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Beyond Bibimbap: Your Guide to Korean Food

By Lisa Trottier


From the May 2015 issue

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At the Korean table, a dozen tiny dishes come together to create big tastes.

Photos by Andrew Rowat

At the Korean table, a dozen tiny dishes come together to create big tastes.

Want to know your bulgogi from your sundubu jjigae? Our primer to classic Korean dishes, sides, sauces, and tipples can get you acquainted with this popular cuisine.

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When AFAR sent acclaimed Californian chef Russell Moore to Korea to taste his heritage, he got to see his grandmother’s homeland as a diverse and exciting culinary hub. Growing up in Southern California with a Korean mother who wanted nothing to do with the traditional role of a Korean woman, Moore developed a curiosity about authentic Korean food. He wanted to know what the food of his heritage was really like. From the more commonly known dishes to the deliciously obscure, here are the classic Korean foods you should know if you want to sound like a native.


If you’ve eaten any Korean food, it’s probably this: a bowl of rice topped with tidy piles of meat, sautéed veggies, and a sunny-side-up egg arranged like paint on an artist’s palette. Dolsot bibimbap is served in a sizzling-hot stone bowl that makes a crunchy crust of rice along the edges.

Barbecue, Korean-style. The classic version is marinated short ribs grilled over wood charcoal. Spinoffs include pork and chicken galbi and tteokgalbi, a patty of minced beef short rib that’s as close as you’ll come to a Korean hamburger.

This assemble-it-yourself dish means “wrapped.” What you’ll wrap, usually in Napa cabbage or sometimes in lettuce, is thinly sliced boiled pork belly, plus a bit of radish salad and salted shrimp.

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To call it a pancake doesn’t really do it justice. Ground mung beans are pan fried with green onions, kimchi, or sometimes peppers till nice and crusty. It’s so popular that it has made the jump from street food to restaurant staple.

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An elaborate feast developed for Korean royalty, it arrives all at once, filling the tabletop with dozens of dishes, instead of one at a time, Western-style.

A boggling smorgasbord of complimentary side dishes—kimchi, seaweed salad, pickles, bean sprouts, and more—comes with most Korean meals. Eat up, as refills are free.

Korea’s iconic side dish of spicy and sour fermented vegetables.

Although the spicy condiment doesn’t look so unlike ketchup, it’s made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt.

A fermented soybean paste that’s relied upon to add more depth
and umami to so many Korean dishes. It’s something like miso—but on steroids.

The milky white rice wine everyone drinks while gobbling bindaetteok is a million times better when fresh, rather than heated and sealed for an overseas journey.

A clear, powerful, and ubiquitous booze, à la vodka, that’s distilled from rice, barley, wheat, or potatoes and served neat or in cocktails.

>>Next: Plan your visit with AFAR's Travel Guide to Seoul

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