Food of South Korea: Delicious and Very Specific


korean-recipes_cRed-hot cuisine spices up a visit to South Korea. If people are curious about meals made from exotic ingredients, enjoy adventure, and have fireproof taste buds, they will love the foods of South Korea. A visitor to Seoul does not need a guide to manage successful experiences of eating in local restaurants. All a person has to do is look, point, lay down the won (Korean unit of money), and partake of the prepared dishes.

By Virginia A. Johnson

Many restaurants display large color photographs of what meals are available to the customer. Recognizing the food in the photo might be another matter, but the best way to negotiate the problem is to point to what looks good, and then expect a new eating experience.

Once the prepared dish arrives (accompanied by the usual bowls of spicy, pickled vegetables and rice), just eat your way into it.

Happy landing

I loved my first meal in Seoul, served at a little eatery in the airport. There's something about coming off an almost food-less 13-hour flight that stirs the digestive juices.

It was a large bowl of sticky rice, crumpled dried seaweed, some veggies and tiny, oval-shaped orange things that looked like seeds. I stirred it all together (the proper thing to do) and ate.

I especially liked the tiny orange things. How did they make them look so uniform in shape, and so tasty, too? Later, someone told me those tiny orange things were the eggs of something that had once been alive. I didn't further probe that revelation because I wanted nothing to discourage my adventure.

As in any culture, the ingredients are key to the cuisine, and a couple of quick tours through food markets showed me what I might find on my plate when dining out.

The open-air food stalls on either side of a street fascinated me. They are jammed together and brimming with neat mounds of eels, squid, brain sacs, fish and other fresh seafood competing with beautiful displays of fruits, vegetables, and spices. Dried foods, especially fish, are stacked on sticks or bundled together on ropes.

Independent street vendors are part of any commercial shopping district, especially during the weekend.

These tiny markets on wheels offer cooked foods, and they were anxious to exchange their goods for my won. I have a no-buy-food-off-the-street policy, so a discreet look, sniff and move-on worked for me, especially when we came upon an elderly gentleman stirring a great vat of steaming something. Upon closer investigation, we discovered the mysterious soup consisted of large, brown larvae casings, swimming in their juices. I think the casing once held silkworms, but I did not ask, and he did not tell.

Minefield of a menu

I have eaten Asian cuisine all my life, but I was not prepared for how abundantly Korean eateries made use of the spicy red pepper.

I learned to be cautious. If the teeny first bite told me I was about to eat something resembling a live volcano, then I let others who wanted their sinuses to experience a nuclear explosion have at it. Just ask the server what's hot, what's not, and hope the person understands what you want.

In Korea, eating out is an opportunity for community, too.

"Mom, we're going out for Korean barbecue tonight," said Lynn, our daughter. She is spending a year in South Korea, courtesy of Uncle Sam, and couldn't wait to take us to her favorite local eateries.

Korean barbecue? That sounded interesting, but I suspected this BBQ required a different sort of sauce.

While the restaurant owner prepared the cooking pans (located on a low table), others from our group went to long troughs loaded with a variety of raw meat, seafood and vegetables. In this restaurant, the customers are expected to select the ingredients, do the cooking and eat what they prepare.

There were the usual sliced fresh cabbage, carrots, onions and spinach, vegetables most common in restaurant meals, and an assortment of pickled veggies such as kimch'i, (spicy, pickled cabbage).

The meats and seafood were less easy to identify, despite my market tours. I recognized the bacon and thin slices of pork and beef, as well as the squid and octopus. Some tubs held foods that seemed totally foreign to me, and although I might've guessed what they were, I left well enough alone.

Our hostess, another member of Uncle Sam's Army, prepared a soup, while someone else stir-fried our selected ingredients. During the entire meal, no Western-style barbecue sauce came to the table, threatening to rope our foods into its thick, super sweet sauce.

We ate from common dishes, and I observed this practice my entire stay in Korea. People truly shared their meal with each other, and in a leisurely, conversational fashion.

I had unforgettable food experiences. I ate some of the best ice cream, savored a honey-sweetened quince tea, (with shreds of real quince), and let myself be comforted by a roasted sweet squash stuffed with mushrooms. I tried exotic foods, including deep-fried octopus rings, and I had my taste buds, and my sinuses, blasted out of the restaurant on several occasions. But I grew to love Korean cuisine.

I will never forget those Seoul food experiences, but next time, I'll go easy on those spicy red peppers.

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