I Drank the Fish Water
December 18, 2012
How Korean Food Surprised Me
Before I ever landed in Seoul I was nervous about Korean food. Based on the Wikipedia description, kimchi sounded disgusting. Fermented cabbage? Are you kidding me? After seeing all manner of alien creatures in my friend’s photos from the fish market I ruled out seafood. I’m also a wimp when it comes to spicy food so I figured that I might be in for two weeks of rice and McDonald’s. And while take out happened (I blame stress of lost luggage and a hangover) I discovered a lot of tasty dishes that I’m now craving back in Canada. Who knew? Apparently a lot of people, since Korean food became a worldwide food trend this year. So how did Korean food really surprise me?
Meals are often communal
I was eased into Korean food with some cooked-at-your-table barbeque. Rather than everybody ordering individual meals, one order was placed for the whole table. We each had our chopsticks, a spoon and glasses but that was it. I was ok with using my chopsticks to pick at the side dishes and meat but the single bowl of soup for four people threw me. But when in Korea… dip in. The communal thing can make it a bit tricky if you’re a solo traveler unless you can pack away a pound of grilled meat on your own.
A note about Korean chopsticks: they have their own unique challenges as a food delivery tool – they’re flat, which makes it easier to accidentally fling your food across the table. Thankfully I didn’t embarrass myself with my novice chopstick abilities.
I knew that Thai food can be spicy, as can Indian. The westernized Chinese food I’ve had isn’t and, as far as I know, Japanese isn’t packed with spice either. So I was surprised to learn how many Korean dishes are spicy. Kimchi especially. I expected it to be sour but wasn’t ready for the spicy bite. Koreans really seem to love their red chilies. You’ll see sack upon sack of dried chilies for sale in a lot of markets. If you’re served a bowl of soup tinted red, that’s not tomato, it’s red chili peppers so have a glass of water handy.
With the exception of some things like fried dumplings (mandu) or breaded, fried pork cutlet (donkatsu) Korean food is really healthy. Mainly, it’s all meat, rice and vegetables in many different combinations. Even the side dishes (banchan) are all vegetables. You might be thinking “but all that rice? It’s full of carbs!” True, you’ll probably have rice every day when you visit Korea but it’s usually a reasonable cup-size serving or smaller, not a monster bowl.
I also loved that I came away from each meal feeling full but never overstuffed. I attribute this to the grazing nature of the meal along with using chopsticks. It’s hard to stuff your face quickly when using the equivalent of a set of number 2 pencils. They say it takes your brain 20 minutes to realize you’re full. Quite often you’ve shoveled more food into your mouth than you need before that trigger goes off, leaving you waddling out of the restaurant bemoaning how much you ate.
There’s so much variety
Sure, Korean food might be mainly meat, vegetables and rice but there seems to be endless ways that they’re combined. Between soups, stews, grilled dishes, steamed dishes, raw dishes, noodle dishes, rice dishes, savory pancakes and the endless number of side dishes it feels like you could have a Korean meal every day for weeks before you had to repeat something. Even kimchi comes in different varieties.
Every meal has a lot of accessories
Every Korean meal I had came with at least a couple side dishes. The number that show up with your meal will vary depending on restaurant. We had anywhere from three to ten – each one in it’s own dish. Arranging dishes on the table becomes a culinary game of Tetris, especially when you throw in bottles for soju, beer and water. One meal for two people at a nice restaurant in Jeju resulted in 24 bowls, plates and platters and 4 cups. Glad I wasn’t cleaning up. The best thing about the side dishes is that when you find one you like, they will keep refilling every time you clear the plate – no extra charge.
For about the same as a combo at McDonald’s you can have a table full of healthy food and even a bottle or two of soju (similar to a sweet vodka) or beer. Street food can be even cheaper. You can generally pick up gimbap (veggies or other ingredients with rice rolled in seaweed) or dumplings for just a couple thousand won. It’s not unreasonable at all to leave a restaurant with a full belly and a bit of a soju buzz having spent less than ₩15,000 (about $13.75). If you want to save more money you can always order a cheap main course and just fill up on the endless refills of side dishes.
“Fish Water” isn’t bad
A lot of street vendors will have some fish on a stick simmering away in a broth. When you stop to eat at one of these carts, it’s customary for the operator to dip a cup into the broth and offer it to you to drink along with whatever you ordered. Before I ever got to Korea I joked that it would be like drinking the hot dog water back home. Gross. So what did I do when a cup was given to me? Closed my eyes and took a sip of course. It was hot. It was salty. It was fishy. It wasn’t bad actually. Kind of like a fishy miso soup. I can see how it would actually be a good addition to your street food on a chilly night.
One thing Korean food gives you is lots of options. If you don’t like one dish there are tons of others to try. If you don’t like spice you can stick to grilled meat dishes. Not a fan of seafood? There’s always pork, chicken or beef available. Vegetarian? They’ve got you covered there too. If you haven’t tried it yet, you owe it to yourself to give Korean food a chance.
My parting thoughts on kimchi? It’s sour, its spicy…and it’s good!
Have you “drunk the fish water”? What are your thoughts on Korean food? I can’t wait to try even more dishes.