I love Korean food. I mean I really really love it. Very early on in my semester I already knew I would miss Korean food after my semester. I would like to discuss some of the basics of Korean food and food culture. Although I could also go on and on about my favorite foods, in this blog post I will try to give a general overview of traditional Korean food and eating customs. In the next post I will explore some of the modern eating trends and fads.
Traditional Korean food is extremely fun to eat. There is always without question a bowl of rice. Even in Korean, the word for meal is the same word for rice (밥 bap). A meal is just not a meal without rice. Then, of course, there is kimchi, all the time, every meal. Kimchi is spicy fermented cabbage. People are always very pleased when they discover I like kimchi. Asking for more kimchi may earn you some bonus points. I’ve been told there are over a hundred varieties of Kimchi in Korea, and I wouldn’t doubt it. At first the kimchi consumption seemed a little overboard, but now my day is just not complete without 1-2 servings. There is some sort of meat dish, usually pork, seafood, beef, or a combination of all three. Then there is the banchan (반찬). Even numbers tend to be unlucky in Korea, so there is usually an odd number of banchan served (usually 3 or 5). Banchan are the side dishes (which are always refillable for no extra charge) that are served along with the main components of the meal. Usually these dishes come in small bowls and are meant to be communal. These are usually vegetables that have been pickled, fried, or marinated in a spicy sauce. But there are an endless number of banchan possibilities. Finally, Korean meals are served with a simple soup, like soybean sprout or seaweed soup.
The presentation of all these foods laid out in front of you is quite appetizing. There is always a variety of colors and flavors that go together nicely. Eating Korean food is meant to be a balanced activity. One should alternate taking bites of the different foods rather than finishing one thing and moving on to the next. Taking bites of the kimchi, rice, and soup in between the banchan and the meat dish allows your taste buds to reset and not become overwhelmed. Eating Korean food is thankfully never boring and my chopstick skills have improved tremendously since I first arrived.
Now let’s talk a bit about the traditional Korean restaurant. Traditional Korean restaurants still have floor seating which is nice in the winter when you can enjoy the heated floor. As I mentioned before, the banchan and rice is almost always refillable, just ask nicely! Water is either provided for free at your table or it will be in a refrigerator nearby where you can help yourself. This varies by restaurant, but it’s fairly simple to learn how to ask for water in Korean. The menu will most likely be all in Korean. I recommend you look up the Hangul for some of your favorite foods. Or you can just point and be surprised when your food comes as long as you don’t have any dietary restrictions (or an aversion to spicy food). The bill will not be given to you, so you must get up and pay when you are finished. It is common for a table to pay altogether. Cash is essential to have to split the bill more easily among friends.
A quick note: being vegetarian in Korea is not very easy. Even things that seem to not have meat in it, will have a small bit of pork or beef randomly at the bottom of the dish. Even asking in Korean if something has meat in does not always work. The concept of meat here is more like “Is there a noticeable amount of meat in the dish?” Also, meat sometimes only translates to beef. If you are strictly vegetarian, I suggest learning how to list every type of meat you do not eat (pork, chicken, beef, fish, shellfish, etc.) and ask if a dish has any of these things in it. My vegetarian friends have found dishes that don’t have meat in them, but be patient and just know it might be a bit difficult at times!