Someone rightly said when it comes to food, you first eat with your eyes. This especially holds true for Korean cuisine, which is not only about the dishes you’re enjoying but also about the experience.
How else do you justify a bowl of bibimbap, which has as many colours as it has ingredients such as steamed white rice topped with namul (sauteed vegetables), kimchi (fermented vegetables), gochujang (chili pepper paste) and doenjang (a fermented soybean paste)? The addition of a fried or raw egg and diced meat (generally beef) on top makes it a complete meal in itself.
Perhaps the immense popularity of K-pop and K-dramas has now turned the world’s attention to South Korea and everything that the east Asian country known for its green countryside, cherry trees, centuries-old Buddhist temples and equally modern and high-tech cities has to offer.
“Korean food seems to be gaining worldwide popularity as well, influenced by Korean culture such as Korean pop and Korean drama, which are immensely popular all over the world,” says Chef Nam Yeon Hwang from InterContinental Seoul, who was with his colleague Chef Joon Seok Park recently in India to host a Korean food festival at Crowne Plaza, Greater Noida.
And when one is talking about festivals, can japchae be left far behind? The sweet potato starch noodles, stir fried with meat and vegetables, is one of Korea’s most loved dishes, especially during the festive season, and remains quite popular elsewhere too, including in India.
Noodles are a key feature of Korean gastronomy and if you are familiar with K-dramas and movies, you would know what we are talking about. Ramyun (Korean version of Japanese ramen) is widely regarded as instant noodles a la Maggi and has become a favourite snack across the world. Here’s a fun fact: Koreans consume the most ramen per person in the world.
South Korea is also blessed with four distinct seasons, which means a variety of seasonal foods using local ingredients. “This makes our food different from other popular Asian cuisines like Japanese or Chinese. Korean food also offers many side dishes, which they don’t,” explains Chef Hwang.
Talk about kimchi that Koreans eat every day, or tteokbokki (simmered rice cake) that is enjoyed on the streets and paired with boiled eggs and scallions, and you will instantly feel at home. “When I think of Korean food, another dish that comes to my mind is bulgogi (thin, marinated slices of meat grilled on a barbecue) that I eat on special days. Sweet and sour chicken is also commonly eaten on the streets of Korea,” says Chef Hwang.
Incidentally, Korean cuisine has some striking similarities with Indian food. Besides rice, which remains the staple for both the countries, Koreans also love spicy food. “At the same time, the major difference between the two cuisines is that we use a lot of fermented food ingredients,” says Chef Park.
As with other cuisines around the world, Korean food is also undergoing a lot of transformation to keep up with the times. For instance, dairy products are markedly absent in traditional Korean cuisine. But in recent years, they have enjoyed a rise in popularity, especially with cheese as a topping for various Korean dishes and enjoyed by the younger generation.
Desserts were also not part of the traditional Korean diet but are now becoming mainstream. “Although there are desserts in traditional Korean food such as sikhye (a traditional sweet rice beverage, usually served as a dessert), sujeonggwa (a traditional cinnamon punch) and yakgwa (a deep-fried, wheat-based sweet made with honey, sesame oil and ginger juice), they are not very significant. But now, desserts are becoming as important as main courses in Korea,” adds Chef Hwang.