I live for food. My life revolves around what I’m cooking, what I’m eating and where, and I spend an embarrassing amount of time browsing the internet for new restaurants to visit or recipes to try. Before venturing to Korea, I researched its cuisine thoroughly, and was eager to get my first taste upon my arrival. Not once did I consider I wouldn’t like it. How wrong I was.
As I sat down with my first ever school meal in Korea, my expectations were high. However, when I took my first bite of the surprisingly crunchy kimchi, my dreams of falling in love with Korean cuisine crumbled before me. Did no one think to mention that kimchi is an acquired taste, to say the very least?!
The fact of the matter is, Korean food is very unique, and it is probably unlike anything you’ve tried before. The same spices and ingredients pop up in almost all the popular dishes. Hot pepper paste, fermented bean paste and toasted sesame oil are some of the usual suspects. If you’re not a fan of these ingredients, you’re a little bit screwed (until you can get used to their distinctive flavours).
Over the past 8 months, I have grown fonder of Korean food. While I still can’t manage to eat raw, tangy kimchi, I’ve found dishes I really love and crave all too often (I’d eat dakgalbi every day, if my arteries and wallet allowed it).
Korean food isn’t for everyone, but there are some widely-available, unobjectionable dishes few can deny are pretty tasty. Here is what you should eat in Korean if you can’t stand Korean food.
1) Donkatsu (돈까스)
Remember this name, write it down, perhaps get it tattooed on your forearm. This dish is the saviour of anyone who is less than enthusiastic about Korean food. The breaded pork cutlet is a Korean take on the Japanese tonkatsu, which was inspired by the European schnitzel. It is doused in a dark, tangy sauce, and served with rice, cabbage, and whatever else the restaurant fancies.
Most importantly, this dish is sold everywhere, including at many regular Korean restaurants. I dread to think about how many times I’ve eaten donkatsu during my time here in Korea, but it has been a lifesaver during teachers’ meals when the rest of the menu looked quite terrifying.
2) Fried Chicken (치킨)
Chicken and beer is a big deal in Korea. You can barely walk 500 metres without catching a whiff of the tempting aromas of chicken and batter.
Now, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about how fried chicken tastes, but Korea is famed for its chicken for good reason. Korean fried chicken is lighter than styles of chicken elsewhere around the world. It is fried twice, but the way the chicken is prepared ensures it’s crunchier and less greasy than its American counterpart.
There’s a variety of flavours available at most chicken restaurants. You can opt for plain fried chicken, or choose to smother it in one of the many tasty, sticky sauces on offer. Any picky eater will be sure to find something they like. Besides, you can’t go wrong with chicken.
3) Korean Barbecue (고기구이)
I could hardly write this post without mentioning Korean barbecue (or as it’s known here in Korea, barbecue.)
Korean barbecue refers to the ever-popular process of grilling different types of meat on a hot place on the table in front of you. The most popular dishes are samgyeopsal (fatty pork belly) and bulgogi (beef tenderloin.) The meat is served alongside a selection of side dishes, garnishes, and sauces.
Depending on the extent of your aversion to Korean food, these side dishes might not be for you. But the meat is very simple, and delicious if you cook it right.
Honourable mention: Dakgalbi
I couldn’t write this post without mentioning my beloved dakgalbi. During my first couple of months in Korea, when I was really struggling to eat anything, I tried this chicken dish for the first time. To me, it tasted totally different to any other Korean meal I’d eaten, in the best way possible.
I could hardly believe it when I discovered that hot pepper paste (my nemesis) was a key ingredient. Somehow, this spicy, stir-fried chicken manages to adopt a completely unique flavour.
I would recommend trying this dish out if you are in the same boat I was just a few months ago. Dakgalbi can be pretty spicy, so perhaps ask for less spice if that’s not your jam. It’s also a sharing dish, so it’s a great excuse to get a few friends together. If you want my advice, get out there and give it a go.
A message of hope
When I first arrived in Korea, I couldn’t even imagine a time when I would be able to eat and enjoy Korean food. Now I eat it everyday. While there are still many dishes I stay away from (the day I crave live octopus, I fear, may never come), I have found food I will genuinely miss when I go home.
It might take some time, but if you keep an open mind and try as many new things as you can, you will be able to find some food to tickle your fancy. This list is just to start you off. Get tasting!