Spicy and delicious Korean food hits all the right notes for the way we eat today, including some food trends that seem unstoppable right about now.
Korean cuisine centers around fresh vegetables, short grain white rice, noodles, and meats. Its distinctive flavor comes from a variety of familiar Asian ingredients, such as sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, and fish sauce. To get started cooking homemade Korean food, you'll also want to stock up on fresh garlic, ginger, Napa cabbage, and scallions. Beyond that, Korean cuisine uses a few specialty ingredients that are worth a trip to your local Asian grocery or finding online.
Gochujang or Kochujang (fermented spice paste): A bit savory, a bit sweet, a bit unusual, and packing a lot of heat, this fermented soybean and red pepper paste is a must for any Korean dish. It is as present in Korean food as ketchup is at American dinner tables, and gets stirred into stews, stir-fries, and sauces. Heat levels can vary, so start with a little and add more to your liking. Gochujang carries a serious punch and adds flavor and heat to a number of Korean dishes. These recipes all include gochujang:
- Tak Toritang (Spicy Chicken and Potato)
- Korean Spicy Marinated Pork (Dae Ji Bool Gogi)
- Kimchi Fried Rice
Gochugaru (red chili powder): A special chili powder blend with a combination of sweet, smoke, and heat. If you can't find it, you can get by with cayenne or crushed red pepper in a pinch (or a lot of pinches). It's great for seasoning dishes and makes for a pretty garnish. These recipes all include gochugaru:
- Dakdoritang (Korean Spicy Chicken Stew)
- Bulgogi Beef (Korean-Style Barbecue)
- Godeungeo Jorim (Korean Braised Mackerel with Radish)
Doenjang (fermented bean paste): This fermen
ted soybean paste is salty with a nutty flavor. It's the perfect base for soups and sauces. Can't find it? Try substituting Japanese miso for that irreplaceable savory component.
- Quick and Simple Korean Doenjang Chigae (Bean Paste/Tofu Soup)
- Korean Bean Curd (Miso) Soup
- Korean Soft Tofu Stew (Soon Du Bu Jigae)
Ganjang (Korean soy sauce): Similar to soy sauce used in China and Japan, this salty and earthy fermented sauce is used throughout Korean cooking. It tends to be less salty than other varieties of soy sauce, so purchase low-sodium soy sauce if you can't find a Korean brand.
Kimchi: We’re dishing up more fermented foods than ever, and a mainstay of Korean food is Kimchi, a fermented side dish traditionally made with Napa cabbage, radish, scallion, garlic, and the red chili pepper flakes known as gochugaru. The mixture is fermented, a process that releases a host of friendly probotics into every serving.
You've probably used these basic cooking methods while preparing other kinds of foods, so this should all feel familiar.
Grilling: One of the most common types of cooking you'll find both at home and in restaurants. Thinly sliced meats and fresh seafood are marinated, then cooked quickly over hot coals.
Stewing: Most Korean meals feature a soup, stew, or broth, even at breakfast. This cooking method helps to break down tough pieces of meat, and also serves as liquid refreshment, as beverages are not commonly served at the table.
Frying: Korean cuisine often features pan-fried savory pancakes called jun, which are packed with kimchi or vegetables, meat, and seafood. Other dishes, like tofu, meat, and fish are also pan-fried.
Pickling: Many of us are familiar with sauerkraut. Koreans use a similar pickling technique to make traditional kimchi, a spicy condiment that goes in and on many dishes. You can make your own (a quick pickle or the fermented version) or buy a jar at your local Asian market.
Korean Main Dish Recipes
Now that we've explored some ingredients and cooking methods, let's get right to some top-rated Korean main dishes:
If you love grilled meat, try bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar, scallions, and black pepper. Translated as “fire meat,” bulgogi is traditionally cooked on a grill, which some restaurants offer in a tabletop version.
A staple of Korean restaurants, kalbi is easy to make at home. Simply marinate the Korean-style short ribs in a tangy sauce of brown sugar, garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Then grill them to a beautiful mahogany.
If you love grain bowls, try bibimbap, which means “mixed rice.” It’s rice topped with veggies like spinach, mushrooms, carrots, and bean sprouts. Finished with a spoonful of spicy gochujang, it’s topped with meat or egg.
If you love hearty soups and stews, you'll enjoy Soon Du Bu Jigae, a spicy soup made with soft tofu. For more, check out our collection of Korean Soups (Guk) and Stews (Tang).