Korean food is rich in nutrition, balanced in content, and low in calories and is richly endowed with fermented foods, vegetables and grains, soups, teas, liquors, confectionery and soft beverages. They say you can eat as much Korean food as you like without gaining weight! This may very well be true as most Koreans who have not been overly exposed to western fast-food are quite thin. Rice, either plain or mixed with other grains, is the staple of the Korean diet and is always served at every meal of the day, including breakfast. In fact Koreans don’t consider themselves to have eaten a meal unless it has included rice. Where a foreign person might ask a friend “Have you eaten?” Koreans ask each other “Have you eaten rice?” A typical meal consists of a bowl of rice and a big bowl of hot soup or stew, accompanied by a variety of side-dishes. Kimchi (spicy and fermented cabbage or radish) and dwenjang paste (soybean paste), are the best-known Korean side-dishes and these have recently become highly valued for their disease-prevention attributes. Other side-dishes include steamed, stir-fried or pickled vegetables, sliced meats, grilled or raw fish, eggs and tofu (dooboo in Korean). Korean foods are seldom deep-fried like Chinese food; they are usually boiled or blanched, broiled, stir-fried, steamed, or pan-fried with vegetable oil. Soy sauce, soybean paste, red pepper paste, ginger root and sesame seeds are the essential seasonings added to most Korean food which tends to be quite spicy at times. And not to be forgotten is the fact that Korea is the world’s largest consumer of garlic — beating out Italy.
Some of the most common Korean dishes are: Naengmyeon: A refreshing summer favorite. In Korean, its name means “cold noodles.” Thin, chewy buckwheat noodles are served in a cold beef broth with chopped scallions, shredded radishes, cucumbers, sesame seeds and lean beef slices. Bibimbap: A dish made of cooked rice mixed with bits of meat, seasoned vegetables and egg. It is often mixed with goechew-jang (spicy red pepper paste). Bulgogi: Popularly known as “Korean barbecue.” Thin, tender slices of beef with vegetables are marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, and other spices and barbecued or stir-fried. Samgyetang: This hot soup is made with chicken stuffed with ginseng, jujubes, sticky rice and garlic. It is seasoned with salt and black pepper and stewed.
South Korean meals are always accompanied by a side dish called Kimchi (pictured left). Kimchi is a spiced and fermented mixture of radish or cabbage with hot pepper powder, green onion, garlic and salt. Even after leaving Korea, most foreigners long for the taste of this most unique Korean side dish. When dining, keep in mind that Koreans eat their rice and soup with a spoon and side dishes with chopsticks. Other common traditions of Asian dining apply in Korea, such as not spiking your chopsticks into the rice (this symbolizes that the rice is reserved for the dead) and waiting for the oldest person to begin a meal before starting yourself. Visit our Etiquette page for more information. Korean Alcohol Korean traditional alcohols do not have the punch-to-the-stomach kick like Chinese drinks, are not as fine as Japanese, not as sophisticated as wine, and not as strong as Vodka. A mild flavor, natural color, and soft texture are the dominant qualities of Korean traditional alcohols. Although fine in moderation, soju in particular can become your worst enemy. Soju is an alcoholic beverage made chiefly from rice and almost always in combination with other ingredients such as wheat, barley, or sweet potatoes. Soju is clear-colored and typically varies in alcohol content from about 40 to 90 proof, and was first known to have been distilled around 1300 A.D. While hearty Korean drinkers can easily down three or four bottles of soju in one sitting, foreigners who are not used to its effects should be extremely cautious when drinking even just a few shots. Its very mild taste makes for very easy drinkability, but it can sneak up and really knock unsuspecting revelers for a loop, leading to what many foreigners call the “soju experience,” in which you can’t remember a single thing about the previous night, but you never forget the next morning. Enjoy in moderation.