South Korean Food

South Korean food can be mind-blowingly spicy, refreshing subtle and – at times – in breach of what the typical westerner would consider either ethical or edible. There are several things that are important to consider before you let the cuisine put you off, though. Firstly, there are very few long-term residents in Korea who don’t grow to love at least some parts of the cuisine, and most seriously miss it when they leave. It’s healthy, affordable and enjoyable to eat, given the sociable outlook that surrounds a typical meal. Secondly, if you really don’t like the cuisine, in the bigger cities it’s fairly easy to eat a westernized diet. Just expect a little ribbing from the locals when they cotton on.

Before we delve into too many specifics, lets deal with the one everyone worries about. Contrarily to popular belief, dog is far more common in China than in South Korea. Dog meat is only taken from a specially bred selection of dogs (much like we breed cows), and other breeds of dog are generally treated with the same love and respect in Korea as they would be in Britain. You won’t eat dog by mistake, as it’s only served in specific restaurants, and these are usually tucked away in back streets, as the practice has become substantially less acceptable since the World Cup was jointly hosted here in 2002. Some more intrepid travelers, though, just can’t resist the oddity. If you fall into that category, you’ll have to rope a local into helping you out, and in truth most of them will have to resort to an Internet search to know where to find what you’re after. In other words, while the dog stereotypes have a certain amount of truth, it’s certainly a far smaller issue – for ethical diners, anyway – than you might think.

If we had to pick a foodstuff to represent Korea, we’d argue that it should be Kimchi. Kimchi covers a wide range of fermented and (usually) spicy vegetables, but the one you’ll come across most often is made from cabbage. First timers often find it has a viciously spicy tang and many expats only learn to love the stuff from repeated exposure. Once you love it, though, you tend to obsess over it. Kimchi is served with (or in) almost every meal, and is so popular that it has its own bizarre museum under a Seoul shopping centre, featuring plastic models of the many different types. You’ll get used to Kimchi popping up next to everything, and in time you might just see the genius of it, too, whether you buy into the numerous unsubstantiated health claims or not (one of these goes so far as to suggest Kimchi might cure stomach cancer…).

Don’t be alarmed by the ‘learn to love it’ outlook so far. There are a number of foodstuffs commonly available in Korea that most love almost instantly. Korean BBQ is a banquet. You’ll be served a plate full of raw meat, vegetables and substantial strips of Kimchi that you can cook yourself over a heated plate in the centre of the table. Best consumed with large quantities of the local liquor Soju, it’s the meal that most visitors fall for first. If you don’t want to stretch your taste-buds too far early on, Bibimbap is perhaps the most westernized of dishes, consisting of an assortment of items that you mix into a large bowl of rice with your chop sticks.

If you’re in a snack food mood, kimbap (Californian rolls, to those who prefer the Americanized version) is cheap, healthy and fantastically good. Loads of street stalls serve anything from boiled fish on a stick to seriously spicy rice cakes, and you can’t go too long without digging into the assortment of sticky bread-sweets that prop up the counters at the various convenience stores. Of course, noodles are an essential ‘fast food’ here, too. They come in many forms, varying from ‘straight from the packet’ options sold in numerous tiny street-side restaurants with added cheese, meat or vegetables to thicker bowls of rice noodles. There’s even a type called ‘Naeng Myun’ which is usually served cold with pears, and is one of the best remedies for mountain walk dehydration we’ve ever come across. Don’t forget to add the spicy sauce and relish the sourness of the local pears.

There are a couple of cultural variants to take into account when eating in Korea. If you’re eating anything too liquid-filled, you can put down your chopsticks and grab a spoon instead. When you do put those chopsticks down, lay them across the bowl, rather than pointed down into it like you would a spoon. This particular position is symbolic of a funeral in Korea, especially when you do it with a rice bowl. If you’re eating with elders, Confucian culture dictates that you should allow them to start eating first and finish last (though foreigners tend to get off the hook with this one, and become the guests of honor). You should also make sure your elders (or superiors) always have something to drink in their glasses (though again, foreigners often get away with this one). If you’ve had enough to drink, just don’t empty your glass; it will continuously be refilled.

It’s worth noting that South Korea is perhaps not the best place to live as a vegetarian. The concept is not well known here, and even if you learn to ask for no meat, the locals will often forget that sauces, for example, still contain it. To live as a vegan is still more difficult. The only way to do this with any ease, in fact, is to cook your own meals. There are ample ingredients that are very suitable for those with stricter dietary requirements (Tofu is in an incredible amount of Korean dishes), but combining them appropriately is just not a priority here.

On the plus side, eating out is incredibly affordable. Unless you’re going to top end restaurants, in fact, it’s so affordable that it’s barely worth you cooking for yourself unless you have a specific reason for doing so. It’s easy to get a meal for in the region of £3, or a full on BBQ for not much more than £8. The result of this is an incredibly sociable culture surrounding food. Basically, everyone eats out all the time, which drives the prices down through sheer volume of business. If you’re used to cooking, you might well find your hobby disappears by the wayside a little while you’re here. Western food tends to be of a poorer quality than we’re used to back home, and expensive next to the Korean alternatives, but it’s decent enough to quench a few cravings every so often.

Most long-term visitors to Korea develop a fascination with the local cuisine, many to the point that it would be an event to eat anything that’s not Korean. We won’t spoil all the fun for you, but learning which soups are famed for their hangover cures (they even work, to some extent), which of the more unusual dishes are beautiful and which are plane weird, and how extreme the seafood can be is a great part of the Korean experience. Not to mention the bar snacks, assorted strange alcohols and other sporadic pleasures that stick in the mind, and often have to be tried again and again. For many, the cuisine is so alien – after a little time – so enticing that they fall hard and fast. For others, it’s healthy and different, but doesn’t quite hit the right buttons. Here at SouthKorea.co.uk, we really couldn’t love it more. Go forth and discover!