Across the country, the best chefs keep diving deeper into their obsession with hyper-regional Asian foods. And just in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Korean restaurants are on the rise, with new spots opening up that serve killer takes on bibimbap, soondubu, pajeon and more. In the spirit of celebrating the culinary heritage of the Olympics host nation, read on to learn about eight Korean culinary staples you need to know.
—Carolyn Alburger and Priya Krishna
It’s fun to say. It's a beauty to behold. And it starts with everyone’s favorite comfort food: warm white rice. But the magic of bibimbap is in its colorful mosaic of separately seasoned toppers. The simplest forms include shredded carrot, cucumbers, sprouts and flavorful beef or chicken. More elaborate takes can include fish, mushrooms, seaweed and mustard greens. The crown jewel of bibimbap is a fried egg (raw for the hardcore). And the king of all bibimbap is dolsot bibimbap, which comes in a hot stone pot and forms a delectable crispy rice crust on the bottom.
Korea sees fermentation (aka pickling) as an art form. Korean grandparents pass down their strain of kimchi bacteria through several generations so the family’s brand can develop for decades. Cabbage is the most common vegetable used, and the flavor possibilities are endless, from mild and slightly sour to super-spicy and strong. Most often, you'll find it as a condiment to dishes like bulgogi or incorporated into things like kimchi fried rice and kimchi pancakes. Koreans are so serious about their kimchi that it’s the country’s national dish.
Another dish of great Korean national pride, bulgogi is a mound of extra flavorful, thinly sliced rib-eye or sirloin, often served alongside a mound of fluffy, white rice. Bulgogi’s rich flavor comes from its soy-, garlic- and sesame oil–based marinade and the process of frying or grilling it so that it’s still moist. Bulgogi is so popular in South Korea that the country's Dunkin' Donuts serves something called a "Hot Burrito" filled with bulgogi.
These dumplings stuffed with meat and various vegetables are an easy sell on Korean menus in the U.S. Although dumplings are popular in many cultures, Koreans are known for putting kimchi and tofu inside of them as well. The dumplings show up steamed, deep-fried, boiled and sautéed. Interestingly, mandu are close in style to the manti you’ll find in Turkey and the mantu in Afghanistan. Some historians think all of these dumplings are tied together by the period when they spread from the Middle East, along the Silk Road and through Central Asia.
Ssam literally means “wrapped,” referring to small lettuce leaves that are used as a vessel for rice, meat and spices. The crisp, cool ssam exterior makes a nice contrast to the flavorful meat and warm rice within. Many people recognize the word “ssam” from David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar, which started out as an Asian burrito restaurant in 2006. Ssam have since spread like wildfire around the U.S. Ironically, Chang’s original idea for Ssam Bar didn’t take off, so the namesake dish only makes an appearance in a few “large-format” plates on the current menu.
These flavorful, tender, grilled beef short ribs are a must-order at any Korean barbecue spot. The meat is stripped of excess fat and marinated in a similar sauce to bulgogi. The cut of the ribs is what differentiates it from regular American short ribs. The ribs are chopped into extra short pieces, and the meat is butterflied from the bone so that it can lay flat and cook quickly and evenly on the grill. Is it a coincidence that this way of butchering the meat also makes for easier chopstick maneuvering? Probably not.
One of the healthier Korean menu options out there, soondubu is a fiery soup filled with a special style of Korean tofu that’s even softer and silkier than the “silken” tofu found in American supermarkets. The dish is almost always created in a clay pot, which bubbles on the stovetop with stock, meats, mushrooms and whatever vegetables the cook desires. When the base of the soup is done, dollops of soft tofu are dropped into the hot liquid, and then everything is finished with an egg stirred into the broth. Many renditions of soondubu also contain a plethora of seafood: shrimp, squid and clams are all fair game.
A Korean pajeon, or Korean pancake, is very close in appearance and taste to Japanese okonomiyaki, but there are some key differences. The batter is a slightly simpler mix of flour, eggs, water and chopped scallions. And it’s usually served with a simple soy dipping sauce on the side, instead of the elaborate Japanese toppings of Kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce and bonito. Traditional pajeon is often filled with an array of seafood and vegetables. When done right, the finished product is crispy on the outside, soft in the middle and perfect with a cold glass of soju or beer.