Chinese food has been known, and enjoyed, in the United States since Cantonese immigrants came to work on the railroads and stayed to run their own restaurants. And, while sushi may not be as Americanized as egg rolls, Japanese food has challenged the popularity of Chinese cuisine in recent years.

Korean food, on the other hand, is an unknown to most Americans. If they have heard of any Korean dish at all, they have heard of kimchee, the national conddiment. And, if they have tasted this fiery fermented vegetable, they probably have not liked it.

Kimchee, which is at first too spicy and garlicky for the average American palate, has given the cuisine a reputation it can't seem to shake. However, there is more to Korean food than kimchee.

Just as the mountainous Korean peninsula lies between China and Japan, Korean cooking has qualities in common with the cooking of those two countries, both of which have invated Korea regularly through the age.

As it is in most of China, which suffered similar famines and political upheaval, rice is the staple food in Korea and the basis of most the dishes. Plain white rice is often cooked with other grains such as barley or millet to boost ists nutritional value and add texture. The best known of the rice dishes is bibim bap, a mound of steamed rice topped with a fried egg, meat and cooked vetetables and flavored with a spicy sauce.

And, like the Japanese, Koreans enjoy eating noodles (especially those made with buckwheat), which are, along with rice, an indispensable staple of their diet. The noodles may be purchased dry or can be made at home by hand. In restaurants a special noodle chef prepares a buckwheat flour and water dough, feeds it into a noodle-making machine that extrudes the noodles directly into a cauldron of boiling water.

What makes Korean food distinctive from Chinese and Japanese is a heavy reliance for flavoring on chili peppers, garlic scallions or Chinese chives, nuts and seasame seed, all of which Americans have embraced in one form or another. Which makes one wonder why Americans have not taken more to Korean food, with its penchant for hot peperrs, garlic and odoriferous pickles. After all, they love garlic bread with their spaghetti and salsa on their tacos.

But, all is not hot in Korea. Korean seaweed, called kim (the same as the Japanese nori, known as laver in English), is considered the best in the world. In the Washington area it is available seasoned and toasted, ready to eat, or it can be purchased in sheets, then brushed with seasame oil, sprinkled with salt and toasted quickly on both sides in an ungreased frying pan.

Also, because only 20 percent of the land is arable and meat has always been in short supply, Koreans relish seafood. Cod, herring, mackerel, flatfish, pollack, octopus and shrimp are abundant in the reefs nd coves of the country's long coast. Cuttlefish are used fresh or dried, and dried, salted anchovies are a common side dish.

On the other hand, it is true that Koreans find a meal unappetizing unless there is plenty of fiery, salty, tart, pickled kimchee available. Though usually made of Chinese cabbage, tasty kimchees also result from pickling turnips, cucumbers, scallions and radishes. After a saltwater soak, the drained vegetables receive a coat of garlic, ginger, scallions and hot red peppers before their fermenting.

Traditionally, fall was kimchee-making time. The mixture was turned into pottery vats (now, it is packed into glass jars to ferment), buried in the ground and covered with straw to prevent freezing. Families dipped into the vats for a cold and crunchy salad in the middle of the winter when fresh vegetables were unavailable. The icy, spicy kimchee stimulated their taste buds for the next mouthful of rice.

For Americans, moderation is advised. The first time they smell kimchee, most Americans find it unappetizing. Start easy, with lightly pickled and barely spiced vegetables.

Considering the comparative blandness of Japanese food, it might seem surprising that the Japanese have so thoroughly embraced Korean cooking, but that is exactly the reason they have done so, to spice up their diets and provide contrast to their own cuisine. The Washington area, with the fifth largest Korean population (50,000 people) in the United States according to the Korean Embassy, has many Korean restaurants. The owners say that Japanese people make up a sizable portion of their clientele.

And in Tokyo, as in other cities in Japan,the most common foreign food is Korean. This is perhaps poetic justice, in that the Koreans who suffered several conquests by the Japanese, have in turn had a strong influence on the tastes of the conquerors.

Military affairs have long influenced Korean cuisine. Effects of the Mongol invasion of 1231 and the intermittent 30-year war that followed are still evident in such Korean marinated barbeque dishes as bulgogi (thinly sliced tenderloin of beef) and kalbi (cubed boneless short ribs).

And, while the Koreans have influenced Japanese food, so has the Japanese cuisine influenced Korean food. The Japanese presence was felt on the peninsula before Korea closed its doors to foreign influences in the 17th century and became so isolated that it ws called "The Hermit Kingdom."

However, Japan forced Korea into signing a commercial treaty in 1876 and, following the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanes wars, Japan was the virtual ruler of Korea by the end of the 19th century. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea formally, an occupation that lasted until 1945, when Korea was divided into North and South.

The long arm of the conqueror reached into Korean kitchens to such an extent that many Japanese dishes are well integrated into Korean cuisine. Korean menus generally include such familiar Japanese items as raw beef and fish sashimi, shrimp and vegetable tempura and the sushi-like kimbob or seaweed roll stuffed with rice, vegetables, meat and eggs.

Yet despite centuries of foreign domination, the Korean people have managed to maintain their independent identity. Anthropologists tell us they are a distinct racial group, and many linguists belive their language is unrelated to any other. Their cooking, too, is their own, less sophisticated and varied then Chinese, more complex and spicier than Japanese.

Unlike their Japanese and Chinese overlords, and perhaps as a way of asserting their independence, Koreans as a rule do not drink regular tea. People drink ginseng tea for its curative powers, but the national beverage is bori cha, a soothing caffiene-free brew based on roasted barley that they drink hot in winter merged in a cold beef broth and garnished with slivers of boiled beef, slices of cooked vegetables, rounds of hard-cooked eggs, chopped ginger, scallions, chili peppers and toasted sesame seeds. A dollop -- or more -- of fiery chili sauce makes the dish distinctively Korean.

A similar hot version is a winter treat, and there is also an ungarnished version, but the next most popular dish using buckwheat noodles is chap chae, made of slippery mung bean noodles, called bean thread or cellophane noodles, and combined with stir fried meat and vegetables.

Soups are also important on the Korean menu, and it is not unusual for diners to make a meal of naeng myun or other soupy dishes such as fish casserole, seaweed soup, abalone and rice porridge, short ribs soup and pine nut soup. And mandu guk, a light beef broth enlivened with steamed mandu dumplings, is a favorite. Mandu, thin-skinned wrappers stuffed with meat, tofu, vegetables and spices, are also eaten fried as an appetizer.

Fresh fruit is the typical dessert in Korea as it is in other countries in the Orient, but that does not mean there are no prepared sweets. Su jung gua is sugar water flavored with dried persimmons, pine nuts and ginger; sik he is sweetened fermented rice; and yak gua is a deep fried sweetened rice dough cake. For the adventurous home cook, most local Oriental grocery stores sell some Korean ingredients. There are a few groceries that specialize in Korean goods, such as the Korean Korner on Wilkins Avenue in Rockville and the New Seoul on Rockville Pike. Supermarkets stock most of the needed ingredients, and some even sell kimchee. A Japanese soy sauce such as Kikkoman is best suited to Korean recipes but imported Chinese soy sauce can also be used. TOASTED SESAME SEEDS

(Makes 1/2 cup) 1/2 cup sesame seeds Salt to taste Heat an ungreased skillet. Pour in sesame seeds and cook over medium heat until brown. Shake pan constantly to prevent burning. Cool. Use whole as need or place in a spice grinder or blender, add salt and process until finely ground. Can also be ground by hand in a mortar and pestle. KOREAN NOODLE SOUP WITH MEATBALLS (6 to 8 servings)

This recipe, which has become the favorite over the years, has evolved from the original published in 1960 in "The Complete Book of Oriental Cooking" by Myra Waldo. FOR THE SOUP: 2 tablespoons oil 1/2 cup sliced onions 1/2 cup chopped scallions 3 garlic cloves, minced 16 ounce can tomatoes, drained and chopped 3 tablespoons soy sauce 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds 1/2 teaspoon dried ground chili peppers, or to taste 6 cups beef broth 1/2 pound vermicelli noodles, cooked FOR THE MEATBALLS: 1 pound ground beef 1/4 cup minced onions Salt to taste 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 teaspoon ginger 2 teaspoons ground toasted sesame seeds 1/4 cup flour 1 egg, beaten 1/2 cup oil Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onions, scallions and garlic and saute until browned. Reduce heat, add tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Stir in soy sauce, sesame seeds, chili peppers and broth. Cover and cook over low heat 1 hour. Add noodles and heat through. Add meatballs and serve immediately.

To make the meatballs: Combine beef, onions, salt, pepper, ginger, sesame seeds, flour and egg. Shape into 1-inch balls. Heat oil in a skillet and brown meatballs or brown meatballs under broiler. Drain well on paper towels. BULGOGI (Korean Barbecued Beef) (4 servings)

1 1/2 pounds sirloin, porterhouse, tenderloin or flank steak

2 tablespoons ground toasted sesame seeds

Salt to taste

4 cloves garlic, chopped

4 scallions, chopped

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons oriental sesame oil

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons beef broth

Trim fat from steak and slice diagonally across the grain in to very thin slices. Stir together sesame seeds, salt, garlic, scallions, sguar, sesame oil, soy sauce and beef broth. Coat meat with marinade adn let stand 2 hours. For maximum effect, grill on a table-top hibachi. Meat can also be grilled in the broiler, on an electric grill or on a charcoal grill outdoors. Cook a small amount at a time so that dinners can pluck off pieces as they are done to their taste. CHAP CHAE

(Cellophane Noodles with Meat and Vegetables)

(4 servings)

One of the best sources of Korean recipes is Madhur Jaffrey's "World of the East Vegetarian cooking" (Knopf, 1981). Since her receipes include no meat, I have adapted them for meat eaters.

2 ounces cellophane (mung bean) 6 Chinese dried black mushrooms 1/3 pound spinach 1 carrot 1 small zucchini 3 button mushrooms 2 Chinese cabbage leaves 4 scallions 1/4 pound flank steak 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 tablesopoon oriental sesame oil 3 garlic cloves, minced 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 teaspoon sugar Salt to taste

Soak noodles in 6 cups water for 30 minutes. Drain well. Soak Chinese mushrooms in boiling water to cover for 30 minutes. Blanch spinach in boiling water for 2 minutes. Cut carrot into 3 sections and then into fine julienne strips. Reserve the leaves for another time. Cut scallions in 2 1/2 inch sections. Mix well, cut meat across the grain into very thin slices. Heat vegetable oil and sesame oil in a wok or large skillet. Add garlic and stir-fry 1 minute. Remove from vok. Add vegetables ansd stir-fry 3-4 minutes or until tender but still crisp. Reduce heat to low. Add noodles, soy sauce, sugar and salt and mix well. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. NAENG MYN (Korean Cold Noodle Soup) (4 servings)

Madhur Jaffrey calls this "one of the greatest cold soups on earth." I've adapted it to a nonvegetarian version. FOR THE SOUP: 1/2 pound thin buckwheat noodles 5 cups breef broth 1 tsp. oriental sesame oil 1 cucumber 2 cold hard cooked eggs 8 slices pickled white radish 1/4 pound flank steak FOR THE GARNISH: Chinese hot chili paste Fresh hot green chilies, thinly sliced shredded fresh ginger toasted sesame seeds chopped scallions

Bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add noodles and cook 7 minutes. Drain and cool under cold running water. Drain. Toss with 1/2 cup broth and the sesame oil. Cover and chill while preparing remaining ingredients. Peel cucumeber and slice thinly. Cut slices in half. Peel eggs and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut radish into small pieces. Cut meat across the grain into very thin slices. Place in a skillet with boiling water to cover. Cook 1 minute and drain. To serve, divide noodles and broth among 4 bowls. Top with egg, vegetables and meat. Pass chili paste and seasonings. KOREAN Cori Cha

Barley Tea

8 servings

8 cups water

4 tablespoons roasted barley (bori cha)

Bring water to a boil and add barley. Simmer 15 minutes. Strain and serve hot or refrigerate and serve over ice.