By Erica Wong |Staff Writer|
In Asian cultures, people usually dine family-style, a communal way of eating with metal chopsticks and spoons, such as grilling your own meat or picking at fried chicken from a large plate with your friends.
Usually, a traditional Korean meal will be served with rice and coaster-sized side dishes. The most common dishes are kimchi, diced radish, pickles, potato salad, bean sprouts, glass noodles with vegetables, or seaweed salad.
Kimchi may very well be considered its own food group in Korea.
Kimchi is fermented napa cabbage with red pepper flakes and other seasonings. This dish is so important that it’s served with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Korean barbecue restaurants can be found everywhere. You can grill various types of vegetables and meat such as beef (bulgogi style), pork cutlets, chicken, or even duck.
Bulgogi is beef seasoned in a savory sauce and is versatile enough to be used in a variety of dishes. It can even be found in burgers at McDonald’s or in tacos and burritos.
There are also many dakgalbi restaurants, where the spicy stir-fried vegetables, rice, and (most commonly) chicken is cooked on a large skillet.
As the galbi cooks, you may ask the waitress to put rice in for fried rice, or have the rice separately. Sometimes, you may even have the option to put cheese on top.
Another very popular Korean dish is called bibimbap, which is very cheap as well as healthy.
In Korean, “bibim” means mixed and “bap” means rice. It’s served hot in a stone bowl with rice, meat, fresh vegetables and an egg on top, usually accompanied with a hot pepper paste.
When I first arrived in August, I was introduced to naengmyeon (pronounced nang-me-on) to help relieve the stifling heat.
Naengmyeon are cold noodles and you have a choice between mulnaengmyeon (mool-nang-me-on), which are noodles in an icy broth, or bibimnaengmyeon (bee-beem-nang-me-on), which are drier and spicier.
In a city as large as Seoul, the streets are lined with vendors selling all sorts of foods, filling the air with deliciousness.
The most popular street food is called tteokbokki (pronounced dok-bok-kee), which are chewy, cylindrical rice cakes in a sweet but super spicy red pepper sauce.
The hot pepper sauce is also poured over various vegetables, squid, and fish cakes that are fried in a tempura batter.
I’ve seen tteokbokki stir fried, mixed in with ramyeon, or sold at other street vendor stands wrapped in bacon, grilled and served on a skewer, or mixed in cups with fried chicken, drizzled in a sweet, yellow sauce and sesame seeds sprinkled on top.
Gimbap is a seaweed rice roll with kimchi, various vegetables, beef or tuna in the center. It looks just like sushi, but also comes in plastic wrapped triangles at convenience stores.
There are also some Korean dishes that aren’t as well known, and for good reason.
Boshintang is a stew boiled with green onions, perilla leaves, and dandelions, with dog meat as the main ingredient.
On the menu, this was under the name “nutrition soup,” as it is believed to increase virility.
There’s been a decline in the consumption of dog meat due to widespread criticism, but according to Yahoo, in 2006, dog meat was the 4th most commonly consumed meat in South Korea.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I was surprised to find that the meat was very well braised and not bad to eat at all.
However, it did leave a strange taste in my mouth afterwards, which I figured was just equal parts guilt and the strange spices used in the stew.
Raw octopus, called sannakji, is a national delicacy. There are two ways to eat sannakji.
You can cut up the live octopus or squid and then eat it. Technically, it’s dead, but the detached tentacles are still squirming.
You can also just get a baby octopus and put the thing in your mouth, completely alive and obviously still squirming.
The moment I put a detached, slimy tentacle in my mouth, I could feel the suction cups and it took all I had not to immediately spit it back out.
I found out afterwards that people have died from eating this because the suction cups have attached themselves to people’s throats, choking or suffocating them.
Korean’s drink of choice is soju, which is a fermented rice alcohol, and tastes like a mellow version of vodka.
Like kimchi, I see soju accompanying meals at any time of day.
Soju may be mixed with beer but is served in shot glasses, and the burn of the alcohol usually takes away the spiciness in your mouth.
The best way to make it through a meal that’s difficult to eat, whether it is too spicy or whether your food is literally trying to crawl off your plate, is to make sure you have alcohol.