Your next addiction after K-dramas is hot, spicy and knows how to satisfy you at 3 AM
Sex is great, but have you ever had a steaming hot cup of ramyeon in the middle of the night?
If our binge-watching diet was heavy on vanilla before the pandemic, consider it doused in gochujang now. Stuck in my highway-stopover hometown, I was sucked into the sappy, emotional vortex of K-dramas, much like half the nation, it seemed.
As someone who grew up on the likes of 50 Shades Of Grey and Twilight, the conversation-heavy slow burn of K-dramas felt refreshingly strange. And what it lacked in raunchy sex scenes, it made up for with steamy Korean food porn. Sex is great, but have you ever had a piping hot cup of kimchi ramyeon to satisfy those sneaky 3 AM cravings?
And I don’t seem to be the only one gorging on noodle soup in the middle of the night like my favourite Kdrama leads. From the clouds of 2020 has emerged a silver lining for enthusiasts of Korean culture, and foodies the world over.
According to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the consumption of Korean food in India has recorded a meteoric rise after the 2020 lockdown. You could put it down to the fact that we’re getting high on K-dramas and K-pop, as per a survey performed by market research company Euromonitor.
And there’s much more to the Asian cuisine beyond slurping a bowl of instant noodles, which, incidentally, is Korean for “Want to Netflix & Chill?”.
My first time at a Korean restaurant, housed deep in the bowels of Delhi’s Tibetan Colony, Majnu Ka Tila, introduced me to a menu had been in transliterated Korean. Fortunately, I was with a friend who was obsessed with all things Korea for the entirety of our college life, which may have made my embarrassment sharp, but ordering easier.
I’ve come a long way since then, having binged on a never-ending diet of K-dramas and K-food for the past two years. For those of you who’re scared to venture into Korean cuisine, consider this your culinary guide into a whole new world (of flavours).
7 starter dishes for the Korean food newbie
Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, is the cornerstone of its cuisine. Like the trusty old aloo, it can be eaten on its own or added as an ingredient in all foods, be it soups or fried rice.
Ankita Singh, a Korean food enthusiast, says, “With its characteristic pungent odour, I find it both sweet and spicy. But because of the briny undertones, it’s kept from being sickly sweet.”
Traditional kimchi, also known as baechu, is like the Shah Rukh Khan of kimchis: it’s everywhere and almost everyone loves it. Made with fermented Nappa cabbage, it is seasoned with Korean chilli powder, salt, green onion, garlic, salt, and a few other spices.
The lesser-known siblings of the traditional kimchi are kkakdugi kimchi and musaengchae kimchi, made of shredded fermented radish. While kkakdugi is crunchier and has a sour flavour, musaengchae is what you get if you take the last of the cabbage and shredded it instead of chopping it. It comes in a degree of spices, red being spicier and white being milder.
The crispness and tang of kimchi are addictive, so much so that I may have accidentally eaten half a jar of it in one sitting. But rationalising this in my head becomes easier when I know kimchi has more than half of our daily vitamin C needs, as well as high levels of vitamins A, B1 and B2, calcium, iron, and the lactobacillus bacteria, which keeps your gut healthy.
Varun Narang, a Delhi-based chef, tells Hindustan Times, “Kimchi has a uniquely pungent and spicy profile with probiotic characteristics and rich vitamins, very similar to our Indian palate.”
The love language of all mothers, be they Indian or Korean, is dropping by unannounced on their city-living kids to feed them maa ke haath ka khana. And a staple for all Korean mothers in this exercise: gimbap.
In a chat with the New Indian Express, the national food master of the Republic of Korea, Lee Yeon-Soon says, “Traditional Korean food is well-known as high-quality food that can strengthen the human constitution and also improve the immune system.”
Made with cooked rice and ingredients such as vegetables, fish and meats that are rolled in sesame seeds-sprinkled gim — dried sheets of seaweed — gimbap is a part of the traditional Korean cuisine, served in bite-sized pieces (insert comparisons with the Japanese sushi roll).
The fillings vary, depending on vegetarian or non-vegetarian alternatives. Danmuji (a yellow pickled radish), ham, beef, imitation crab meat, egg strips, kimchi, bulgogi (thinly-sliced, barbecued beef), spinach, carrot, burdock root, cucumber, canned tuna, and kkaennip (perilla leaves) are some of the most popular components.
The equivalent of parathas on a picnic, it is Korea’s most well-known street food, ideal for a ‘grab and go’ snack.
Eric Kim of the New York Times calls this Korean dish “a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures.” Interestingly, the king of pop Michael Jackson was the one to put bibimbap on the global map after a trip to the Korean peninsula.
What’s not to love about this aesthetically laid-out dish with rice and a sunny side up egg yolk smack dab in the centre of an assortment of vegetables and a meat of your choice?
But, fret not, because the dish can also be meatless, and just as delicious owing to the spicy tang of gochujang.
What is gochujang, you ask? Sriracha’s bolder cousin with a strong swagger derived from fermentation (yet again).
Placed on the side, gochujang can be mixed in yourself. You can go crazy with it, but we advise you to be wary.
Singh says the best part about bibimbap is that each spoonful has a different taste. Kunal Vijayakar, a food writer based in Mumbai, agrees.
He says, “You stir in everything yourself and eat it. It’s multi-textured, and crunchy, strongly flavoured and a full meal.”
The bibimbap is sometimes served in a dolsot — a hot, sizzling stone bowl. Here’s an insider tip: To obtain a crackly, crispy layer of rice at the bottom, let the rice sit in the stone bowl for a few minutes before mixing it all.
It would be a shame to discuss gochujang without mentioning tteokbeokki — one of the most beloved delicacies of Korean cuisine which is flavoured with it.
Our favourite K-drama leads are often seen packing away hearty measures of these savoury rice cakes doused in a fiery red sauce made from gochujang.
Reminiscent of Italy’s gnocchi, the rice cakes are shaped like tiny white tubes and are quite chewy. The taste is determined by the texture of the rice cake.
What gives the dish its trademark spiciness is the crimson sauce in which the rice cakes are bathed when served. A couple ladles of that down the hatch, and you’ll be melting like ghee on a tawa in seconds.
Fish cakes and boiled eggs can be added for flavour, but if you’re a vegetarian, you can ask for noodles to be added to yours.
There are no rules about when you can enjoy this delectable delicacy. A late-night snack, the cure for a particularly nasty hangover, or even the solution to break-up blues, tteokbeokki will never go out of style. Add a smattering of stringy cheese on top because life won’t get any better than this.
The Korean version of desi chowmein from Raju’s Chinese, japchae is arguably Korea’s most popular noodle dish. Made with delightfully chewy sweet potato noodles, the savoury dish is stir-fried in sesame oil with thinly sliced vegetables and meat.
They’re also known as glass noodles because after being cooked, they turn transparent, light, and chewy. They’re also gluten-free.
“Korean food is tasty and even if you eat a lot, you don’t full,” says Diana Rao, who runs a Korean food cooking channel. It stands true for these savoury noodles that are delectably hot, cold and everything in between.
After the noodles are cooked, they’re left to sit in the sauce, making them absorb all of the garlicky sesame and soy flavours like jalebi in chaashni.
The dish can be made a few hours ahead and served at room temperature, making it a hit at parties and potlucks. Serve it over rice and become the Korean food whisperer.
Dumplings are delectable in any country, but South Korea’s version will have you worshipping at the altar of the momo gods.
These Korean dumplings can be stuffed with anything: from minced beef, pork or chicken to tofu and vegetables. They can either be served boiled (mul mandu), fried (yaki mandu) or in a soup (mandu guk).
As is the tradition in Nepali households like mine, the whole family lends a hand in the making of momos for special days. Koreans are no different. Mandu is known to be made by families on the occasion of Lunar New Year for good luck.
Served with a dipping sauce made of soy, vinegar and chilli, these lovely parcels are available at any Korean restaurant. Singh says, “They are always a safe bet if you are unsure of other menu items.”
The Korean holy trinity: Bulgogi, Galbi, Samgyeopsal
The Korean holy trinity of bulgogi, galbi and samgyeopsal are sure to provide you with a barbecue experience you will never forget.
Another famous Korean dish, second only to kimchi, bulgogi is the queen of the prom. Beef that is expertly marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and some other spices is tossed onto the grill and then cooked to yummy perfection.
Bulgogi’s naughty sister galbi has gained notoriety for having more flavour than its sibling because of the fatty goodness from the rib bones, although it is made of similarly marinated beef short ribs.
But the chuppa rustam of this holy trinity is actually samgyeopsal: a South Korean delicacy made of three thick, typically un-marinated slices of pork belly.
The most fun part of the Korean barbecue? You can do your own caveman-style grilling on the table in the middle of the restaurant and nobody will bat an eyelid. Imagine the exquisite sound of meat being seared, flooding the room as it strikes the scorching hot grill, followed by a delectable scent that permeates the air and eventually your clothes too, making sure to torture you the day after.