Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Korean Cuisine
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 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 well together.
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 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 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 with the knowledge that it's really quite healthy: Kimchi contains more than 50 percent of your daily value of Vitamin C, as well as high levels of Vitamin A, Vitamins B1 and B2, calcium, iron and a Lactobacillus that keeps you regular.
Banchan just won't quit.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Snack time! It's not a real Korean meal without banchan, the various 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 different vegetables which have typically been steamed or stir-fried with sesame oil, vinegar, garlic, green onions, soy sauce and chile peppers.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
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.
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 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.
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 on juicy, tender ribs you grilled yourself with friends?
One bottle of soju per person will make your night right.
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. In the same way that vodka is enjoyed in places like Russia or Poland, soju is consumed throughout your meal. This is where the Korean practice of sequestering large parties into their own separate rooms (or at least separate portions of the dining room, partitioned off with giant dividers) 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 ABV, you'll find the volume of your own voice shifting after a few glasses too.
Regular bibimbap, sans stone bowl.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Personally, I view bulgogi as more of a dinner-time affair -- I like to linger with friends over the hot grills and cold soju -- and dishes like bibimbap as more lunch-friendly. Even then, however, dolsot bibimbap (my favorite kind of bibimbap) requires a little bit of patience to enjoy. This isn't a dish you can rush through. White rice and stir-fried vegetables -- the base of any bibimbap dish -- are served in a blistering hot stone bowl, which further cooks rice that's touching it until it achieves a delightfully crispy, chewy texture. (Regular bibimbap, it should be noted, is served in a standard bowl and doesn't crisp up your rice.) Once you've left the rice alone long enough to crisp up, stir the whole thing together with gochujang and devour. There's typically an egg yolk on top, which will cook into the dish as you mix it up. You can order it with or without meat; it's a hearty meal either way.
Speaking of hearty, jjigae is another lunchtime favorite that's deceptively filling. Like bibimbap, this stew is served boiling hot. The jjigae broth is typically thin and spicy. It can be filled with a variety of ingredients, but my two favorite versions of the stew are kimchi jjigae and sundubu jjigae. The latter, made with soft tofu, is a standard Korean dish and therefore common at Korean restaurants around Houston. But beware vegetarians: This tofu stew typically contains seafood and shellfish, too, which gives the hot broth a sweet, salty kick.
Hwe for days at Dadami.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Pescetarians rejoice: Along with sundubu jjigae, hwe is where it's at. This is basically the Korean version of sashimi, with a few notable differences: The hwe is usually sliced off a fresh, live fish, for one. This means the flesh (flounder and salmon are most commonly found here) retains that almost crunchy texture of super-fresh fish -- a texture that most people aren't familiar with if their only contact with raw fish has been via sushi. The bones and other parts of the fish that weren't used for hwe are boiled into a spicy maeuntang soup so that nothing is wasted. And unlike Japanese restaurants, you'll eat your hwe by dipping the fish into chogochujang (a more sour version of gochujang) and then wrapping it in lettuce leaves (or perilla, if you're at a really legit place). For a full hwe feast in Houston, gather up at least five of your friends and hit Dadami.
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