If you live in a moderately sized city, you may already be familiar with Korean food. We had one or two great Korean restaurants and markets in Minneapolis, so were familiar with the basics like kimchi, bulgogi and my personal favorite bibimbap.
While Korean food seems to be one cuisine that hasn’t been Americanized, there are a load of different foods that we didn’t know about before traveling to S. Korea.
And that's what this blog post is about. Those Korean foods that really surprised me with either their strangeness or newness to me. Or both.
Korean Fish Cake
I kept calling this strange intestine-esque food on a skewer tofu, but that was just wishful thinking. It's fish cake. Now fish cake isn't really cake the way you and I know it. And from the looks of it, it isn't really fish. But it is. We had a discussion of how fish cake must be made, but we will leave that to your imagination. The skewer is served with a cup of the broth, as was another dish we ate here and I have to say- it's a damn fine broth that isn't very fishy tasting. It was a perfect antidote to the cold that had taken control of our hands.
Sweet Potato Latte
Some people have reacted with disgust about the idea of drinking a sweet potato latte. But I will tell you, it's delicious. In a country like South Korea, where coffee shops are everywhere, the sweet potato latte is a really great decaf hot drink option. It's sweet as you would expect and creamy and earthy and simple. It could use a little bit of spice to really increase the wow factor, but you have to give it up to this beverage. It's really good.
Mandarins from Jeju Island
The growing of mandarins on Jeju goes way way back, and these little juicy buggers are so tasty. They are everywhere in Jeju and as it turns out they are quite ubiquitous in the rest of Korea as well. They aren't cheap. We went for a hike and tried to buy a few from a guy but he insisted we buy a TON. After some back and forth (we only wanted about 4) he just gave them to us and waved us off. It was nice that he gave them to us, but we suspect he just wanted to us to go away - he had real paying customers to contend with!
The fruit was used for ceremonies to honor ancestors and royal guests, but now they just eat them. As we were checking out of our guesthouse, the owner came over with two glasses of freshly squeezed mandarin juice. Boy was it refreshing!
If you aren't familiar with the aebleskiver, it's time to change your life. It's a Danish pancake that is sometimes filled with all sorts of things. They are made on an iron skillet and are usually round in shape and flipped with long tongs so they cook evenly.
In Korea, they take this practice to a whole new level and fill the items with anything from mango to read bean paste or peanut creme and call it gyrenppang. They take all shapes and sizes, sometimes like a peanut as we found on the Island of Udo, sometimes in the shape of a fish or just round like an english muffin pancake. They are piping hot and a great walking food.
Korean Rice Cakes (Tteokbokki)
As you can see from the picture, these rice cakes don't look like rice and they don't look like cakes. Welcome to Korea! These rice cakes are basically shaped like penne pasta without the hole bored out and have the chewy texture of a delicately cooked rubber tire. They sit in your stomach the way a rubber tire would too. But the sauce. It's made of fermented soybeans and red chillies and you could actually put it on rubber tires and I would eat them. It's not spicy unless you are from Minnesota and think that catsup is spicy.
Korean Fried Chicken (yangnyeom tongdak)
We had a regrettable version of this crispy crunch spicy sweet fried chicken at a market and it only served to make us want to find it and try it again. Call it redemption, call it addiction. It's probably more like addiction.
The sauce is supposed to be spicy with chilles and garlic and honey and sesame seeds and the chicken is double fried in that special Korean way that makes it crackle. We were walking through a market and the vendor tried to hawk it to us by saying it wasn't spicy. Man, if it isn't spicy, what's the point? We kept walking.
Fluffy Egg Muffins (gyeranppang)
These little guys are steamed egg goodness that are of course a little sweet. It's the perfect food for a stroll or if you are late for work. They are steamed in these round foil covered trays. When they are done steaming, the vendor pulls them out and places them in nice rows on the foil cover. Our vendor was unique in that he sprinkled his with sesame seeds and a few other kinds of nuts. The egg inside is hard cooked. I was expecting and would have preferred a little run in my yolk. Still delicious.
Stuffed and Fried Pancake (Hotteok)
What you say? A stuffed pancake? Well, yeah. Kinda. It's round like a donut ball, but savory and stuffed with all sorts of goodies like glass noodles and veggies. We happened to look down an alley way at a line that had formed. People were walking towards us with paper cups barely containing their super hot hotteok and almost burning their faces off trying to eat them.
The line we waited in was efficient. They had few options and only took your order and handed you food - you left the money in a bucket and made your own change. Cash only. An excellent system I could have watched for hours. We had already eaten lunch but couldn't pass up yet another Korean delight.
I think that the definition of a pancake needs some expanding, especially to the American mind. Here in Korea it really encompases anything that is pounded flat and round and is fried. You can make it out of mung beans (lower left), scallions or kimchi (lower right). They tend to be more like a latke at times, with crispy edges and soft hot interiors. We got the green pancake in the picture below. It was cut into four or five strips and placed in a paper cup. We asked for it spicy and she squirted the famous chili sauce all over it. It was so so good and fresh.
Anything Pickled or Fermented (like Kimchi)
Koreans are masters of fermenting and pickling. You've no doubt heard of kimchi before, but take that method of salting and spicing chopped cabbage and then run it through the mill of available ingredients and you have dozens and dozens of options. At the market (pictured below right) one lady had kimchi-ified everything you can imagine. We had fermented seaweed. She had pickled shrimp for gods sake. She had everything except a personality or a sense of humor. We went to her again because she had the best selection and she was busy, but even if she wasn't, she would make us wait until all the Koreans were gone before helping us, then she did so grudgingly. But I don't care. She had the good stuff, and lots of it.
We aren't even scratching the surface here. I mean, we are scratching the surface. It feels that it's all we are doing. There are so many different Korean foods we haven't tried yet. Some of them are the obvious ones mentioned in the intro above. Things we already knew about before coming to Korea, like bibimbap. Others are more obscure foods we've learned about since coming here. Things like the black bean noodles that are originally from Incheon where we are house sitting.