Our waitress moved quickly to our table with a live, squirming octopus in her hand, lifted our pot cover and plopped it right into our boiling soup almost in the same fashion one would add a dash of salt…
… no one flinched. Not even me. In fact, my stomach even leapt with a bit of excitement. Sannakji! What a treat! I ate the legs and I ate the head almost without thought. But it did eventually occur to me that a year and a half ago this scenario would have blown my mind.
We arrived in Seoul after 3 weeks of touring Thailand where we ate cuisine much more familiar to us. We frequented a Thai place back home and felt much more at home among the land of green curries, yellow curries, pad Thai and other delectable Thai dishes. But walking down the artsy street of Insadong in Seoul that humid August evening two years ago and inhaling unbelievably foreign smells, I started wondering how I was going to live a year on Korean food. My stomach lurched. I searched the menu for something normal, something familiar. Nothing.
This can be typical for many people just arriving in Korea. For some reason few westerners have a lot of Korean food experience. But Korean food is a persistent suitor. It will eventually convince you just how good it is. Soon you will eat it for every meal. It’s hot, it’s healthy and it’s just flat out good. Don’t be afraid to branch out and leave the hamburgers, pizza and bacon and eggs behind. Korean food is extremely unique and consistently delicious. Here are some things to expect.
Kimchi is to Korea what bread is to the west. It goes with every meal. There are many, many kinds of kimchi. The most common is
made from Chinese cabbage and marinated in red pepper, garlic and other ingredients. It isn’t essential that you love this side dish, but it sure will help you win over some Koreans.
Soups and Stews-
Almost every meal you eat in Korea will come with a soup or stew. We are convinced that no one does soup like Korea. It is never creamy, always hot and often very spicy. Korean soups can include kimchi, noodles, tofu, ramen, seafood potatoes, meat, congealed cow’s blood, crab, fish heads and anything else that has ever been considered edible (and usually a few things that you never thought were). Some soups even claim to be great for hangovers. The ingredients may sometimes be scary, but the broth is always delicious.
If you are a vegetarian, Korea can present a small challenge. But don’t be fooled by all the meat you see. Every meal comes with loads of sides called banchan. Banchan is the Korean word for side dishes, which consist of all sorts of veggies with a uniquely Korean taste. Things like cabbage with a kick (kimchi), bean sprouts with just the right crunch, boiled eggplant and tofu with soy sauce. What’s more, the sides are bottomless. Your waitress just can’t seem to stand to see an empty plate of banchan. Also there are a few vegetarian restaurants in big cities and many traditional dishes that come without meat. But if you find yourself at Korean BBQ, no worries, there will be plenty of side dishes to feed the herbivore.
The greatest thing about eating meat in Korea isn’t just the fact that it tastes great, but you get to be your own grill master. Most tables at meat restaurants in Korea come with a grill right in the middle so you can cook your own. Foreigners tend to not be able to get enough samgyeopsal orgalbi. You cook the meat to your liking and then eat it wrapped in one of a variety of lettuce wraps. You can add any of your banchan, rice or red pepper past and voila! Your very own Korean burrito. These are by far the most happening restaurants in Korea. Koreans also eat chicken and duck, but bird meat is not consumed nearly as much as beef and pork. Then there are also dog soup, goat soup and pigs feet restaurants where the more adventurous eaters can check out. Don’t be surprised if you actually find these delicious. Dog soup is generally eaten only by older men and seems to be becoming less popular by the day.
Because Korea is a small peninsula, almost every town in the country offers some kind ofseafood. We have seen and eaten lots of crab, squid, octopus and an assortment of fish. The biggest difference is how it is consumed. Koreans often serve fish in soup with bones, head and all. Learning to eat around the bones can be a challenge, but as one Korean friend told us, “That is what the kimchi is for, to sweep the bones from out of our throat.” Also, no sea creature seems to go unnoticed by the Korean fisherman as we have eaten things out of the ocean I still have yet to identify. Whether you like it or not, be sure to check out a fish market in one of Korea’s larger cities. Everything at the market alive: the fish, the fisherman and occasionally what you are about to eat. The best things about the fish markets is that you can point to the fish in the tank and send it upstairs to your restaurant—an experience not to be missed in Korea.
Rice is consumed three times a day by most Koreans and it can be found in almost anything you eat or drink. If kimchi is to Koreans what bread is to the west, then rice is to Korea what wheat is to the west. Rice is usually a side dish, but it can also be the main dish in rice porridge or fried rice dishes. It also plays a major part in popular Korean dishes like bibimbap, gimbap and deopbaps. Koreans also use rice to make tteok or rice cakes. These can be found in spicy dishes, soups or can be sweetened up just a little for a subtle dessert. It even is consumed by the hard core hikers in the form of rice wine,makgeolli. Most foreigners try this for the first time at the top of one of Korea’s many mountains, sips usually forced by a friendly Korean male hiker who wants to use his limited English.