Korean food is famous for its hearty spicy stews, bright pickled vegetables, and addictive barbecue.
But for novices, a Korean restaurant and its menu can be intimidating. Most dishes don’t have names that translate into English. If you’re not familiar with the names, you might make your order based on your analysis of the English ingredients and hope for the best.
The goal of this feature is to introduce you to a few popular and savory dishes so that you don’t have to go into your next Korean restaurant unprepared.
Spicy shredded beef stew with scallions, onions and Korean radish.
Like most Korean stews, yukgaejang is simmered for hours, which leaves the vegetables soft and the beef fall-apart like a brisket. It's typically served with a bowl of rice that can be mixed into the soup.
Its hearty, hot, and spicy making it the quintessential Korean food. You can get it at every korean restaurant. Believe it or not, this picture was taken at a highway rest area halfway between Seoul and Busan.
Cold buckwheat noodles mixed with sliced beef, pickled radish or Asian pear, pickled cucumber and spicy chilli sauce.
'Bibim' is Korean for 'mixed.' This popular North Korean dish can also be served with in a chilled beef consommé instead of the spicy sauce; just ask for mul naengmyun.
It's an extremely popular hot weather dish, and it will sometimes even be served with ice cubes. Your waittress or waiter will offer to cut your noodles with her or his kitchen sheers.
Short ribs marinated in soy sauce.
No one ever forgets about the time they got Korean barbecue and had galbi. The earthy marinade of soy sauce and garlic is balanced by the sweetness of sugar or honey. On a hot enough grill, the sear will turn into a light char that's basically candy.
Most Korean restaurants offering barbecue will have grills built into the table. However, grilling at the table is usually reserved for larger groups.
Korean barbecue often comes with a basket of lettuce and perilla leaves, which are also known as shiso leaves. These leafy greens serve as a fresh wraps for the meat. Feel free to throw in some rice and spicy soybean paste.
Ggaennip is also served as a side dish pickled in soy sauce. This is called ggaennip jangajji.
Thin sliced sirloin marinated in soy sauce.
Bulgogi tastes a lot like galbi. It's just a different cut of meat. Like galbi, you can grilled it at your table.
Bulgogi is usually cheaper than galbi. In Western foods like pizza or burgers, you might find bulgogi flavored-meat.
Braised short ribs.
Galbijjim is like galbi gui, or grilled galbi. But it's stewed on the bone in its marinade for hours. If done right, the meat should be barely clinging onto the bone.
Galbijjim is by far the most expensive preparation of beef. If done right, it's heaven.
Fermented soybean paste stew with tofu.
It's similar to miso soup, but doenjang is far more pungent than miso. Beginners be weary. It took this author around 20 years to finally appreciate the earthy flavours of the soybean paste, which can be an intense assault on the senses.
For most Korean, this is chicken soup for the soul. It's cheap and you can get it anywhere.
Mild cod fish stew.
The flavour is far more subtle than the many other spicy and pungent stews on the menu. But if you focus, the clear cod consommé offers deep flavours of the ocean like a fresh oyster. If you want some heat, ask for daegu mae-un (spicy) tang.
Watch out for bones. If you're lucky, you'll get the cod head. Definitely eat the cheek. And if you're feeling adventurous, eat the eyeballs.
Noodles topped with Chinese black soybean sauce, dices pork, and vegetables.
The chunjang sauce is much more mild than doenjang. It certainly isn't spicy. What is it is is a hearty dish deep in umami that goes great with kimchee.
Jajangmyeon is as much a Chinese dish as it is a Korean dish. Indeed, you're unlikely to find it in most Korean restaurants. But you'll find it in every Chinese restaurant in Korea or even Koreatown.
Soy sauce marinated raw blue or horse crab.
This stuff is basically crack for Koreans. Japanese and even some Chinese are also addicted to this. Live or freshly frozen raw crab are quickly cleaned and marinated in a soy sauce that's been enriched with ginger, garlic, scallions, sesame oil and sugar.
Diners will crunch into the bones and suck out the sweet translucent white flesh while taking in the sweet and earthy sauce. But that's just the beginning...
Crab egg, liver, pancreas, and everything else.
A really nice piece of gejang will also have bright orange (roe) and mustard yellow (tomalley) parts. While difficult to look at, the roe and tomalley are far more desired than the white flesh.
Koreans love to mix it with rice.
Rice mixed with fresh vegetables and chilli pepper paste.
Bibimbap is the classic light and healthy lunch. You can get in anywhere, including on Korean Air's transpacific flights.
Some place will offer dolsot (or stone bowl) bibimbap. Before the rice is served, it's cooked in the stone bowl on stove top so it can become brown and crunchy. Anyone who's had paella knows this crunchy rice as soccarat.
Sweet red bean on shaved ice.
This is Korea's ice cream sundae. It's usually topped with fruit and condensed milk. Typically, you have to go to a Korean bakery or coffee shop to get it.
Don't try to order it as a dessert at the restaurant where you had your Korean meal. Once they clean your table, they will likely bring you something clean and simple to clean you pallet. A slice of orange or watermelon is most typical.
Brined cabbage with red pepper flakes.
This pickled red pepper flake pile of cabbage may be the most ubiquitous food item in Korea.
But don't worry about ordering it. It will come with a variety of complementary side dishes called banchan...
Small side dishes.
After you order your entrees, your waittress or waiter will come back with a tray of four to a dozen small plates of random food items. Kimchee will definitely be included. It will likely be accompanied by other pickled vegetables.
You don't need to ask for it. It just appears. But don't be shy about asking your server what each thing is. Sometimes, the banchan is so random that even Korean people don't know what they're eating!
Unlike most animals, skate urinates through its skin. So, what you have here is a piece of fish that's been rotting in its own pee.
Typically, hongeo is plated with some kimchee and a few other aggressive garnishes that serve to offset the unpleasant, ammonia-like flavour of the fish.
Try it if you like. But you're better off getting something else. While it is served in some Korean restaurants, Koreans tend to avoid it.