The ABCs of Korean Food

We’ve written before about our favorite Korean food. But what about the other food; the stuff we like but didn’t make it onto the list? This list, a look at Korean food A to Z, aims to be more exhaustive, but still leaves a lot out. More complete lists can be found at CNN Go and Zen Kimchi. I’ve linked to pictures of items that I don’t have pictures of myself.

Army Stew

Budae jjigae (부대찌개), meaning ‘army base stew,’ was so named because of its origin – people used stolen surplus goods from US army bases to supplement their diet when food was scarce after the Korean war. So they took some hot dogs and Spam and put them into a stew with kimchi and pepper paste. It’s a popular dish today, often containing ramen noodles, American cheese, sausage, baked beans, onions, tofu, garlic, and more. It’s kind of a weird hodgepodge of stuff in a pot but overall it’s salty and spicy and really tasty.

Bulgogi

Bulgogi (불고기) is a dish of marinated meat cut in thin strips and either grilled or cooked in a soup. You can get beef, chicken, pork, and duck bulgogi. It’s pretty tasty.

Cold noodles in broth (mul naengmyeon)

Mul naengmyeon (물냉면), meaning cold water noodles, is a popular summer food. It’s kind of what it sounds like – cold noodles in a watery soup made of beef or chicken broth. Usually topped with half a hardboiled egg and containing some cucumber and strips of beef, and you add spicy mustard and vinegar as you like it. The noodles are cut up before eating because they’re hard to bite through. I (Rachel) enjoy mul naengmyeon, but Jeff does not.

Ddeokbokki

Ddeokbokki (떡볶이) is rice cakes (ddeok, 떡) in a fiery sauce, usually with fish cakes. It’s a favorite of middle school girls, I hear. I think it’s pretty good.

Egg, steamed (gyeran jjim)

Gyeran jjim (계란찜) is a popular banchan (side dish) in Korea, usually at meat restaurants. It comes out in a little earthen pot and is delicious.

Fried Pork Cutlet (donkkaseu)

Donkkaseu (돈까스) is fried pork cutlet, usually covered in a sauce that tastes kind of appley. The example above is filled with cheese and came with dipping sauce instead of being covered. I ate it at a chain restaurant called Heosu Abi (허수아비) which I recommend! It’s also available in all the kimbap stores.

Gimbap

Gimbap (김밥), which I usually spell kimbap – had to cheat to make this list work), is basically Korea’s answer to sushi. By which I mean it is a roll made with rice and dried seaweed. Other than that, it has nothing in common with sushi, except that it was derived from makizushi (sushi rolls) during Japanese rule. It usually has some main ingredient like bulgogi, kimchi, or tuna fish, and then there’s also pickled radish, cucumbers, carrots, egg, and often sesame leaf. Jeff really likes it.

Hongeo (in soup)

Hongeo (홍어) is perhaps one of the nastier things you can eat in Korea. It’s fermented skate. The thing about skate is that they urinate out of their pores. What this means for you is that hongeo is basically fermented in its own urine and therefore smells rather strongly of ammonia. Generally it is served raw alongside kimchi and pork and other strongly flavored things. I had the good fortune to try it made into a soup during a teacher dinner. Strangely, I couldn’t stop eating it. At one point, I was told I wasn’t supposed to eat the meat in there. Oops.

Instant noodles (ramyeon)

Ramen (which is called ramyeon, 라면, in Korean) may be Japanese originally, but actually they eat more of it in Korea – 69 packs per capita per year, the highest rate in the world. Sure, you can cook up your ramen at home – or you can go to your nearest kimbap place, pay a little more (ramen is about 2000 Won in a restaurant) and they will add veggies and egg and you can also get tasty add-ons such as dumplings or cheese. I’m a fan of cheese ramen.

Japchae

Japchae (잡채) is a party and holiday food in Korea, but also my school serves it sometimes. It’s sweet potato noodles cooked up with a bunch of veggies, soy sauce, and a touch of sugar. It’s tasty.

Kimchi

Kimchi (김치) comes in many varieties, most of them spicy and covered in red pepper sauce (see below for an exception). I like cabbage kimchi and cucumber kimchi the best.

Live Octopus (Sannakji)

Sannakji (산낙지) means ‘live octopus’ but most times that’s a bit of a misnomer. The octopus tentacles you eat aren’t exactly alive, they are just still flailing around because they have been very recently cut from an octopus that was alive at the time. It’s more accurate to call it raw and still wriggling octopus. If you like your food FRESH, you came to the right place. I tried it at the same teacher dinner where I tried hongeo. It doesn’t taste like much. You should chew well since apparently the suckers may be able to still stick to your throat. And don’t try this with squid. Note: there are places that serve it whole too. Then you are really eating a live octopus.

Mung Bean Pancake

Bindaetteok (빈대떡) is a pancake made with mung beans, and usually with onion and other vegetables. I really like them though they are usually pretty greasy. The best I’ve found were at Gwangjang Market in Seoul.

Noodles with black bean sauce (jajangmyeon)

Jajangmyeon (자장면) is one of the three or four dishes in Korean ‘Chinese’ food. It’s actually not too different from what it derives from. It’s wheat noodles topped with a sauce made from black soybean paste with meat and veggies. It’s nice.

Ox Bone Soup (seolleongtang)

Seolleongtang (설렁탕) is, as the English name suggests, a soup made from ox bones. Often you add things to it yourself like green onions, pepper paste, salt, and garlic. It tastes very, very beefy.

Pumpkin Duck


Literally, smoked duck inside of a pumpkin. The pumpkin absorbs the duck fat during cooking. I can think of few things more delicious. I recommend trying it in Gangneung, at a restaurant called 허허사랑 (Heo Heo Sarang).

Quail Eggs

This picture of banchan (side dishes) at a meat restaurant has some quail eggs on the left middle. They are most often hard-boiled and served in soy sauce.

Red pepper paste (gochujang)

Gochujang (고추장) is basically red pepper paste and is found in lots of Korean food (especially bibimbap and ddeokbokki). Along with doenjang (된장, fermented soybean paste) and ganjang (간장, soy sauce made from fermented soybeans), it is one of the most common household condiments in Korea.

Sea cucumber

In Korean, sea cucumber is haesam (해삼) which translates to ‘sea ginseng.’ I have had it raw in raw fish restaurants, and I like it. The texture is an interesting mix of firm and slimy and it has a good flavor.

Tteok

Tteok (떡) is rice cakes. Rice cakes are eaten in many ways, often as dessert. But there are many other uses – for instance, the photo above is of hollowed rice cakes used as pasta in a carbonara dish at an ‘American-style’ buffet restaurant in Incheon. Which was delicious.

Udong

Udong (우동) is just the Korean word for udon, the Japanese noodle dish. The broth is usually fishy so I’m not a big fan, but it is rather popular.

Very fatty bacon (samgyeopsal)

Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) literally means “three-layered fat.” So you have some idea what you’re getting into. In Korea, you can actually order this as a full meal. You cook up a bunch of super fatty bacon and then you eat it wrapped in leaves and with a bunch of side dishes. When I walk by the local samgyeopsal place and breathe in, I swear I gain 5 pounds. Why isn’t this a thing in America yet?

White kimchi

Baek kimchi (백김치) or white kimchi is kimchi made without the chili peppers. It has a mild flavor of pickled cabbage and I really like it.

eXtra smelly bean soup (Cheonggukjang)

Cheonggukjang (청국장) refers to a very strong fermented soybean paste and also to the stew that is often made of it. It’s extremely salty, smelly, and actually has whole soybeans in it. I totally love it.

Yachae

Yachae (야채) means vegetables. I like vegetables. Temple food consists nearly exclusively of vegetables. I enjoyed eating things like lotus root and bracken when I stayed at a temple.

‘Za (pizza)

Yep, I mentioned potato pizza in the last list. But there are other delicious pizzas – like this waffle fry pizza in Daegu. It’s not quite the same as potato pizza… also, did you know ‘za’ is a Scrabble word?

Which ones do you want to try?

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