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When traveling to Korea, it is worthwhile to note the basics of Korean food to the uninitiated. Koreans use silver chopsticks which are considerably heavier than the wooden chopsticks that are more popular around the world. It is also typical to use silver spoons for soups and a white small bowl for rice and side dishes. The chopsticks of each diner are also used to get portions of side dishes available among those sharing food at the dinner table.
While a number of restaurants provide choices for the kind of table preferred by customers (either: the traditional areas where the tables are very near the ground and the seat is more like mats and pillows and the diner eat in cross legs; or the non-Korean-style areas with tables and chairs typically used in western restaurants), restaurants almost always use burners/stoves fixed at the middle of every dining table.
Most Korean dishes are steam-cooked and are largely based on rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables and meats. It is traditional for Korean meals to be served with a number of colorful and tasty side dishes. While side dishes served vary in every meal, each meal always come with the trademark kimchi, a fermented spicy vegetable dish with varied seasonings. Many Korean dishes also use kimchi as a main or supporting ingredient.
Korean cuisine is generally spicy and the food commonly involves the use of rich seasoning with sesame oil, red chili paste, fermented soybean paste, soy sauce, salt, ginger, and garlic. Most Korean dishes are steam-cooked. Korean food is also known for its delectable barbeques.
The traditional Korean food kimchi is typically made with napa cabbage and other vegetables including radish, green onion, chive, and cucumber. Other than being the most common side dish in any meal, kimchi is also used for dishes like kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae), kimchi soup (kimchi gook), and kimchi fried rice (kimchi bokkeumbap). There are many kimchi varieties. For anyone interested in the history of kimchi, there is a kimchi museum in Seoul, Korea which features hundreds of kimchi variations. While the more popular kimchi is the red cabbage served with many Korean dishes around the world, there are other popular variants such as the kimchi made with cubed radish, kimchi made with scallions, cucumber kimchi with hot and spicy seasoning, and kimchi made of brined and fermented shrimp.
Kimbap is a popular Korean fast food. It is easy to make, easy to buy in any store, and very affordable. Kimbap is made from steamed white rice (bap) rolled around other small pieces of ingredients like vegetables and meat in its middle, then wrapped in dried seaweed (kim). It is served in bite-size slices and is often compared to the Japanese sushi and maki. While it is similar, the kimbap is actually not identical to these Japanese food.
Kimbap is considerably comparable to the west’s burger, not with the ingredients nor the taste (it is totally a different kind of food and renders no physical similarity with the burger), but in specific ways, the kimbap in Korea is similar to the burger in the U.S. in terms of its use in reference to the people’s lifestyle. Kimbap is very much accessible in most stores and restaurants. It is something Koreans eat while on the go (while walking, riding the car, bus, or subway), or even at home, at the office, or just about anywhere. As Koreans need to keep up with a very fast-paced lifestyle, the kimbap is typically brought when going out as it is very easy to eat even when traveling.
Bibimbap is a popular Korean dish that literally means “mixed rice.” This dish uses a bowl of white rice topped with sautéed and seasoned vegetables, sliced meat, chili red paste, kim, and raw or fried egg. Vegetables typically used for a bibimbap includes cucumber, mushrooms, soybean sprouts, soybean, and lettuce. Meat and protein food used for this dish include beef, chicken, seafood, or tofu. Bibimbap can be served either hot or cold. The bowl of rice and mixed ingredients are stirred together thoroughly before eating.
Naengmyeon literally means “Chinese cold noodles.” This Korean delicacy consists of long and thin hand-made noodles made of flour, starch, buckwheat, potatoes and other ingredients. Varieties of it may include the use of sweet potatoes, seaweed, and green tea. The naengmyeon is traditionally served in a large stainless bowl filled with a tangy iced chicken broth with soy sauce and other spices. Vinegar is often added before eating as well. Naengmyeon uses a sauce mixed with spicy mustard and peanut sauce topped over it for that nutty and spicy flavor. The dish also uses shredded marinated beef or pork, cucumber, crab stick, jellyfish, Korean pear slices, and hard-boiled egg. The long noodles is traditionally eaten without cutting as this symbolizes longevity of life and good health.
Bulgogi, literally meaning “fire meat” (the term actually refers to the technique of cooking over an open flame), is a popular Korean beef dish made of marinated barbecued beef (although chicken or pork may also be used). Made of thin slices of sirloin or other prime cuts, the meat is marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar, scallions and mushrooms, then it is cooked barbeque-style. While traditionally grilled, pan-cooking may also be done. In Korea, bulgogi is commonly grilled or fried together with separate pieces of cloves of garlic, sliced onions, and chopped green peppers to accompany the meat. These vegetables are eaten together with the meat by meal time. Bulgogi can also be served with a side of lettuce or other leafy vegetable. A vegetable leaf are used to wrap a small slice of cooked meat, rice, sauces, and side dishes together, then the wrap is eaten as a whole.