Best Korean dishes: 40 foods we can’t live without

The fact that there are over 100 different types of kimchi should tell you something about the pride Koreans have in their food.
Korean cuisine has evolved over time because of cultural and changes, but it remains a major aspect of the national identity.
Here are 20 dishes which are essential to the Korean heart, soul and digestive tract.

Hangover stew

Hangover stew
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Given Korea’s dedicated drinking culture, it’s not surprising that Korea’s hangover-curing culture is equally as developed, from pre-drinking drinks to post-drinking drinks to a glorious array of spicy and steamy stews and soups.
Made from a beef broth, with cabbage, bean sprouts, radish and chunks of congealed ox blood, the deeply satisfying taste does wonders to kick-start your sluggish brain in the morning.

Kimchi

Kimchi
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Dating to the Silla Dynasty (around 2,000 years ago), kimchi is the beloved spicy sidekick at every Korean table. It’s made by salting and preserving fermented cabbage in a bed of pepper, garlic, ginger and scallion.
Feeling adventurous? Exchange your regular red cabbage kimchi for ggakdugi (chopped radish kimchi), a popular side at gimbap restaurants. Yeolmumul kimchi is a less spicy kimchi made with young radish stalks floating in a tangy soup.

Soft Tofu Stew

Soft Tofu Stew
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Soft tofu, clams and an egg in spicy broth? This popular stew is a classic example of unexpected flavor combinations yielding delightful sensations.
The soft tofu — which breaks into fluffy chunks in the stew — holds the flavor of the clam and serves as a relief from the overall spiciness.
Proper sundubu-jjigae comes in a traditional earthenware pot designed to retain heat. The egg is cracked into the stew after serving, and cooks inside the bowl.

Samgyeopsal

Samgyeopsal
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The best part of eating in a samgyeopsal restaurant is the atmosphere — a rollicking party punctuated by soju shots, pork strips sizzling on a grill and shouts for “one more serving, please!”
Served with lettuce, perilla leaves, sliced onions and raw garlic kimchi, it’s smudged in ssamjang (a mix of soybean paste called ‘doenjang’ and chili paste called ‘gochujang’) or salt and pepper in sesame oil

Jjajangmyeon

Jjajangmyeon
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Although originally a Chinese dish, Koreans have taken the noodles and created a thicker, yummier version that holds only a vague resemblance to its Chinese predecessor. (Think of New Yorkers and the wonders they’ve done with pizza.)
It would not be an understatement to say Korean diets would not be the same without this dish — most Koreans eat it at least once a week, and have their favorite jjajangmyeon delivery shop on speed dial.

Chimaek

Chimaek
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Chimaek, short for “chicken, maekju (beer)” is actually not a dish, but an institution. This glorious pairing features two surprisingly mundane foods: fried chicken and beer.
Neither half, chicken nor beer, is particularly remarkable on its own. But their popularity as a joint entity demonstrates a glorious combination devoured by millions of Koreans every weekend.

Instant noodles

Instant noodles
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Anyone can follow the directions on the back of the ramyeon package to boil water and sprinkle in the spice packet, but connoisseurs will add extras like canned tuna, eggs, and cheese for enhanced flavor.

Kimchi Stew

Kimchi Stew
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A lesser-known fact about kimchi is its versatility as an ingredient in a whole slew of derivative dishes, which comprise a category of their own.
In kimchi-jjigae, red cabbage kimchi is chopped, sauteed in oil, and cooked with tofu, cellophane noodles, pork (sometimes tuna), and other vegetables.
Despite the stew’s debt to kimchi, you know it has come into its own when it’s served with kimchi as a side dish.

Army Stew

Army Stew
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This hodgepodge stew of sausages, Spam, American cheese, instant noodles, tteok, and assorted vegetables dates back to the aftermath of the Korean War.
Because meat was scarce, cooks found creative replacements in the surplus foods from the American army base stationed in Seoul, hence the stew’s name.
Although meat has since then become plentiful, a buddae jjigae without Spam is unimaginable.

Soy sauce crab

Soy sauce crab
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Ganjang gejang, or crab marinated in soy sauce, can be so addictive that it’s often affectionately called “rice thief,” the joke being that you keep eating more rice just so that you can have more gejang since it’s just that good.
Slightly tangy, tantalizingly bitter, pungent and cold, the taste may come as a shock for first-timers. But among Koreans, gejang has been carving out a niche for itself as more of a centerpiece than a sideshow to other seafoods.

Eggs and Tofu

Eggs and Tofu
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This Korean breakfast includes a vegetable omelet, tofu with seasoned soy sauce, rice cooked with red and black beans, radish kimchi (kaktugi), and Korean coleslaw.

Fruit, Bread, and Eggs

Fruit, Bread, and Eggs
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Korean people love eggs and they can be served at any meal of the day. This Western-style Korean breakfast has fried eggs, fruit, Japanese-style white bread from a Korean bakery, and some local strawberry butter.

Although traditionally there is no separate category of “breakfast food” like there is in America, it is now pretty common for Korean people to eat Western foods like cereal, bread, or pastries for breakfast.

Egg Toast Sandwich

Egg Toast Sandwich
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This Korean breakfast sandwich, sold by street vendors in cities, is commonly called tost-u (toast) or gaeran tost-u (egg toast). It is not that different from an American egg sandwich, but the addition of cabbage and a liberal dusting of brown sugar make it uniquely Korean.

Traditional Full Korean Breakfast

Traditional Full Korean Breakfast
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A typical Korean breakfast is not that much different than the other meals of the day, except maybe a bit on the lighter side (or with fewer banchan, or side dishes). So rice, a small bowl of soup or stew, and any number of banchan would typically make up the first meal of the day.

Since a traditional Korean breakfast has rice, soup, meat, and a full array of side dishes, this breakfast includes grilled short ribs (galbi), spicy seafood salad, bean sprout rice (kongnamul bab), spicy stewed fish, cold cucumber soup (oi naengguk), seasoned kelp, and radish strip kimchi (moo saengchae).

Korean Cuisine

Korean Cuisine
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Korean cuisine has developed over the past many centuries. Originating from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions in the Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria, Korean cuisine has evolved through a complex interaction of the natural environment and different cultural trends. Ingredients and dishes vary by province, but many regional dishes have become national, and dishes that were once local have proliferated in different variations across the country.

Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables, and meats. Traditional Korean meals are noted for the number of side dishes that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Commonly used ingredients include sesame oil, doenjang (fermented bean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, pepper flakes, gochujang (fermented red chili paste), and cabbage. 

Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) is almost always served at every meal. There are endless varieties of kimchi with regional variations, and it is served as a side dish or cooked into soups and rice dishes. Koreans traditionally make enough kimchi to last for the entire winter season, as fermented foods can keep for several years.

Tteokbokki

Tteokbokki
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This iconic red-orange street food is so popular there’s an entire town in Seoul just devoted to the steamed and sliced rice cakes (tteok), cooked with fish cakes (oden) and scallions in a sweet and spicy sauce made of chili paste.
Chefs have been known to put all sorts of things inside the sauce, from the black soybean paste to plain old ketchup. Call us masochists, but one thing is certain: the more pepper, the better.

Gopchang

Gopchang
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Gopchang refers to the small intestines from pork or cattle, which, chopped into rounded sections, can be cooked into soups, stir-fried, or grilled.
Grilled, gopchang is yet another important aspect of Korean barbecue culture. Chewy without being rubbery, it’s a bit more festive than samgyeopsal, although it’s still a staunchly earthy food.
And as most office workers in Korea can tell you, it’s divine with soju.

Samgyetang

Samgyetang
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Continuing along the masochistic strain, Koreans have a saying that goes, “fight heat with heat.” What that means is Koreans love to eat boiling hot dishes on the hottest summer days.
The most representative of these is samgyetang, a thick, glutinous soup with a whole stuffed chicken floating in its boiling depths.
The cooking process tones down the ginseng’s signature bitterness and leaves an oddly appealing, aromatic flavor in its stead — a flavor that permeates an entire bird boiled down to a juicy softness.

Bibimbap

Bibimbap
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 This Korean lunch-in-a-bowl mixes together a simple salad of rice, mixed vegetables, rice, beef, and egg, with sesame oil and a dollop of chili paste for seasoning. Although Korean kings from yesteryear would probably be shocked at how the royal dish has become so ingrained into the palate of the masses, we love how cheaply and quickly we can devour our favorite lunch.

Gimbap

Gimbap
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The process of making gimbap resembles the Italian glasswork technique of millefiori, and indeed, the finished gimbap often looks too pretty too eat.
Sauteed vegetables, ground beef, sweet pickled radish, and rice, rolled and tightly wrapped in a sheet of laver seaweed (gim), and then sliced into bite-sized circles.

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