It can be difficult wading into a cuisine you haven’t tried before without any proper understanding. Not knowing what’s in the dishes, let alone how to pronounce them, can be a daunting prospect and can turn many diners away from trying something new.
I am happily on call for many as the ‘Italian friend’ even though I am only ¼ Italian. I proudly explain which cured meats come from which animal, the shape of each pasta, and the ingredients of the sauces, and, if stuck, send a sneaky text to my family for verification. Similarly, I have friends who I turn to, who instruct me on the ways of eating in their own culture.
One friend, who is Korean, has introduced me to some fantastic dishes over the past few years and has taught me the proper etiquette for dining and drinking Korean style.
Whenever I have any questions about Korean food, whether it’s ‘why is fried chicken so popular’, ‘what the heck is kimchi’, and ‘why is Korea so obsessed with rain’, I turn to my gal pal. (The answers-why the heck wouldn’t fried chicken be popular, it’s delicious!, a fermented cabbage and it’s Rain-the badass Justin Bieber of Korea who’s body is twice as ripped as JB and voice 10 times as sultry).
On one recent dinner, my friend introduced me to Bibimbap, which I’d seen plenty of times but never known how to order or what to do with it. Bibimbap is essentially rice, your choice of meat and veggies with an egg yolk sitting on top. Served in a hot stone bowl, you mix the ingredients all together, cooking the egg through the heat from the other ingredients and the hot dish, adding chilli to taste. It’s warming and filling and hits the spot pretty darn quick. The most popular meat topping is Bulgogi, grilled sweet soy marinated beef, although most restaurants serve a variety of different meat toppings.
Another item from Korean cuisine that my friend has introduced me to is soju. Soju can be nasty. It’s basically the Korean equivalent of vodka and translated to English, means ‘burn liquor’. Which is what it does when it goes down your throat. Of course, as with vodka, there are good and bad levels of soju. The latest trend, and one I’m getting behind, is mixed soju cocktails. They are fun!
Whilst soju is quite strong, Korean drinking culture is very respectful, so it’s difficult to get too carried away by the high percentages. Certain protocol governs how the alcohol is poured and who gets served first, with the greatest respect always being given to the oldest at the table. It is very uncommon in Korean culture to drink without food at the table, maintaining a healthy food/alcohol balance that is not as present in our own culture. This comes in handy, however, as ordering alcohol at a Korean restaurant invariably results in free snacks for the table!
Another favourite Korean dish that I unfailingly order each time I go out for Korean food, is the Korean seafood pancake, or hae mool pa jeon. With prawns, squid and chives mixed through a pancake batter that’s spread out thinly across the plate, the seafood remains plump and tasty. The pancake is served with a soy and vinegar dipping sauce, or toss on some kimchi for extra heat.
Whilst trying any cuisine for the first time can be tricky, it can also lead to new discoveries and dishes that become your new favourites. Whether your unexplored field is Korean, or Italian, or something different entirely, exploring their food can lead to improved understandings about a country’s culture and their values. And a new repertoire of dishes to enjoy!
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