Korean cuisine, much like Korean culture, is very different to what I grew up with and am familiar with: a weird blend of Western/ African/ Mediterranean. But just like the place, I’ve found many things to enjoy (and love) about the food. Here’s a list of some of the strangest things I never thought I’d end up eating on a regular basis.
Not the most “out there” food item ever, but not one I’d ever been familiar with before. Now it forms the basis of probably my most favourite thing in Korea: 쌈장 (ssamjang). It’s a thick sauce made of fermented bean paste, red pepper paste, green onions, sesame oil and garlic. You eat it with meat and rice and other vegetables, wrapped in a lettuce or sesame leaf. It’s very savoury, with just a hint of spiciness to keep things interesting.
In fact, I don’t want to be dramatic, but it’s pretty much the taste I’ve been waiting for all my life (which is not really surprising as the beans and salt make it highly umami.) I just love it.
Ok, I know this is kind of popular in the US, but I had never eaten it before coming to Korea. The first time I saw the soft white squares floating in soup, I (rather tragically) thought they were pieces of feta cheese. I was not too impressed at first: it’s so bland! But the magic of tofu is that because it tastes like nothing, it is extremely versatile. I love it in soups, I love it when the outside is cooked and the inside still warm, I love it fried and covered in sweet and spicy sauce. I even love scooping great chunks out of it when it’s served as a side dish, covered in green onions, spices and soy sauce. YUM.
(One point: it can’t be cooler than room temperature. Then it’s gross.)
Yes, for the uninitiated: that green stuff that grows in the ocean. Sea. Weed. Many people around the world consume it as a vegetable but, once again, I’d never really eaten it apart from occasionally in sushi. Now I eat it all the time: in soups, wrapped around another huge favourite, kimbap (the word literally means seaweed-rice ) and even dry with rice (although I prefer the sheets to the crumbly bits). And it’s supposed to be really good for you too. Yay seaweed!
2. Rice cakes (떡, tteok)
I ranted at length about rice cakes when I first got here, but I’d clearly just been given the wrong kinds of rice cakes. Yes, they still have consistence of a well-chewed piece of rubber, but you have to find ways to mitigate this.
Like the prettily-coloured ones with the sweet filling.
Or the sweet potato ones…
… or the amazing cheese-filled ones that you get in 닭갈비 (dakgalbi). Winning.
1. Spicy food
I never ate spicy food at home. We as a family just did not do hot food. (My poor dad actually quite likes curry, being from Durban an’ all, but he had five stubborn women to contend with, alas.) So aside from all the strangeness involved in eating Korean food, the spiciness of everything was a huge adjustment … and now I really like it. Spicy soup, spicy chicken. spicy fish stew, gochujang… I eat and enjoy it all.
But my most favourite of all spicy foods is dakgalbi: spicy chicken stew with cabbage, sesame leaves and assorted other veg; and delicious extras like cheese and rice cakes (or cheese rice cakes). I crave it on a weekly basis. It’s amazing. Definitely one for your “must eat” list if you ever come to Korea!
PS. I feel like there were a couple more on this list but I really can’t remember now. Hey, it’s Friday afternoon. I’ll add them at some point if I ever remember what they are! In the meantime, anyone want to share some strange foods you’ve come to enjoy? Drop me a comment!