Food in Korea is a whole love language. Imagine seeing a friend or family member after any amount of time — you might greet them with “have you been well?”, “How are things going?” “How are you?” In South Korea however — you’ll ask 밥 먹어요 — Have you eaten” As a way to check in on your loved ones’ wellbeing. It seems so much more obvious there that your Qi (or Gi/Life Energy) would be lifted after a home-cooked Korean meal consisting always of plenty of 반찬 (side dishes like kimchi), 밥 (rice), 국 (soup) and 야체 (vegetables).
The Country I Owe My Foodie — Status to.
I’ve always loved nutrition, but I owe it to my four years in South Korea for upgrading me to my (self-appointed) “Foodie” status. Those that have traveled there will know it’s not the easiest being vegan in Korea due to their love for meat and the prevalence of fish sauce in their side dishes.
Being vegan, however, is what pushed me to Korean classes, learning to communicate and learn about the food and culture. It’s what drove my interest to learn from Korean friends (who became family) how to create authentic Korean meals so that there wasn’t a flavour I had to miss out on. Today I want to share some of the secrets of a Korean Kitchen that I got to learn in my time there.
The Heart of Korean Meals:
Imbued with tradition, fermentation, colour and flavour it’s easy to see why the world has become obsessed with Korean food. Hopefully after reading this you’ll be inspired to seek out Korean food or better yet get in the kitchen with some of these flavours and secrets to see for yourself how 맛있어요 (masisseoyo — delicious) Korean food can be.
The Foundation: Key Ingredients in Korean Cuisine
I know diet culture has caused us to break out in nervous hives at the dreaded C word (carbs). But grains and carbs (including foods like fruits and vegetables) remain a key ingredient in traditional diets across the globe.
For Korea that staple is rice (밥). Rice at every meal and often as a free addition to any restaurant bought meal. Rice for breakfast with some kimchi and 김 (salted seaweed). Rice rolled around veggies as an on-the-go snack/lunch at bus stops. Rice balls at convenience stores and a rice cooker that’s always got warm, perfectly cooked and seasoned rice in every Korean household.
This can be plain short grain glutinous rice (Koreans certainly don’t fear gluten), or it can be short grain brown rice, purple rice or a mix that includes beans, lentils and sometimes even dried sweet dates (my personal favourite).
Gochugaru and Gochujang
If I had to associate a colour with Korean cooking it would RED. If you don’t like spicy food going in, you’ll almost undoubtedly be an addict when you return. This spice is different from South African peri-peri or Indian chilli. This spice is short-lived burn that’s intense and packed with flavour thanks to Korean red peppers ground into a spice — namely Gochugaru. This is blended with fermented soy beans, salt and some glutenous rice to create a star of Korean Cooking — Gochujang. You’ll find this in Korean soups, stews, side dishes and marinades.
The Iconic Korean Side Dish: Kimchi
Along with the colour red. Whenever anyone thinks of Korean cuisine they always think of Kimchi.
Here’s a little secret… I didn’t like Kimchi the first (few) time(s) I tried it. I wondered how the pre-schoolers I taught were eating this stuff three times a day (at varying spice levels!) But by the end of my second year in Korea I CRAVED Kimchi. Just like ALL things in life, your palate adapts and develops. What made me try kimchi time and time again; while I didn’t yet like it; was the culture behind it.
Dating back over a thousand years. It’s not just a staple in Korean cuisine but also a symbol of resilience, as Koreans developed various methods of fermenting vegetables, including napa cabbage, to preserve food through harsh winters. This enduring cultural icon reflects the resourcefulness and deep-rooted connection of Koreans to their culinary heritage.
Kimchi making is an event so sacred you get the day off to make it once a year! Many of the older more traditional Koreans will grow their own cabbages and when the time comes Koreans travel to their home towns to help their mothers and grandmothers make Kimchi for the year ahead. This highlights another key ingredients of Korean Culture: Community.
Once your Kimchi is ready you’ll likely be sharing and swopping Kimchi with neighbours, co-workers and friends. Kimchi’s unique flavour comes from the fermentation process (something we now know is amazing for keeping a healthy gut microbiome). Despite there being a common recipe for kimchi it’s not uncommon for kimchi to be sweeter, spicier or more sour based on how long, where and how it’s been fermented.
The Art of 반찬 (Banchan-Side Dishes)
I’ll never forget my first meal in Korea. I sat down and ordered something that looked safe and simple (according to my limited knowledge of Vegan Korean food) only to receive an entire table of small plates of side dishes. Then realise at the end that all of these were “service” (free) and unlimited with our meal.
They call these side dishes 반찬 (banchan) and being the only Vegan in a group Non-Vegans meant I often paid as little as 1000won (around R12) for a meal. And this little payment was only because I couldn’t get enough of my favourite Korean Fermented Soybean Soup. (Which they have at every Korean resturant that might even be served for free as a starter).
So for minimal or no cost I often got to eat a variety of delicious side dishes made up of stir fried glass noodles, tofu, rice, pickled radishes, burdock root, green salad, leek salad, cucumber kimchi, water based kimchi and of course original spicy red kimchi.
This is one of the reasons I believe Koreans remain such a healthy nation (despite becoming quite Westernised in the last 20 years). Is that they’re getting the variety, fibre, spice and colours our guts thrive on. As well as hitting every basic taste (sweet, salty, spicy, sour, umami) we might crave when we get hungry.
Two last Korean Food Pillars:
More than the food itself, there were some things that Koreans just do right. Despite most places being self-service you always feel cared for and seen. In fact I think it feels like going to eat at your grandmothers’ house and knowing you’re receiving homemade, nourishing foods made to fill your belly and your soul.
The “homestyle”, more traditional restaurants were often just long tables instead of individual tables. That means even if you’re dining alone you’re never really eating alone. Houses in Korea are all quite small and because eating traditional Korean meals are so inexpensive it’s actually far more common for many Korean’s to eat out as often as they eat at home.
Korea also happens to be the 7th booziest nation in the world, and even their drinking culture is intertwined with food. A typical Friday night after work involves going to some beers, soju and 안주 (food you eat with drinking).
Every meal is a sharing event, food in Korea is meant to be enjoyed together. There’s slurping, loud chewing and laughing as well as plenty glasses clinking. I know now it’s true that some sounds never lose their wonder or space in your heart and memory.
Seasonal and Activity Based Eating:
One of my favourite dishes in Korea was a simple dish called 콩국수. I was teased for having an “old lady palate” because this dish was blended soy beans, hand cut noodles, with some sliced cucumber and salt. It was served cold and it was only available in Summer. Similarly, in Winter we enjoyed Kimchi or soft tofu stews. In Autumn we’d take advantage of Acorn jelly based dishes. It also wasn’t unusual for friends and co-workers to gift you with seasonal drinks, snacks and fruits since sharing is such a big part of their culture. Street food in Korea is a whole industry on it’s own. You’ll brace a harsh Korean winter for some spicy stir fried rice cakes 떡벅이 ttoekbokki) and a sweet Korean pancake (호떡 Hotteok) let me tell you!
While hiking for the view is great and all, a hike no longer feels like a hike without 파전 (pajoen — vegetable pancake) and 막걸리 (Makoli — a fermented rice wine).
On your birthday you eat 미역국 (miyeokguk -Korean seaweed soup), and when you start a new year or venture you often get 송편 (Ssongpyon — just the best, chewiest rice cake goodness filled with nuts, honey or sweet red bean paste).
The true secret to a Korean Kitchen (and any kitchen really) is their love for cooking, eating and sharing. So much so that just a few short years there transformed me into someone who can’t help but ask: Have you eaten? to anyone I consider a friend. So if I ask know this is my way to see if I could nourish, love and care for you with my food.