South Korean food: 10 things we love
Each province has its own version of umami-rich gochujang. Mountainous Sunchang is known to produce the best due to its clean air and water, and high-quality chillies. The fiery paste is made using fermented soybeans, ground sticky rice, dried chillies, barley syrup and sea salt. We use it to make classic dishes such as rice cake comfort food tteok-bokki, jjigae soup and galbijjim braised short ribs.
Mandu (Korean dumplings)
There are many different flavours and varieties of dumplings, including pork, kimchi, pumpkin and sweet potato, often steamed but also fried. Korean New Year is celebrated on 21 January over four days, when we eat tteokguk rice cake and dumpling soup. During this period, we greet each other with the phrase, “Have you eaten your rice cake and dumpling soup?”. This is a way of marking the completion of another year. Discover recipes for dumplings from around the world here.
Korean street food
South Korea’s markets are vibrant places to buy fresh produce, dried goods and seafood. In the evenings covered bars are set up on the surrounding streets for locals to enjoy street food dishes such as mung bean pancakes, comforting tteok-bokki and sweet hotteok pancakes paired with soju (a smooth, clear Korean spirit).
On special occasions such as Christmas Eve, we visit traditional restaurants to enjoy a banquet. We sit on the floor round a low table laid out with individual bowls of rice and soup plus a selection of small dishes to share. These can include crab, skate in spring onion sauce, mung bean jelly, kimchi and plenty of pickles – mushrooms, lotus flower and seaweed to name a few.
Korean BBQ and bulgogi
There is a vast variety of KBBQ but it’s most traditionally centred around meat, whether that’s galbi shortribs, thinly sliced bulgogi or dwaeji pork bulgogi. The meat is marinated and cooked by diners on grills set into the table. We wrap the crisp, charred meat in lettuce or perilla leaves, along with garnishes and banchan side dishes including dried omelette, kimchi and crunchy cabbage.
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There are thousands of Buddhist temples in South Korea, with many offering stay experiences. Religious practices encourage a simple vegan diet using mountain herbs and homegrown or local veg. Examples of dishes prepared by the monks include spiced aubergine, mushroom and tofu soup, chilli pickled cucumber and sesame-laced spinach.
Kimchi is part of our culture and something we can’t live without. When we travel we take our own kimchi with us, and there’s always a selection on the table at a restaurant. There are more than 200 kinds, including white radish cubes (chonggak) and crunchy mountain cabbage with varying levels of sweet and spiciness. The traditional sauce is made using ginger, spring onion, garlic, onions and dried chillies, with sticky rice to thicken, plus fish or shrimp sauce and sesame seeds. Making kimchi is also about family reunions, where, once a year, usually in autumn, we get together to make a large batch, then keep in a separate kimchi fridge to maintain the taste for the whole year.
Korean fried chicken
Korean fried chicken is a ritual – we eat it with friends after work, to cure a broken heart, while watching football, on many occasions, often paired with Cass Fresh lager to refresh our mouths. It’s extra crunchy with a succulent centre, and flavoured with various seasonings including spicy gochujang, honey glaze and garlic and soy.
During autumn, the whole country comes alive with the sweet fragrance of persimmons. Many of us have our own persimmon trees. Around November time the fruit becomes soft and almost jelly-like (we call this ‘hongsi’). We freeze to eat like an ice cream or dry for winter and wrap around walnuts to make a traditional dessert, gotgamssam.
Seafood and haenyeo divers
Jagalchi market in Busan is the largest fish market in South Korea. Here, women sell fresh and dried seafood from long, delicate cutlass fish to dried salty anchovies and octopus. Female haenyeo divers use special breathing techniques to harvest seaweed, sea cucumbers and prized abalone off the shores of volcanic Jeju Island to sell on the mainland.
Photographs by Alex Crossley
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