What to Eat
Korean food is highly seasoned, more so at the peninsula's southern tip than in the north. The national dish of kim chee, spicy pickled cabbage and other vegetables, is not for the faint of heart. Walk into a Korean market, and you will almost think you are in Mexico: huge bags of ground red chiles line the shelves — clearly this spice is used in quantity.
It is hard to say whether Korean cooking influenced the Japanese or Chinese dishes first, or vice versa. In any event, you can find overlap with slight variations among these three cultures. Koreans, for example, have been cooking on tabletop charcoal grills shaped like a Mongolian warrior's helmet for centuries. All three countries share the balances of sweet, salty, bitter, hot and sour — the five flavors — in their approach to cooking and eating. Korean food uses less oil than Chinese, but it is also not as bland as the cuisine of Japan. Indeed, Japan shuns the use of garlic, which the Koreans use in such quantities that the Japanese have called them "garlic eaters." From a culinary standpoint, we would not consider this a derogatory statement in the least.
Koreans also indulge in sashimi, although these raw fish pieces are cut more coarsely and larger than their Japanese counterparts. As with other foods, Korean sashimi is typically eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves.
Oddly enough, despite fish being the mainstay of the Korean diet (along with rice), beef dishes are the most prized of the native recipes. Pul kogi (Korean barbecued beef strips) and kalbi-jim (braised spare ribs in soy sauce and spices) are two of the most popular dishes — ones that have survived even beyond the introduction of Buddhism by the Chinese.
The ancestral love of beef does not historically make up the average Korean's daily diet, though. Fish and vegetables, fresh and preserved, and served with rice have been more common. As with many cultures, the long winters forced the people to devise ways of eating when fresh foods were not readily available.
A typical Korean meal will have many dishes — following the five flavors approach — and be served on a low table. Chopsticks and spoons are the eating utensils, except for fingers which are used for eating sushi, barbecue, and foods wrapped in lettuce. Dinner is the main meal with lighter meals for breakfast and lunch. Some variety of kim chee is present at all of them, as is rice. Besides rice, noodles are a favorite starch and may be served by themselves or in large bowls of soup.
Korean ginseng root, native to the land and now cultivated heavily for export, is believed to have medicinal properties and may served as tea, or fresh with honey or cooked in other dishes.
One of the splashier presentations is gulchupan, translated as Nine Heavenly Varieties, and consists of a black lacquer box with eight compartments encircling a stack of thin mung-flour pancakes in the center; the diner fills the pancakes with the compartments' ingredients, such as bean sprouts, meats, omelet, cabbage, cucumber, prawns, etc.
A fun and easy communal meal is the hotpot, or sin sul lo. Boiling stock is heated in a special stovepiped container, with hot coals below, and meats and vegetables are dipped in a "moat" of stock and left to cook, then fished out with chopsticks to be eaten with a dipping sauce and rice.
What to drink: Beer or rice wines, or Makkolli, a fermented rice liquor.
Note: Translations from Korean to English can vary drastically, largely because their range of a consonant's sound is broader than ours and their phonetic alphabet translates differently. Consequently, the same word may end being spelled hwe, hwey, huee or huay, all meaning "raw."