Korean cuisine has evolved through centuries of social and political change. Originating from ancient agricultural and nomadic traditions in Korea and southern Manchuria, Korean cuisine has evolved through a complex interaction of the natural environment and different cultural trends.
Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables, and meats. Traditional Korean meals are named for the number of side dishes that accompany steam-cooked short-grain rice. Kimchi is served at nearly every meal. Commonly used ingredients include sesame oil, doenjang (fermented bean paste), soy sauce, salt, garlic, ginger, pepper flakes, gochujang (fermented red chili paste) and napa cabbage.
Ingredients and dishes vary by province so there’s not one unified idea of what Korean cuisine is. That’s part if it’s charm. Historically, Korean royal court cuisine brought all of the unique regional specialties together for the royal family which did unify many aspect of various dishes. However today foods are still very much regulated by Korean cultural etiquette.
Korean foods can be largely categorized into groups of “main staple foods” (주식), “subsidiary dishes” (부식), and “dessert” (후식). The main dishes are made from grains such as bap (a bowl of rice), juk (porridge), and guksu (noodles).
Many Korean delicacies rely on fermentation for flavor and preservation, resulting in a tangy, salty, and spicy taste. Certain regions are especially associated with some dishes (for example, the city of Jeonju with bibimbap) either as a place of origin or for a famous regional variety. Restaurants will often use these famous names on their signs or menus.
Soups are a common part of any Korean meal. Unlike other cultures, in Korean culture, soup is served as part of the main course rather than at the beginning or the end of the meal, as an accompaniment to rice along with other banchan or small side dishes. Soups known as guk are often made with meats, shellfish and vegetables. Soups can be made into more formal soups known as tang, often served as the main dish of the meal. Jjigae are a thicker, heavier seasoned soups or stews.
Kimchi refers to often fermented vegetable dishes usually made with napa cabbage, Korean radish, or sometimes cucumber, commonly fermented in a brine of ginger, garlic, scallions, and chili pepper. There are endless varieties with regional variations, and it is served as a side dish or cooked into soups and rice dishes. Koreans traditionally make enough kimchi to last for the entire winter season, as fermented foods can keep for several years.
Korean Barbecue is the popular method of grilling meat, typically beef, pork, or chicken. Such dishes are often prepared on gas or charcoal grills built into the dining table itself. Some Korean restaurants that do not have built-in grills provide customers with portable stoves for diners to use at their tables. Alternatively, a chef uses a centrally displayed grill to prepare dishes to order.
Noodles been eaten in Korea from ancient times, productions of wheat was less than other crops, so wheat noodles did not become a daily food until 1945. Jajangmyeon, a staple Koreanized Chinese noodle dish, is extremely popular in Korea as fast, take-out food. It is made with a black bean sauce usually fried with diced pork or seafood and a variety of vegetables, including zucchini and potatoes. It is popularly ordered and delivered, like Chinese take-out food in other parts of the world. Ramyeon refers to Korean instant noodles similar to ramen.