Fortunately for me, I've been able to adapt to the food in every overseas country I've lived in, namely Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea. The country I lived in longest (for 12 non-consecutive years) was Korea, so I had plenty of time to try every kind of cuisine from every region. There are many, many Korean dishes that I love, but having thought about it long and hard, I've ruthlessly edited the list down to my ultimate 3 favourites.
First, a few words about Korean food in general. Modern life and imported food have changed the Korean diet immensely in the last several decades. Traditionally, however, the basis of a typical Korean meal was a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, and an assortment of side dishes. (Actually, only rich people could afford white rice in the old days, so the common people filled their bowls with millet or barley.)
What I love most about Korean food in general is in fact the side dishes. The so-called "main dish" of a Korean meal is sometimes the least interesting part, ditto for the obligatory soup. It's the panchan, or side dishes (sometimes also spelled banchan in English), that provide interest through the sheer variety of (hopefully) contrasting flavours. There will always be a minimum of three side dishes, but the numbers can be higher -- and always odd numbers. Five is fairly common, you're lucky to get 7, and more than that is a feast. I once really lucked out at a small place in a side alley off Insadong in downtown Seoul. I paid about $10 ($8-9US) for the spread pictured below...9 side dishes!
I have to say that over the nearly 20 years that I lived in or visited Korea (1997-2016), the number of red, chilli-flavoured side dishes increased at the expense of the white and green ones. It used to be that if there were 3 side dishes, only one would be red. Nowadays, you're likely to find 2 red ones.
Remember how I said more than 7 side dishes is a feast? Well, feast your eyes on the spread pictured below. There are restaurants that specialize in this kind of table d'hôte presentation. Many of them are expensive, but some are quite cheap, like the hole-in-the-wall place where I took this picture (apologies for blurriness). I've forgotten its name, but it's in Hannam-dong, quite near Itaewon. I think we paid about $10/pp for this meal. My favourite of all the 100 or more varieties of kimchi, cucumber kimchi, is included amongst the dishes here. Do you see it?
Now for my top 3 personal favourites.
It was really hard to choose the dish I love most because there are so many. That said, boribap (literally barley-rice) edges out the competition. Basically, it's the same concept as the more famous bibimbap, which I'm sure I don't need to define. There are 2 main differences between boribap and bibimbap: a) boribap has a heavy admixture of barley with the rice, whereas bibimbap is usually served with just plain white rice; b) boribap comes with bean paste instead of red pepper paste. In other words, the main flavour is savoury rather than spicy. At my favourite boribap place in Seoul, the vegetable elements were served separately in order for you to customize your own meal. I'm not sure if this procedure is typical of boribap places or not. The boribap serving pictured below is from my favourite place, which was, and I hope still is, in a side ally off the south side of Itaewon main street. For about a year and a half, I ate lunch there every Saturday after my chiropractic treatment at Itaewon Wellness Chiropractic & Sports Medicine Centre. After a while, the ajumma (lady boss) started offering me not only re-fills of the side-dishes, but a re-fill of the barley-rice!
Cultural note: Re-fills of side dishes are standard practice and free; re-fills of the rice bowl usually entail an extra charge.
This one is the runner-up for my favourite Korean dish, but it's far and away my favourite in the topping-on-rice category of Korean food. Jaeyuk dopbap consists of pieces of pork in a spicy sauce served on a bed of rice. I had the rendition pictured here at a small place near Gyeongbukgung (the big palace in the centre of Seoul) that is favoured by local office workers. It set me back about $5USD. Not bad for a main dish, 5 side dishes, and soup!
I think what I love about it is the richness of the meat-and-sauce combination, and how filling and satisfying it is when you mix it with the rice. Sidenote: only 2 of the 5 side dishes pictured here are red, which is a tolerable ratio, especially when the main dish is also flavoured with chilli paste. On the whole, I'd rather see just 1 red side dish.
Of course, I have to include some Korean barbecue. The most famous variety is probably samgyeopssal, but my favourite is Mapo-style galmaegissal. It's marinated pork cooked on a cone-like grill surrounded by a trough. Beaten egg is poured into the trough, to which you can also add kimchi. The juices run down from the grill into the trough to flavour the egg and kimchi. Yum! The best-known place in Seoul to have Mapo galmaegissal is of course in the district of Mapo, where there is a whole street of galmaegissal joints near Gongdok Station.
As with most Korean barbecue, you wrap the pieces of grilled meat in a lettuce leaf before you pop them in your mouth. Rice and other things can also go into the wrap. Soju is the most common booze pairing, but I have to admit I've never cared for it. I prefer makkeolli (a cloudy rice-based brew) if it's available, or beer if it's not. Soju is drunk from shot glasses. You'll notice that mine, at bottom left in the picture above, is empty.
I've chosen these 3 dishes because they were the ones that became my comfort foods during my years in Korea. There are of course lots of other wonderful dishes that I also enjoy. What are your favourite Korean dishes? Please comment below or under the relevant post on the Lotus and Persimmon Facebook page!