Much of the food that exists in Korea today and the customs surrounding it have come from royal cuisine and the complex customs of the ancient court. The food is a study in balance with careful consideration given to temperature, spiciness, colour and texture along with considered presentation.
Starting with ritual bowls of rice and soup, the main meal is built around numerous shared side dishes selected to complement each other. The number of side dishes may vary from two to a dozen or more but everyday meals will include at least a few. All dishes are served at once to share, rather than in courses. A Korean banquet consists of many dishes cooked in various ways, including being steamed and simmered, pan-fried and stewed, fermented and raw.
Another cornerstone of Korean food is rice, which forms the backbone of almost every meal, although is sometimes replaced with noodles. Because Korea is a peninsula, seafood is also very popular.
The Koreans have perfected the art of preserving food, so many side dishes are picked, fermented or salted and many are spicy. Kimchi, Korea’s famous spicy cabbage, which has over a hundred varieties using different vegetables, is a constant of every meal. It is adored for its sour tangy crunch as well as being a digestive aid.
Other popular spices and sauces include: sesame and sesame oil, chilli pepper paste (kochujang), soybean paste (daenjang), garlic, ginger and chilli pepper flakes. Korean food tends to be intensely flavoured, spicy and pungent.
Traditional restaurants often feature charcoal grills in the middle of the table - a type of indoor barbecue. Paper-thin slices of marinated meat (bulgogi – literally "fire meat") or beef ribs (kalbi) are grilled, cut into pieces, and wrapped in lettuce leaves with garlic, chilli and soybean paste. They're eaten in one bite as it's considered the height of rudeness to bite into a lettuce parcel.
Koreans also place great importance on the role of food as medicine, using exotic ingredients such as dried persimmon, red dates (jujube), pine seeds, chestnut, gingko, tangerine and ginseng in their cooking and also in specially brewed teas.
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This is a tasty dish of marinated beef, tenderised and flavoured with a blend of nashi pear and onion then cooked on a hot plate. Koreans love to eat bulgogi wrapped in lettuce leaves, sometimes with a small amount of steamed rice in the lettuce too, and with condiments such as kimchi, gochujang (chilli paste) or doenjang (soybean paste), which are all available from Korean food stores.
Japchae is a dish of deliciously chewy cellophane noodles made from sweet potato starch. The noodles are tossed with julienned vegetables and sometimes meat (this recipe includes marinated beef), and each component is separately stir-fried. It’s a popular Korean dish for parties and can be served hot or cold. Vary the vegetables in the recipe as you please – others to consider are green beans and spinach, or make a mushroom japchae with a selection of Asian mushrooms.
This is the most delicious mix of rice, beef and vegetables cooked with garlic and sesame oil, topped with an egg yolk and gochujang (Korean chilli paste). The ingredients are cooked individually then beautifully arranged in a stone bowl called a dolsot, which is heated until the rice turns golden and crispy on the bottom. You mix everything together when you eat it. You will need four dolsot bowls, available from Korean grocery stores. The amount of garlic used in this recipe might seem high but remember that this is a culture in which most people eat seven heads of garlic a week! You can use less garlic if you like but once cooked it is delicious and not overpowering.