Korean food is the Ikea of cuisines. The quality and value of a meal here is incredible, but some assembly is required.
From Barbecue to Bibimbap, the best traditional Korean dishes are prepared in the kitchen but cooked at your table. All of my favorite meals here have to be stirred, grilled, or otherwise assembled. Though Korean dining requires a bit of extra effort, the warmth and freshness of a meal only seconds off the fire adds a new dimension to dining which is largely absent from Western cuisine.
The meals here are alive. They crackle and steam in hot stone pots, they sizzle over barbeques, and bubble in large bowls on a fire. If they don’t appear alive on your plate, there’s a chance your meal was literally alive 10 minutes ago. Most seafood restaurants display their live fish, clams, eel, and octopus in large tanks by the entrance, waiting to be eaten.
Korean food is hearty and healthy. It’s more simple and less saucey than other Asian cuisines, though foreigners find it to be quite spicy. Above all else, Korean cuisine is defined by its freshness more than its flavors.
Dining in Korea is a social experience
Koreans take great pride in their food, and place a much higher cultural importance on eating than many others I’ve encountered. They say “Have you eaten?” (밥 먹었어요?) in the same rhetorical way an American would say “How are you?” or “What’s up?”. My Korean friends frequently ask me what I’ve eaten recently as a conversation starter, and respond with numerous phone pictures when I ask them the same question.
Eating is viewed as more of a social activity in Korea than it is in the west. Many restaurants begin their portion sizes at two, and some won’t even let you get a table for one. The emphasis they place on eating as a social experience is what I believe to be the cause of the cultural phenomenon called “Mukbang” (meaning eating broadcast). In a Mukbang live stream, a BJ (or broadcast jockey) cooks and eats an often egregious amount of food in front of a live internet audience. As they eat, they’ll describe the flavors and sensations they’re experiencing while interacting with a live chat room of their current viewers. Mukbang is popular enough in Korea that many BJs do it as their full-time job, making money off of ad revenue and donations from their viewers. Its starting to catch on in America as well, as the popular video game streaming website Twitch.tv recently added a section for “social eating”.
People of all shapes and sizes (both men and women) watch and perform Mukbang, which contradicts the theory that Mukbang is only a fetish interest. Vice did a very interesting mini-documentary on Mukbang, which looked to answer the question – “why would somebody spend their time watching someone else eat?”. It’s definitely worth watching if you’re as fascinated by Mukbang’s strange popularity as I am:
By the end of the story Vice came to the same conclusion about Mukbang’s strange popularity that I did. Eating is such an important part of Korean social life that some Koreans feel lonely when they have to eat by themselves. For them, tuning into a Mukbang stream to watch someone eat is a way to feel included in the world around them.
To Koreans, eating is much more than a means to an end of hunger. It’s a time to put aside the numerous stresses of living and working in a hyper-competitive culture and enjoy one of life’s simplest pleasures.
The Spice of Life
There’s a lot to love about Korean cuisine, but my personal favorite part about living and eating in Korea is the surprising variety you’ll find. Asian food in America has a reputation for leaning on noodles and rice, but most of my favorite Korean dishes contain little to none of either.
Served free with every restaurant meal here is an assortment of three or more small dishes called “Banchan”, the Korean tapas. I’m fairly certain the Korean government employs a special task force to hunt down restaurant owners who don’t serve free Banchan, as I’ve yet to have a sit-down meal here without them in well over a hundred meals. Some meals (such as the one pictured above) are made up almost entirely of Banchan and come with more food than you could ever be reasonably expected to finish.
You’ll almost always find Kimchi, Miso soup, and Danmuji (sweet pickled yellow radishes, my personal favorite) among your Banchan. Depending on the house specialties, you’re liable to be treated with any number of unique Banchan alongside the staples.
Pictured above is an order of Sugogi Gookbap from my favorite local restaurant, which translates to beef stew with rice. From left to right, the Banchan pictured are Kimchi, rice, candied anchovies (these aren’t bad as they sound), fried soy patties, slices of omelet, and a spicy cucumber and radish salad. The owner would later bring me a fried egg to put in the stew and a small strawberry pallet-cleanser for after I was finished. The total cost of the meal? 6,500 won, or 5.71 USD.
The first time I ordered Gookbap the server spent a few minutes at my table explaining the proper eating procedures to me, carefully assembling the meal in front of me piece by piece. First she reached for the “condiments” at the at table, containers of pepper paste and raw baby shrimp, and stirred a spoonful of each into the pot. Then she explained that the rice was not meant to be dumped into the hot stone pot all at once, but spooned in and out of the stew one spoonful at a time, preserving the rice’s texture while picking up a few new flavors along the way.
An incredible amount of care and attention to detail goes into every meal at a family-owned restaurant, especially when you consider how inexpensive the food here is. A cheap meal in Korea will run you anywhere from 2 to 4 dollars and an average quality meal cost between 5 and 7. When it’s time to celebrate, Korean’s will “splurge” on some barbecue or fried chicken, which will cost anywhere between 10 and 20 dollars per person once you start including a few bottles of beer and soju.
The World’s Best Fried Chicken
Though it might sound strange to call fried chicken a splurge-worthy meal, fried chicken is considered something of a delicacy here. Famous throughout the rest of Asia, Korean fried chicken transcends the world of food and touches on “cultural phenomenon” status, kind of like the McRib except actually deserving of the hype. Speaking of McDonald’s, there are more fried chicken restaurants in Korea than there are McDonalds in the entire world. Hopefully this gives you a small idea of how big a deal fried chicken is over here.
The kids at my English academy are obsessed with fried chicken. A coworker of mine told me that one of his students was given a relatively large sum of money from his parents for getting good grades (roughly 200 dollars), which he spent every last penny of on fried chicken. When my own class was asked to draw a map of their “dream neighborhood”, every student had a fried chicken restaurant within a block of their home. One of them had three.
What makes the fried chicken here so special? It’s freshness, of course.
Korean fried chicken is juicy. It tastes farm-fresh. It’s always made to order with chicken that has never been frozen. Koreans don’t pump their chickens with chemicals like we do in America, and you can really taste the difference. Their chickens are smaller without the hormones, so some restaurants will cut up the whole chicken and mix both the light and dark meat together into bite-sized pieces (pictured below).
There’s really no big secret to what makes Korean fried chicken so famous, they use better chicken.
Did you notice the special fried chicken tongs in the above picture? Koreans use many tools to prepare and eat their food which I had never encountered before coming here.
Pictured above is the holster of a server at a high-end Korean barbecue restaurant. Equipped with a pair of scissors, heat-retardant gloves, and an IR heat laser, the servers at this restaurant do all of the prep work for you which you would normally have to do yourself. Though the heat laser seems more cool than it is necessary, the scissors are now a regular tool in my food preparation arsenal.
Scissors do an excellent job at slicing grilled meat, as they allow you to hold the meat with tongs in one hand while cutting with the other. This enables you to cut directly onto the plate without having to move the meat to a cutting board first, which seems to preserve more of the meat’s juices. Scissors are also frequently provided with noodles dishes so you can cut up long noodles into manageable pieces, minimizing “slurpage”.
As it is the cultural norm in Korea to not tip your server or bartender, the server-customer relationship feels much more professional here than in America. Since no amount of small talk or “How’s your food tasting, sir?” will lead to a better tip, servers here will politely leave you alone unless prompted. Just as there are stoves and grills built in to tables here, nearly every restaurant has a button built into each table which is used to summon your server. Most tables also have a drawer on the side with extra chopsticks, spoons, and napkins inside. Much like Korean transportation systems, the Korean dining experience is more streamlined and efficient than the American one despite being significantly less expensive.
I already know that I’ll miss Korean dining and food culture when I leave the country, and it disappoints me that Korean food is considered a niche cuisine in America. Much like how Bulgarians, Albanians, and Turks choose to open up Greek or “Mediterranean” restaurants in America to attract more customers, most Korean restaurant owners in the states can be found serving Japanese or Chinese food.
Despite its penchant for flashy equipment and flames at the table, Korean food still isn’t sexy in America. Though it appears to be on the rise, it has a ways to go before it’s mentioned in the same breath as Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and even Vietnamese food. Given Korea’s admiration for American culture, I know it would make them very proud to know that their cuisine is appreciated overseas. I’ll certainly do my part to spread the word when I get back home.