to be eaten more as snacks than as complete meals.
Of course, rice is also the star of one of Korea’s most famous culinary exports, bibimbap: a one-bowl meal of carefully cut and seasoned vegetables, sometimes meat, and sometimes egg set on top of a bed of rice. While I like a crackling-hot dolsot (stone bowl) bibimbap, with the crisp, golden bed of rice that forms along the bottom, summertime has me longing for a simple metal bowl of barley bibimbap topped with young radish greens kimchi.
Soup, Stews, and Braises
Most traditional Korean meals that include rice will also include some kind of soup or stew, and, when it’s served individually, soup is always placed to the right of the rice bowl. Though you’ll find plenty of crossovers, you can roughly divide this brothy category into soups (guk), thicker stews (jjigae), and hot pot (jeongol). You may have also heard the word “tang”—this is the Sino-Korean linguistic counterpart to the native Korean word “guk.” Sometimes the two words are used interchangeably and sometimes guk is regarded as a separate category of soups, which tend to be slightly heartier (though not as full as a jjigae) and are often seasoned at the table.
A good soup to know is miyeok-guk, a soup brimming with tender pieces of seaweed (miyeok is often translated to “wakame” in English) in a clear seafood- or beef-based broth, fortified with aromatics like onion, and garlic, scattered with bits of tender but toothsome beef. Seafood-based versions might include briny mussels or clams, but can just as often be served with seaweed alone. Since miyeok is rich in calcium and iodine, it’s given to new mothers; it’s also become a soup you eat on your birthday, as a reminder of just what your mother went through.
Cold soups are also part of the Korean soup repertoire, one of the more popular being oi naeng-guk, an extraordinarily simple dish of slivered cucumber in an icy soy sauce brine—it’s cold, crisp, and perfect for hot days, particularly since the addition of brown rice vinegar offers a bracing backdrop of acidity.
The jjigae is a classic Korean stew, with more filling than broth. The most basic, must-know jjigae is doenjang jjigae, a recipe with as many variations as there are home cooks. Think of it as your do-it-all stew: almost anything can be added to it, depending on what you have available and what you feel like eating, since the dried anchovy and dasima broth, seasoned with doenjang (Korean fermented bean paste), makes almost anything taste wonderful, whether we’re talking about root vegetables or plump littleneck clams. Other kinds of jjigae include kimchi jjigae, sundubu (soft tofu) jjigae, and budae (army base) jjigae, a Spam- and sausage-laden stew that was created after the Korean War using surplus ingredients from US military bases in South Korea.
Banchan are pretty well-known in the food world by now, but they sometimes get mistranslated as “appetizers.”
“That’s not the intent; that’s not what it is,” says Ro. “You eat [banchan] with your rice.” A well-set Korean table will have a set of banchan that includes a variety of ingredients for both nutritional and aesthetic reasons. “On a daily basis, I think more about balancing,” Ro explains, noting that if she already has some spicy banchan, she’ll try to have some mild ones as well. And if all she has are vegetables, she might add an egg dish. “Going back to the traditional table, [you need] textural balance, and color balance. I wouldn’t do dishes that are all yellow.”
When it comes to banchan, the most important kind to know is “namul,” which typically refers to vegetables and often specifically to wild greens. “Historically, namul was a life-sustaining source,” says Seoyoung Jung, a chef and co-founder of the Korean food blog Bburi Kitchen and frequent Serious Eats contributor. “In the olden days, there wasn’t as much to eat, so people foraged for wild greens,” she explains. Because of this, Jung says, namul are fundamental to what Koreans eat.
One of her favorite namul banchan is sigeumchi-namul, or blanched and seasoned spinach. While sigeumchi-namul can be seasoned with an array of ingredients, like plum syrup for mellow sweetness, vinegar for brightness, doenjang or soy sauce for fermented, savory funk, and toasted sesame seeds for added texture and nutty, roasted flavor, it’s common to prepare many namul banchan by simply blanching a green vegetable and dressing it with some common seasonings, like minced garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
Another important word to know when talking about banchan is “muchim,” which comes from a verb that roughly translates to “mix and season.” You can have all kinds of muchim as banchan, from cucumbers tossed with a deceptively simple dressing made with fruity gochugaru (chile flakes), sugar, soy sauce, mildly tart rice vinegar, and earthy toasted sesame seeds and oil, to dried squid dressed in a garlicky gochujang mixture.
Likewise, “bokkeum” means to sauté, and you’ll find bokkeum banchan made from everything from anchovies coated in a sweet-spicy caramelized sugar glaze spiked with gochugaru, fish sauce, and soy sauce to eggplant sautéed and seasoned simply with garlic, soy sauce, and scallions.
If there’s one food that has come to represent Korean culinary prowess in the eyes of the rest of the world, it’s kimchi. Although it’s known to be a flavor powerhouse and probiotic wonder, its origins are humble, a staple food that was born out of necessity: salt, capsaicin, and lactic acid fermentation were used as preservatives to keep vegetables edible for long periods of time. At the tail end of every autumn, Korean families would traditionally embark on a multi-day, massive kimchi-making endeavor known as gimjang, preparing dozens or even hundreds of heads of cabbage to last all winter and beyond.
But kimchi’s appeal goes far beyond practicality: It’s a staple of the Korean table. “If I run out of kimchi, I feel uncomfortable,” says Maangchi. “It’s kind of a reliable friend for me.” Kimchi can be made out of pretty much any vegetable, and you’ll see an incredible variety at banchan stores, and the selection will change with the seasons.
Kimchi types are determined not just by the the vegetables used; some have more brine, others less, and not all kimchi is spicy, either. “Korean hot pepper flakes only arrived in the 16th century,” Maangchi explains. “And Korean hot peppers are sweet, juicy, and less spicy than people think.”
While making gimjang kimchi at home can be quite an undertaking, seasonal kimchi can be made in smaller batches with a starchy base to speed up fermentation. Yeolmu kimchi, a young radish greens kimchi, is a quick summer ferment with both crunch and a kick, the bitterness of the greens complemented by the fruity spiciness of the gochugaru and the tang from lactic acid.
And it’s important to note that there’s no such thing as leftover kimchi: “You can make tons of other side dishes with kimchi,” Maangchi says. “With some well-fermented kimchi, I just chop it up, mix with a little flour and water—kimchi jeon!” Or, if you need a quick meal, “stir-fry some kimchi with rice and egg.” And as a topping for noodle soup, she says, it’s perfect.
This is an ambiguous category that I came up with to describe these dishes, since “main dish” wasn’t quite the right word for them, and yet, they involve a bit more work and take more of the spotlight on the table than banchan. And since they involve meat, these are dishes that were often reserved for guests or holidays. “Koreans didn’t eat much meat until more modern times,” says Jung. “Cows were needed to work the fields, so eating beef was a luxury.” As such, she explains, our recipes for bulgogi and galbi-jjim (braised short ribs) come to us from the records of Korean royal cuisine.
Bossam, a centerpiece dish that features thinly-sliced pieces of pork belly simmered until tender in a poaching liquid seasoned with, among other things, doenjang, garlic, cinnamon, ginger, and soju, is a popular meal to share with friends and family, and it’s traditional to end the hard work of gimjang with a feast of bossam and fresh kimchi, or geotjeori. While geotjeori lacks the lactic acid tang produced by long fermentation, it has the refreshing taste and crisp texture of just-salted and drained cabbage.
Jeyuk bokkeum, another example, is a chili-slathered pork stir fry that’s delicious when eaten with rice and banchan, or wrapped up as ssam (lettuce wraps); the tender-crisp lettuce provides a nice contrast to the meaty and savory richness of the pork.
Another popular dish intended to feed (and impress) a crowd is japchae, which consists of finely cut vegetables, stir-fried slivers of meat and wood’s ear mushrooms, and glass noodles, all of it tossed with sweetened ganjang, or soy sauce. Although it, too, originally came from Korean royal cuisine, it’s commonly made at home today.
One of the most popular ways to cook chicken in the summertime is samgyetang, a one-bowl dish of young chicken stuffed with aromatic ginseng, sweet jujubes, earthy chestnuts, and sticky rice, boiled in an herbal broth. It’s said to have revitalizing properties that are especially important on the boknal, or the hottest days of summer.
Jeon is often translated as “pan-fried delicacies.” Back in the days when oil and flour were precious commodities, filling the table with stacks of battered and fried vegetables, meats, fish, and mushrooms was something that was reserved for formal occasions, like ancestral rites and the major holidays. Today, we have an abundance of these ingredients, and jeon has made its way into the vocabulary of everyday eating and even street food.
One of the most basic kinds of jeon is pajeon, a savory green onion pancake. I love pajeon that’s packed with greens and light on the batter—and if it’s crisp around the edges, even better. It’s popular to have this on rainy days with makgeolli, a tart rice beer, because the sizzling of the pancakes is said to resemble the patter of raindrops.
Rice isn’t always the basis of every meal: Sometimes noodles take center stage. You’ll find both hot and cold noodles made of wheat, buckwheat, sweet potato, and more. Noodle dishes tend to be large, one-bowl meals with kimchi and maybe a few other banchan served on the side. Kalguksu is a popular hot noodle dish, made of dense, chewy wheat noodles cut into long strips (the name means “knife noodles”) in a seafood (or sometimes chicken) broth base. The wheat noodles release some of their starch as they sit in the broth, thickening it up and giving it a comforting, silky heartiness.
When it comes to cold noodles, naengmyeon is king: There are restaurants dedicated to the craft of naengmyeon, a noodle dish that originated in what is now North Korea. Mul-naengmyeon is a bowl of thin buckwheat noodles set into an icy meat and water kimchi broth, sometimes topped with thin, tender slices of boiled meat, slivers of crisp cucumber, radish, and pear, and maybe half a boiled egg. You often season to taste with the vinegar and hot mustard provided at the table. Bibim-naengmyeon is the same set of noodles, but instead of a broth, you mix it in with the chili-based sauce, typically made from gochujang, garlic, soy sauce, nutty sesame seeds or their oil, and something sweet like sugar, for a dish that’s both fiery and refreshing.
In today’s Korea, you’ll find restaurants that distinguish between Pyongyang naengmyeon, which has more buckwheat in the noodles and milder broth, and Hamhung (a northern city) naengmyeon, which tends to have starchier, chewier noodles.
There’s a whole universe of Korean snacks and street food that falls under the umbrella of bunsik (that’s pronounced boon-shik.) Walk out of any school’s front gates in Korea, and you’ll find a bunsik restaurant in a hot minute. “Bunsik” means “food made with wheat flour” and originally referred to a government campaign to encourage the consumption of American wheat (sent as food aid after the Korean War). But today, it refers to a category of cheap and tasty snacks that include blood sausage, fish cakes, ramyeon, and more.
One snack food deserves special clarification: Gimbap, Korean seaweed rolls, may look like sushi, but they’re not. Don’t call them “Korean sushi”! Gimbap is structurally similar to sushi, with rice seasoned with sesame oil and salt spread on flat sheets of seaweed rolled around fillings in the center, but it usually contains vegetables and proteins like ham, egg, or imitation crab. It’s quintessential picnic food.
Tteokbokki is one such popular snack food with surprisingly elevated origins: Tteokbokki was first cooked in royal cuisine with a soy sauce based sauce. After the Korean War, an enterprising grandmother named Ma Bok-rim realized that rice cakes drenched in chile sauce would be just as delicious—and she launched an empire in the process. Today, the Singdang-dong neighborhood in Seoul has a street called Tteokbokki Alley that’s filled with tteokbokki purveyors. Today’s tteokbokki is made of bite-sized pillows of tender, chewy rice cakes bathed in a brick-red gochujang sauce that’s almost sweeter than it is spicy. Sometimes you get bonus bites of salty fish cake or boiled eggs, and you can level up to ra-bokki (ramyeon + tteokbokki) if you’re feeling extra ravenous.
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