2nd month of the 12 months of cuisine challenge is… Korean!
Korean is one of my FAVORITE cuisines to eat. Outside of the Korean BBQ experience where you grill sliced meat directly at your own table, the stews and side dishes (banchan) are incredibly delicious!
Eating Out at Korean Restaurants
Korean food is also one of those that is easier for me to eat out for. Like Japanese cuisine, it is, by default, dairy free and coconut free (*doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in their cuisine, just that many of their dishes won’t have these ingredients). And with the exception of soy sauce (which I personally can tolerate), it is mostly gluten free too.
The main point of concern with Korean food is corn. Korean dishes often use syrups to sweeten and thicken dishes instead of sugar. There are a variety commonly used: honey being the most natural (but also most expensive), corn syrup, and another kind known as “oligo syrup” (oligosaccaride).
Oligo syrup is a neutral tasting sweetening syrup made most commonly out of glutinous rice. Additionally, it’s supposed to have beneficial probiotics and is low calorie, so it’s often considered a healthier sweetener than the alternatives (personally though, I wonder how beneficial the bacteria will be though since sugars are kind of the counter-agent of probiotics when entering your digestive system). However there are MANY varieties of oligo syrup. Some are made with fruit, some are pure grains. Others have artificial sweetener included. The difficulty is that you never really know what’s in oligo syrup and yes, corn is one of the “grains” that is can used.
In the US, you’re more likely to find Korean restaurants that use corn syrup than other sweeteners. Corn syrup is cheap and has a neutral flavor and is readily available in store shelves and by the restaurants’ suppliers. If the restaurant uses oligo syrup, then it’s a gamble on whether it has corn in it or not (chances are that it won’t because most oligo syrup is made of rice, but you have to determine if it’s worth risking or not. Always ask if you can!).
Additionally, corn oil is a common cooking oil for Koreans too. Most of the US restaurants don’t use corn oil since it is not as widely available as canola or other vegetable oil, but it’s worth pointing out if you’re in a region where that is unknown.
So corn is the main issue. Koreans, like the United States, is not against using corn in their dishes. If the food is cheaper (aka. more instant-made than cooked from scratch), it’s likely to have corn in it (i.e. maltodextrin or corn starch in instant soup flavor packets vs homemade broth, corn syrup in a premade marinade vs homemade with honey).
There are staple dishes in a Korean cuisine that don’t use sweeteners. Stews such as galbitang (beef rib stew), samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) and rice dishes such as bibimbap (though be careful if you get it with added meat. Bulgogi, a common additive, is a sweetened beef dish) do not have any sweetener added. Then there is the quintessential tofu stew (no sweetener, but I did get sick once eating it at a restaurant, which likely means the broth was not homemade but reconstituted from a powder).
Benefits of Korean Month
Korean food has a lot of vegetables
Most of us know Korean food from the Korean BBQ and therefore think of it as a meat-heavy cuisine, but korean food is actually pretty high in vegetables, Kimchi being their biggest staple.
2. Korean food has a lot of probiotics
The iconic staple of Korean food is kimchi, which is a fermented spicy cabbage full of probiotics. Many of the vegetables that are part of Korean cuisine are fermented or pickled and offer a great source of beneficial bacteria. Kimchi has been widely accepted and has crossed culinary borders and is used in a lot of “fusion”-style dishes, so you can’t go wrong adding this to your dietary staples.
3. There’s a lot of resources to pull from
Thanks to recipe bloggers like Maangchi and Seolleongest, there’s a plethora of Korean recipe blogs to turn to for how to make those iconic dishes.
Also… Having Korean friends who can impart their family knowledge to me and let me know if I’m messing up any recipes can’t hurt. 😀
Korean Month Challenges
1. Like Japanese Cuisine, Korean Cuisine is High Carb
Sweet potatoes, noodles, and rice are staples in Korean food. However, most of the time these are on the side, so I think, like Japanese food, it will be more about portion control than trying to find alternatives.
2. Many Korean dishes use sweeteners to marinate or flavor their ingredients
Like Japanese cuisine, a lot of dishes ask for added sugar (IMO…. sugar + soy sauce is one of those quintessential flavor combinations that need to exist in every kitchen’s pantry) and we’ve been wanting to reduce our sugar and carbohydrate intake this year. I’ve also been learning more about the different types of sweeteners lately and want to try to reduce our fructose intake (in addition to our overall sugar intake), so I might be making some swaps for maple syrup in some of these dishes to see if the taste isn’t negatively affected.
3. Some ingredients need to be specially sourced
I have several of the ingredients already due to Japanese month (and just having a large spice and sauce collection over the years of cooking mostly Asian foods). There are some others though that may require a special trip to a Korean store (or general Asian foods store, though I have seen some ingredients like gochujang in Whole Foods recently).
4. Meat has gotten expensive lately
I don’t know about where you are, but beef and pork have jumped in price in the recent months, which is not so easy for someone with dietary restrictions (who is also trying to reduce dependence on carbs). We’ll see what we can do, and maybe we can dedicate a few meals to more vegetarian-like dishes.
Korean cuisine shares many of the same ingreidnets as Japanese cuisine (and other Asian cuisines as well), so if you did Japanese month first, you may have some of these in your pantry already now.
- “Gluten free” tamari soy sauce – nearly identical to default soy sauce, it has a slightly less full-bodied taste. It will still work well for cooking purposes. Make sure you get tamari that is specified as “gluten free” (“tamari”, while identified in western culture as the gluten free version of soy sauce, is actually a different item in Japanese cuisine and depending on the brand can still have some wheat in it).
- Sake – Koreans have soju, but I like using sake as my universal cooking alcohol. It’s easier to just keep 1 kind than own bottles of multiple types. Both are rice-based. Soju is stronger.
- Sesame oil – a toasty and nutty oil that should be used more as a finisher than a cooking oil. It is a prominent flavor in a lot of Korean cuisine.
- Gochugaru (chili flakes) – a dried and ground up chili powder made of Korean chilis. It’s worth it to get this instead of other types of chili. There are hot versions and mild versions (mild omits the seeds) and 2 levels of grind (coarse grind and fine powder). I usually just get a bag of the fine powder in mild heat and use that for multiple dishes.
- Gochujang (chili paste) – a fermented paste made from the same Korean chili. It’s savory, slightly sweet, and spicy depending on the heat level you buy. Be careful when picking out a gochujang brand and look for ones without corn syrup or wheat. Not all gochujangs are made the same.
- Doenjang (fermented bean paste) – fermented soybean paste that is like a thicker, more pungent miso. A little goes a long way. It’s commonly used in soups and also commonly paired with gochujang for stews and marinates. Be careful when picking out a doenjang brand and look for ones without wheat. Doenjang SHOULD just be soybeans and salt.
- Rice vinegar – milder than white vinegar, you’ll primarily use it in pickling non-fermented vegetables for quick-cook side dishes.
- Napa Kimchi – fermented napa cabbage. Typically found in clear plastic jars in the refrigerated section, these have varying levels of spiciness and can be sold whole or chopped up. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, be careful when picking out a brand since kimchi is often fermented with fish or krill-like shrimp. Also be wary of corn syrup. Most kimchi, if it uses a sweeter, will use cane sugar… but there’s always a chance someone decided corn syrup is better (A note: there are MSG-free-labeled versions out there, but it’s important to point out that MSG is a naturally occurring product of the fermentation process. It is possible the MSG-free labeling means there’s no ADDED MSG)
- Ginger, Garlic, and scallions