Seoul Food: Kimchi’s just a taste of the spicy Korean kitchen

When most people think about Korean food, the first thing that comes to mind is kimchi. This pickled cabbage is a popular traditional food; Koreans eat kimchi almost every day, serving it as a side dish with nearly every meal. It incorporates a variety of ingredients, such as hot peppers, fermented cabbage, spring onions and lots of garlic.

Traditionally, Koreans prepared huge amounts of kimchi and buried huge earthenware jars of it in the ground (like a natural refrigerator), so they could keep lots of it on reserve during the lean winter months. Joonmo Kang, member of the Korean Student Association at Washington University, described how a typical Korean-American makes kimchi: “The cabbage is preserved in salt-concentrated water for a day. After a day, it is taken out of the container and is mixed with various spices, mixed with pepper sauce, garlic and whatever else you’d like to add. Then, it is put into a jar or a container and placed into a refrigerator to preserve the kimchi’s fresh taste.”

Kimchi is also considered to be exceedingly healthy. Jeeyoun Shin, a native of South Korea who has been living in St. Louis for two years, explained, “Kimchi is widely known for its health benefits because [it’s] full of antioxidants. Ingredients such as garlic and hot peppers are also known for being good for you. ... Try others if you don’t like the one made with cabbage. It can be made with cucumber, onion or leek, virtually any kind of vegetables.”

Non-Koreans interested in trying Korean food can buy kimchi already made. Kimchi is available at many grocery stores, in the refrigerated section of the produce department. You can also make pretty good kimchi at home, and you don’t have to go to an Asian market to find the ingredients. Anyone can cook American food in the Korean style. Shin elaborated, “Except for Korean cabbage, which is used to make kimchi, and some seafood, I rarely shop at Korean groceries. You don’t need Korean ingredients to make good Korean food.”

There are some great Korean restaurants in the area, according to Hyunchul Hwang, who moved from South Korea to St. Louis two years ago with his wife and two children. He said, “My family and I have been to places like the U-City Grill and Hangook Kwan. They’re good places to try some good Korean food. Also, Sansui serves Japanese food Korean-style. We usually cook a lot, but if you want to try some Korean food without having to cook, there are a few good restaurants in the area that will give you that chance. We always recommend bulgogi to non-Koreans.”

Second in popularity only to kimchi, bulgogi, which translates as “fire meat,” can be cooked in a variety of ways. Shin explained, “To cook bulgogi, you can pan-fry or boil it, rather than grill it. It’s up to you. I think the essence of bulgogi is marinating it instead of adding the sauce after it finishes cooking.”

Thinly sliced sirloin or some similar cut of beef is marinated for two to five hours (even overnight), depending on the recipe. After the meat has cooked, wrap up the slices in lettuce leaves or tortillas as an appetizer, or serve the meat over rice for dinner, perhaps with a little bit of kimchi on the side.

Another popular meat dish in Korea is called galbi jjim, which Shin recommends to her non-Korean friends. Galbi (ribs) jjim (steam) requires some patience (marinating overnight is the preferred method), so that the gelatins combine to form a thick, flavorful sauce. You can marinate the ribs in a variety of ingredients, but the most commonly used are garlic, ginger, onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and onions. If marinated properly, the ribs become so juicy, the meat can be cut with a fork. According to Shin, “Typical galbi is grilled or broiled, but adding some vegetables and steaming it gives you some excellent galbi jjim.”

Shin added, “My mom usually uses some Korean pears to soften the texture of ribs and add some sweetness. Apples can also be a good substitute.” You can opt to sweeten the beef by adding fruit juice to the marinade (many recipes call for Korean pear), but you can find many recipes that do not require it. You can even throw a couple of potatoes into the sauces. Versatility is key – you can adjust these sauces for your own tastes and quirks.

To accompany these main dishes, Koreans typically serve three to five side dishes, or banchan, especially when cooking for a large family or guests. Hwang said, “We serve kimchi and sticky rice (bap) with every meal. I eat kimchi and sticky rice almost every day! Usually, we also serve a soup (guk) or a stew (chigae) with every dinner.”

Lisa Kim, another member of the Korean Student Association at Wash. U., described her favorite banchan: “I’m an unconventional Korean because I prefer side dishes that are not spicy – from geem, which is dry, salted seaweed, to jangjorim, which is a meat dish with soy sauce, sugar and a whole bunch of other stuff. I really like the soups, too. It’s different from American soups. They’re more like broth because they’re watery and lighter.”

The Hwangs recently cooked up some jap chae, or cellophane noodles, at home. This is another dish that isn’t extremely spicy because no hot peppers are added. Also, you’ll most likely find some sort of vegetable banchan at the Korean table, ranging from cooked spinach to bean sprouts. Other popular banchan are tofu (dubu), seafood pancakes, dumplings, potatoes and meatballs.

There are many different types of banchan, and they mean more to Koreans than just mere side dishes. They are usually served at the same time as the main dish (although in restaurants, you’ll probably get the banchan first). Banchan come in small dishes but are always ready to be refilled. They are essential to the Korean meal and a great introduction to the diversity of the cuisine.

Dinner with the Hwangs included personal bowls for rice and soup; the rest of the food was shared and enjoyed together. Each diner got a set of metal chopsticks and a shallow spoon. Though it seems to be up for debate if you should eat rice with the spoon or the chopsticks, do not blow your nose at the table – this is considered to be the rudest of acts.

Options for finding authentic Korean food may be a bit limited, but it’s easy to cook American food Korean-style. There is so much more to Korean food than kimchi.