Korean cuisine is very much influenced by the location of the country and its culture. Geographically, it’s a peninsula surrounded by the ocean and with the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and Sea of Japan brushing up on its borders, making it no surprise that Korean cuisine incorporates a great deal of seafood.
In addition, the moisture provided by the ocean creates moist, fertile soil that lets Koreans grow rice and other grains that require a great deal of water, including millet and soybeans. And because the Korean Peninsula can get very cold during the winter, Koreans in previous centuries took to pickling and fermenting produce to help preserve it during the colder months.
Korean cuisine was also highly influenced by the Chinese and Japanese cultures surrounding the peninsula. Both China and Japan invaded Korea repeatedly from the 14th through 20th centuries, and the invaders left a powerful culinary influence behind. That influence included the transmission of cooking techniques such as steaming and stir-frying, as well as the use of spicy and savory seasonings including red peppers, ginger and soy sauce.
When Koreans sit down to enjoy a feast, they’re likely to include a lot of salads and pickled vegetables, unlike their Japanese and Chinese counterparts. Korean meals often include soup, and they almost always include rice. You can expect to see many side dishes served at a large meal, so there’s always plenty to choose from. Rather than being served in individual courses, all the dishes are placed on the table at once, so family members and guests can enjoy foods in any order they choose.
Korean food is traditionally eaten with chopsticks, which typically allow only small bites to be taken. Since typical Korean dishes involve many individual ingredients and flavors, this means that every bite can taste a little bit different.
Among the most popular Korean dishes are kimchi, noodle dishes, various soups and stews, bibimbap and a wide variety of side dishes known as banchan. Many banchan dishes are centered around legumes, particularly mung beans. Here’s more information on some of the most popular and well-known Korean dishes.
Iconic Korean Dishes
No Korean meal is complete without kimchi — a spicy mixture of pickled and fermented cabbages and radishes. It was first developed more than 1,000 years ago as a way to preserve vegetables to nourish everyone through the long winter months. Originally, kimchi wasn’t a spicy dish, but once Portuguese traders brought hot peppers to the Korean Peninsula in the 1600s, the zesty version of the already popular dish began to take over.
Koreans start making kimchi in the fall, with every household following a slightly different recipe and method for making the dish. Typically, kimchi includes Napa cabbage, radishes and cucumbers, as well as plenty of spices. Commonly used spices include cinnamon, garlic, ginger, mustard and red pepper, and each region of the country has its own favorite varieties. For example, if you go to the far south part of the Korean Peninsula, you’ll find kimchi with shrimp sauce, while anchovy sauce is quite popular in the north. No matter where you go, you’re likely to find that kimchi recipes feature a balance of bitter, salty, sour, spicy and sweet flavors.
Kimchi is actually a very healthy food. It’s low-calorie and low in fat, and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals. No wonder Koreans are estimated to eat about 40 pounds of kimchi per year per person. In addition, the fermentation process maximizes lactobacilli, which are among the bacteria needed to keep the gut healthy.
Jang, which means “thick sauce,” isn’t a dish in itself but one of the building blocks of Korean cooking. Korean cuisine is centered around three jangs that are fundamental to many dishes: doenjang, ganjang and gochujang.
All jangs start as a fermented soybean paste, and they’re often used during cooking rather than applied to a completed dish. Doenjang, which consists of soybeans fermented in brine, is seen by some as a way to bring together the land and the sea. It’s a vital ingredient in many Korean stews and other dishes, including ssamjang, which you’ll find at any Korean barbecue restaurant as a condiment to use on the barbecued meat.
The second key jang in Korean cuisine is ganjang, which is a sort of light soy sauce typically used in the cooking and serving of vegetables.
But it’s the third fundamental jang, gochujang, that’s the most well-known, possibly because it’s the most demanding of attention. Gochujang starts with fermented soybean paste and adds red pepper powder along with rice flour to spice things up. Expect to find gochujang served with raw vegetables as a dip or with Korean barbecue to add a little heat. Some even believe that gochujang has medicinal properties, and they use it to treat the common cold or when they need a little energy.
Gochujang is also used as a basis to create other jangs, such as chogochjang, which combines gochujang and vinegar. Gochujang is often eaten with tteokbokki (fried rice cakes), and it’s often incorporated into bibimbap as well.
Bibimbap literally means various ingredients (or bibim) plus rice (bap is the Korean word for rice). You might think of it as “mixed rice.” Traditionally, bibimbap is served in a stone bowl that’s often heated and then filled with white rice in the bottom and topped with, well, various ingredients.
What are those ingredients? Usually they include kimchi (of course) and other seasoned vegetables. They also include spices such as gochujang, other jangs or soy sauce. Meat, most often beef that’s been sliced or chopped up, is usually included, and often the whole mixture is topped with a fried or raw egg. This might be served to you with all the ingredients kept beautifully separate like a work of art, and you’re expected to stir it all together before you eat it.
The ingredients of bibimbap often hold a sort of spiritual significance, with different ingredients representing the four corners of the compass. Dark ingredients such as mushrooms or seaweed represent the north, and red ingredients, including chilis and carrots, signify the south. For the east, look for green ingredients such as spinach or cucumber, and the west is represented by white ingredients including bean sprouts and that white rice underlying it all. And the bright yellow egg yolk sitting on top of the bibimbap? That represents the center of things.
Traditionally, bibimbap was eaten before the beginning of the lunar new year as a way of getting rid of leftovers. Bibimbap was also seen as a practical dish for farmers during the harvest because it was an easy way to cook a lot of food quickly for all the farm workers. Though it’s a rustic dish at its heart, bibimbap was also beloved by Korean royalty. Nowadays, you might find a Korean family eating bibimbap for breakfast.
Because its basic recipe is so vague, you can make bibimbap out of almost anything, as long as you start with that base of white rice. Variations of basic bibimbap call for cooking the rice in beef broth, serving it with spicy pork instead of beef or adding wild herbs or medicinal herbs to the mixture. Other bibimbap variations include raw beef, raw seafood, sprouts, and freshwater snails.
Soups are a part of any typical Korean meal, where they’re served as a part of the main course rather than as an appetizer as is common in Western cuisine. In fact, some types of soups, known as tangs, are often the main dish. Within the communal service of a typical Korean meal, soups are almost the only dishes served to individual diners.
The basic types of Korean soups are tang (the main dish soup); guk, which typically combine vegetables with meat or shellfish; and jjigae, which are thicker and closer to stews than soups. Among the most popular Korean soups are:
- Tojangguk: This soup uses doenjang as its base, adding seafood such as anchovies, clams or shrimp.
- Naengguk: These cold soups are typically served during hot summer weather. They tend not to be spicy, since their purpose is to cool the diner off, and they’re often seasoned with sesame oil or ganjang.
- Jeongol: This spicy stew is traditionally cooked and served on a burner right in front of the diner, and it contains all sorts of seafood and vegetables.
- Kimchi jjigae: It should be no surprise that this thick stew features kimchi. Also containing tofu and pork, kimchi jjigae is served boiling, and it’s often eaten as a quick meal on its own.
- Samgyetang: This hot chicken soup is made with a whole chicken stuffed with garlic, ginseng, chestnuts, jujubes (dates) and rice. People believe that it boosts energy, so it’s often eaten on the hottest days of the year.
- Malgeunguk: These light clear soups, which are flavored with ganjang, feature boiled meat, fresh or dried seafood or vegetables.
- Haejangguk: This popular soup was reportedly invented by a restaurant as a hangover cure. It consists of a beef broth filled with dried cabbage, pork and coagulated ox blood.
- Maeuntang: This hot, spicy fish soup is considered very refreshing.
- Doenjang jjigae: With the soybean paste of doenjang combined with anchovies as its base, this soup is often served as a main course. It typically contains mussels, shrimp and other shellfish, along with tofu and vegetables.
Banchan is the general term for the side dishes that are so important in Korean cuisine. Whether you’re dining at a formal occasion or picking up a quick lunch of street food, your meal will include banchan. Among other things, it’s a sign of Korean hospitality. The more types of banchan you’re served at a meal, the higher the indication of care and service from your hosts.
Banchan is grouped into various types, three of which you can expect to see at any large Korean dinner. Kimchi is probably the best-known of the banchan. Namul muchim covers any type of seasoned vegetable, including root vegetables. These vegetables can be eaten raw or dried, or they can be cooked by steaming or stir-frying. Typically the entire vegetable is eaten — not just the fruit but the root, stem, seeds, leaves and flowers. A wide variety of namul muchim is often served with a formal meal, with specific dishes chosen for their color and appearance as much as for their flavor. Popular namul muchim dishes often feature sprouts, greens and radishes prepared with sesame oil, soy sauce or vinegar. Look for kongnamul, which is seasoned soybean sprouts often served over rice.
The third type of banchan that appears at most Korean meals is jorim. These banchan are prepared by simmering in a seasoned marinade, typically one with a soy base, for a long time. The jorim technique is used with vegetables, including lotus root and burdock root, as well as with tofu, and it’s also used in main dishes. You’ll find jorim main dishes that include brisket, cod, mackerel and shellfish, with seafood often also seasoned with chilis and other strong aromatics.
Other popular banchan include:
- Gul: These grilled dishes are often cooked at the dining table over a charcoal grill sitting in the middle of the table. Thin strips of meat, fish or vegetables are cooked on the grill and then wrapped in lettuce leaves along with rice and ssamjang. If you’ve eaten galbi at a casual Korean restaurant, you’ve eaten this type of banchan, which was originally known as galbi gul.
- Hoe: These are raw banchan served with spicy dipping sauces, including gochujang and soy sauce infused with wasabi. Most often, hoe takes the form of saengseonhweh, or raw fish, and it’s often served with lettuce leaves to cool down the spiciness.
- Jun: These banchan are thin, pan-fried pancakes and meat patties served as side dishes with a large meal. The savory pancakes can incorporate a wide variety of ingredients. Popular versions include seafood or kimchi chopped very fine and mixed with wheat flour, red pepper powder, vinegar and soy sauce before being fried.
Korean dining has traditionally been a communal experience. It remains one today, even as popular Korean dishes spread around the world, where they’re loved for their intense flavor and health benefits.