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Here, Eat This

A beginner's guide to Korean cuisine.

On the Menu

To say that Koreans like beef is an understatement. To say that Koreans love their beef as much as Texans do is getting closer. South Koreans eat about 20 pounds of beef per person per year, and although that number is much lower than the average U.S. consumption of 60 pounds per person, it's a number that's steadily increasing.

South Korea imports roughly $500 million of American-raised beef every year, and beef consumption in the country is rising by about 30 percent each year, too. Beef is expensive in Korea, as imports usually are, but it's cheaper over here. For this reason alone, Korean food and the Texas landscape pair up well.

There's more to Korean food than just beef, of course, but it's a great jumping-off point for Texans eager to explore a cuisine that's exploding on the national scene. Kimchi — the fermented cabbage that's eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Korea — has been topping dishes from cheese fries to ramen. The fiery red chile paste called gochujang crops up in dishes like the popular Korean braised goat dumplings at Underbelly. And Korean fusion food can be found across Houston in restaurants such as Kobecue and food trucks like Chi'Lantro, Oh My Gogi, Miso Yummy and Coreanos.

But let's start with the basics. Here are a few dishes and drinks to help you build a base for understanding and appreciating Korean food, kicking off with that fermented favorite...

Kimchi

Kimchi is most commonly fermented cabbage — think of a spicy version of sauerkraut if the cabbage weren't quite so shredded — but can actually be made with a variety of other vegetables, such as cucumber and daikon radish. It's Korea's national dish and can be eaten on its own or as an ingredient in everything from soups to fried rice. Kimchi has a pungent odor owing to its fermented nature, but tastes quite different. I find it both sweet and spicy, with a briny note underneath that keeps it from being cloying. The crunch and kick of heat from kimchi are addictive — to me, at least — and I can justify eating far too much in one sitting because it's good for you.

Banchan

It's not a real Korean meal without banchan, the numerous side dishes of dizzying variety that are either presented along with your main entrees or offered on a help-yourself-style cart/mini-buffet (depending on the restaurant). Banchan is the Korean version of lagniappe in this way: a little something extra. The most common banchan you'll find delivered to your table include kimchi, various namul dishes and jeon (described in more detail below). The namul are my favorite: bean sprouts, radishes, spinach, seaweed and a wealth of other vegetables that have typically been steamed or stir-fried with sesame oil, vinegar, garlic, green onions, soy sauce and chile peppers.

Jeon

Jeon are proof that "crisper drawer frittatas" existed long before Good Housekeeping and other magazines made them into a thing. Typically served as part of your banchan array, jeon can consist of nearly any meat or vegetable battered in rice flour and thrown into a hot skillet with some eggs. You know those scallion pancakes you like so much at Chinese restaurants? Imagine those pancakes if they contained kimchi or squash or tofu or liver. You never really know what jeon you're going to get with your banchan spread; the surprise is half the fun.

Gochujang

Do you like Sriracha? Meet its bolder cousin, with a robust swagger that comes from fermentation (yes, more fermentation!) of the chile peppers that make up most of the scarlet paste. Along with ganjang — a fermented soy sauce — and a soybean paste called doenjang, gochujang is the most important condiment in Korean cuisine.

Bulgogi

Bulgogi is most often referred to as Korean barbecue, although that's simplifying matters a bit. The word "bulgogi" itself just means "grilled meat," and that meat can be anything from chicken to pork — but over here it's almost always beef. The thin slices of beef are marinated in soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, sugar and other spices — not unlike a barbecue sauce — before being placed on a hot griddle. At many Korean restaurants in Houston, such as Seoul Garden, you cook the beef yourself on a grill that's built into your table — so it's your own damn fault if the beef is too well-done. This is also the first of many reasons that it's so fun to go out to eat Korean food with a big group.

Galbi

See above, but with short ribs. You will find galbi in stew and other dishes, but the way to go is really to cook it yourself, ­caveman-style, at your own table. What's better than gnawing with friends on juicy, tender ribs you grilled yourselves?

Soju

Soju is another reason going out for Korean food can be such a fun time. This is the Korean version of vodka, simply stated. It's made from rice and is slightly sweeter but goes down with the same initial burn. Soju is consumed throughout your meal, and this is where the Korean practice of sequestering large parties into their own separate rooms comes in handy. Loud, raucous dinners are common due in part to the mass quantities of soju imbibed at a meal. And at 20 percent ­alcohol by volume, you'll find the volume of your own voice shifting after a few glasses, too.

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