A Primer on Korean Food

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Ordering from a Korean menu is sometimes difficult because the names of dishes are not spelled consistently in transliteration and their descriptions are often rudimentary. There also are no directions on how to eat the unfamiliar foods.

Because the Korean alphabet contains sounds that are not similar to those of the English alphabet, there are often several ways to spell the same word. For example, one Korean letter is a cross between G and K. The list below includes some of the spelling variations.

Here are several dishes recommended by cookbook author Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee as an introduction to Korean food. Vary from those suggestions and you might encounter resistance from your server. Repeatedly I have been asked by servers whether I had eaten a dish before. I had to convince them that I was determined to try something different.

The utensils for Korean food are chopsticks -- metal, and as thin as knitting needles -- and a long-handle, round-bowl spoon. The spoon is used for mixing and for eating soup, rice and rice dishes.

Bul go gi ( bulgogi, bul go ki, bulgoki, boolgogi, bulgogi gui, bool goki) translates as fire (bul) meat (go gi) ; to be more specific, it is finely shaved slices of tender beef (sirloin, rib-eye or tenderloin) marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and garlic and cooked over an open fire.

The meat was traditionally cooked over a charcoal grill in a wire basket. In most Korean restaurants, the charcoal grill has been replaced by a gas grill, often built into the center of the table, and the meat is cooked on a metal plate. If only a single serving of barbecue is ordered, often the meat will be cooked in the kitchen.

Bul go gi is eaten by wrapping the meat in a lettuce leaf, adding a bit of fermented soybean paste (dwenjang or doenjang) , rice, kimchi and/or any of the side dishes, and folding the leaf into a neat package.

Dol sot bibim bap (dolsot bibimbap, dol sot bi bim bab) is a version of the quintessential Korean rice dish bibimbap made in a small stone pot that combines bits of beef and slivered vegetables. Cooked rice is placed in the pot (dol sot), heated for several minutes and topped with the other ingredients, sometimes including a raw egg.

To eat, mix the ingredients with spicy red pepper paste or marinated soy sauce. The heat from the rice will cook the egg. The crust of rice that often forms in the bottom of the pot is considered a treat.

Hae mul pa jun (hae mool pa jun, haemul pajun, hae mul pa jeon, haemool-pahjun, haemul jun) is seafood pancake. Bits of seafood -- such as shrimp, squid and oysters -- and pieces of green onion are spread over a hot cooking area, roughly 10 to 12 inches in diameter, like a large frying pan. A pancake batter made of all-purpose wheat and rice flours is poured over the mixture, which is then cooked like a regular pancake. To serve, the pancake is cut into wedges or small squares. Seafood pancakes are served with the same soy dipping sauce as dumplings.

Jap chae (chap chae, japchae, chap che) is a stir-fried dish that combines slivers of beef, carrots, green onion, shiitake mushrooms and green peppers with sweet potato noodles -- vermicelli made from the starch of a white sweet potato. The noodles are gray when raw and turn almost translucent when cooked. Cooked correctly, they retain a chewy texture.

Kalbi (gal bi, bul kal-bi, bulgalbi, galbi gui, bulkalbi) are beef short ribs, another favorite barbecue dish. In most restaurants, the meat is cut off the bone in thin layers and then marinated, grilled, cut into bite-size pieces and eaten the same way as bul go gi . In some restaurants, the meat can be ordered on the bone, and in others, the meat is cut into thicker cubes and grilled.

Kimchi is the universal food of Korean cuisine. The name kimchi covers various vegetables that are prepared by fermentation, the best known being cabbage. The best kimchi is made from Napa cabbage. A head of cabbage is cut in half lengthwise and soaked first in salt water, then in a mixture that includes garlic, ginger, fish sauce of dried shrimp, green onion, radish and chili powder. The cabbage is allowed to ferment for days or weeks.

As a side dish, a small slice is cut from the cabbage, yielding tightly packed layers of pungent cabbage leaves that are almost gossamer. Spiciness ranges from mild to piquant. Kimchi can be made from radish chunks, cucumbers, other types of cabbage and green onions. Kimchi is also used as an ingredient in myriad dishes, including dumplings and stews.

Mandoo (mandu, mandoo gui, mahndoo, gun mandoo, yakimandu) are steamed or pan-fried dumplings, usually stuffed with a mixture of beef, pork and kimchi. The dumpling dough is thin, and the dumplings are flat and shaped in a half-moon, unlike their Chinese counterparts. They are served with soy sauce and a vinegar dipping sauce, which might be flavored with pickled hot peppers, bits of green onion, sesame seeds or all three.

Panchan , or banchan , are small side dishes of vegetables. Although they might arrive at the table before the main dishes, they aren't appetizers -- they accompany the meal. I have been served as few as three side dishes and as many as a dozen.

The most common include Napa cabbage kimchi, mung bean, soybean sprouts, steamed watercress, spinach, radish kimchi, cucumber kimchi, dried and salted anchovies, sweet pickled radish threads, mung bean jelly and seasoned black beans. I have also been served coleslaw, potato salad, mixed seafood salad, broccoli and mushrooms, shredded pollock (think of it as fish jerky), slices of apple and Asian pear in mayonnaise (think Waldorf salad), lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, potato kimchi and scallion pancake.

Pyung yang naeng myun (naeng myun, mul naeng myun, nangmyun, naegmyun, mool naengmyun, nang myun) is a summer favorite. It includes cooked buckwheat noodles topped with slices of beef, cabbage and half a boiled egg, served in a chilled, light broth. The dish is usually served in a large metal bowl, and ice cubes may be added to keep the broth chilled. Eat as is or mix in spicy mustard sauce to taste.


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