A blend of Mongolian, Japanese and Chinese culinary traditions makes Korean cuisine temptingly varied and interesting, but with its own unique style.
Because Korea is surrounded by water, seafood is prime. Fin fish, crab, shrimp, clams, oysters and squid are abundant. Many seafoods are either dried or pickled or are used to make flavorful pastes. Fish is stewed (such as cod in a sweet-and-spicy soy and garlic sauce) or cooked on a grill. Koreans also eat pork, beef and chicken, usually marinated and grilled, and accompanied by medium-grain sticky rice or either buckwheat or rice noodles. The primary seasonings are garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and a variety of spice pastes made from either fermented soybeans or fermented chilies. Ingredients are combined to create an intriguing blend of sweet, salty, bitter, hot and sour flavors.
Koreans are particularly fond of pickled vegetables, or kimchi, which are enjoyed throughout the day. Cabbage, turnips, radishes or cucumbers are seasoned with hot chilies, coarse salt, garlic, onions, ginger and oyster and fish sauce and then pickled in earthenware pots. You'll also find soups on the menu -- almost every meal begins with one of many hot or cold soups that are Korean specialties. These are usually noodle-based and are often served in natural stone bowls.
For low-carb eating, Korean is a smart choice. Koreans love beef, and it pops up all over the menu. In general, this nutritious cuisine is flavorful, refreshing and well balanced. It can also be fiery hot, so if you enjoy spices, go Korean. A typical meal might include a bowl of soup followed by a grilled or stir-fried main course, plus a host of tiny dishes (as many as 10 or more) called panchan, containing sauces, pickles, preserved fish and other condiments that are provided as a kind of do-it-yourself flavoring palette.
Know Your Menu Note that there can be many different spellings for each dish. We have included just a few, but most menus offer an appropriate translation.
Pa jon: A scallion pancake, a rice-flour and egg mixture combined with scallions or green onions and pieces of beef or shrimp ladled onto a hot pan to cook. It is accompanied by a soy sauce-based dip.
Mandoo guk: Beef stew served with Korean dumplings, which are similar to Chinese wontons
Bulgogi (sometimes spelled pulgogi or bul go gui): Korean barbecue. Thin slices of beef (either rib eye, sirloin or prime rib) are steeped in a fragrant barbecue sauce and cooked over a charcoal grill at your table. There are many versions of go gi, such as dak bulgogi (chicken), jae yook gui (pork), plus fish selections including squid. After grilling, you dab a bit of barbecue sauce on the meat and wrap it in a lettuce leaf.
Kal bi tang (sometimes spelled galbi tang): Marinated beef-rib stew, sometimes served off the bone, eaten with rice and assorted condiments
Bimibap (sometimes spelled pibimpap or -bop): A rice-based casserole (bap/bop means rice) mixed with pieces of meat, seasoned vegetables and egg
Myon noodle dishes: Buckwheat noodles. There are many of these, ranging from mild to very spicy. Naengmyon, one favorite, consists of cold noodles served in cold beef broth with thin slices of beef, green onions, sesame seeds and shredded radishes and cucumbers. It is served with hot mustard, which you stir into the soup to taste.
Chapchae: Transparent rice noodles, which form the basis for many stir-fry variations. They usually incorporate beef, mushrooms, green onions and vegetables with sesame oil and are similar to Chinese chow mein, except that they are made with rice noodles.
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At Korean Restaurants
Choose... cold tofu or fried tofu pa jon (scallion pancake)
Choose... shinsollo (meat, fish, vegetables and tofu simmered in beef broth)
Instead of... any bap/bop (rice) dish
Choose... Any go gi (barbecue) dish (beef, chicken, pork or fish)
Instead of... any myon (buckwheat noodle) or chapchai (rice noodle) dish
Korean food is a protein lovers' dream -- just be sure to avoid the many rice and noodle dishes and stick with the plain soups, stews and barbecues. And go easy on the barbecue sauce, which contains sugar. It is OK to order a kalbi dish (marinated short ribs), but pass on the rice that accompanies it.
Many Korean restaurants also serve sushi, although the fish is sometimes cut thicker than the Japanese version you may be used to. This is a good option, particularly as an appetizer, when it is tempting to order dumplings or scallion pancakes. Also, ask whether you can start your meal with miso soup (fermented soybean paste is a commonly used ingredient in Korean dishes).
Experiment with the many kinds of kimchi. These delicious hot-and-spicy vegetable nibbles will help fill you up.