Flavours that fill your mouth, loud colours, stews, soups, spreads of vegetable sides, funky, salty, fermented and sweet, Korean cuisine is one of the most vibrant in the world. We've rarely come across a person who didn't take a liking to Korean food, even if we might have had to take them through gently for their first K-dinner experience (kimchi stew - no; bibimbap, bbq - yes).
Was it Roy Choi with his Kogi taco truck rolling around in sunny California that gave Korean food, albeit an Americanised version, the push it needed to enter into the mainstream? Or is the more recent rise of Korean American chefs branching out in their fine dining kitchens to explore the cuisine closer to their roots? Whatever it was, the fact that Guy Fieri's Korean barbecue wing sauce is sold in American supermarket shelves says it all: most of you know Korean food. And you like it.
So you might want to recreate these Korean flavours at home. But trying your hand at a whole new culture of food is no walk in the park, and we're here to help. Before you attempt any Korean recipe, read this guide to the essential pantry items for this cuisine. Consider them as your key ingredients that you will reach for time and time again in any Korean recipe. It all starts here.
12 Essential Items for a Korean Pantry
Spicy, salty, sweet and full of umami, gochujang is a hot pepper paste made from Korean red chile pepper flakes, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt. The underlying sweetness comes from the fermentation process where the glutinous rice is converted to sugars, and is an umami bomb thanks to the fermented soybeans (similar to miso paste). The hot dressing on Korean fried chicken, the mixing sauce for bibimbap, or the red dipping sauce at Korean barbecue - many of your favourite Korean foods are nothing without gochujang. Tip: beware of any brands that label corn syrup in their list of ingredients, they are too sweet and can’t be used for it’s original purpose. Instead, go for the original paste (there are a variety of brands) that come in the classic red rectangular tub format.
Uses: marinades, dipping sauces, barbecue, seasoning banchan, for meat, fish, vegetables
Doenjang is Korean fermented soybean paste, not to be confused with Japanese miso. More pungent than miso, doenjang is salty, earthy, and is the umami that gives tofu soups, vegetables, and stews that extra oomph. Add a good spoonful to a Korean stock made of dried anchovies and kombu to make a full-flavoured stew, or mix it up with a bit of gochujang, garlic and sesame oil to make a classic dipping sauce for a barbecue.
Uses: soups, stews, seasoning banchan, dipping sauces, marinade, for meat, fish, vegetables
3. Ganjang (soy sauce)
Most Asian cuisines have their own version of soy sauce, and Korean food is no different. There are many varieties available and what you pick for your own pantry will depend on what you intend to use it for. Broadly speaking, there is dark soy sauce, and a lighter soup soy sauce. The latter is lighter in flavour and colour so that you can use it in soups without affecting the appearance of it. But for an all-purpose soy sauce go for the dark version: you can always use less of it and supplement the salt level with fish sauce instead.
Uses: seasoning, marinades, dressing, dipping sauce, banchan, for meat, fish, vegetables
4. Gochugaru (ground chile pepper flakes)
Photo Stacy Spensley, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
When a Korean recipe calls for gochugaru, it really can’t be replaced with any other hot chile powder. Gochugaru is made of coarsely ground, sun-dried red peppers and are spicy with a hint of sweet. Gochugaru is added in soups for extra heat, to soy dipping sauce to accompany haemulpajeon, and also goes into many marinades.
Uses: soups, sauces, marinades, stews, banchan
5. Jeot (aekjot)
Korean fermented fish sauce is salty, fishy and comes with a deep umami taste that can add a superior saltiness to any dish. So add a few drops of jeot in soups and vegetable banchan in place of regular table salt. It can also be used in place of soy sauce when seasoning many dishes, and is an essential for making kimchi.
Uses: for seasoning soups and banchan, kimchi
6. Toasted sesame oil (chamkireum)
Sesame oil for Koreans is like olive oil for Italians: it’s the heartbeat of the cuisine. It makes things delicious, and great sesame oil is sought-after and treasured. Even just a few drops can be a game-changer when added to vegetable side dishes (banchan), bibimbap, and even your fried egg. The rich, nutty flavour enhances and also binds the flavours together.
Uses: seasoning, dipping sauces (for example with Korean pork belly barbecue)
7. Myulchi (dried anchovies)
Photo 굿바이 조미료, CC BY 2.0 kr, Wikimedia Commons
Dried anchovies are the backbone of Korean soups and stews. Simmered together with dasima (kombu), this duo creates the standard stock for Korean soups. Choose larger, plump, silver-skinned anchovies and take off the head and guts to remove bitter flavours in the stock. Smaller dried anchovies are often found in banchan side dishes in sticky, salty or sweet sauces and are delicious with a bowl of rice. Store in the freezer once opened if you are not using them frequently.
Uses: stock, banchan
8. Dasima (kombu)
As with myulchi, dasima is half of the golden couple that adds depth and complexity to any Korean soup or stew. This is the same as the variety used in Japanese cooking. Just make sure to remove the kombu once the water comes to a boil to avoid bitter flavours in the stock.
Uses: soup stock, thinner varieties are often found fried and seasoned to be eaten as a snacks
9. Sesame seeds
Nutty little sesame seeds are your best friend - when used as garnish they make your vegetable sides look professional, when crushed they enhance the flavour of just about anything, as its cousin, sesame oil. Toasting them is essential. If you opt for fresh sesame seeds, toast them in a hot skillet, stirring often to prevent them from burning. Expect your home to smell absolutely delicious as well.
Uses: garnish, seasoning
10. Rice vinegar (sikcho)
Acidity is often used in Korean cuisine to balance oily flavours and to cleanse the palate. Some dishes develop a natural acidity from to the fermentation process (such as kimchi), but in other cases, vinegar is used for acidity. Rice vinegar has a lower acidity level and a milder flavour compared to wine vinegar and is the most commonly used variety in Korean cuisine. Many vegetables banchan dishes and dipping sauces use rice vinegar.
Uses: seasoning, dipping sauce for jeon, dumplings, fried foods, pickling
11. Short grain white rice
This is a no-brainer. No Korean meal is complete without an individual serving of rice for everyone at the table. Most Koreans use a short grain white rice that comes unseasoned - the various banchan (side dishes) and soups, meats and stews are well seasoned for balance. Stock up, you can also cross over cuisines and use it for sushi.
Uses: plain rice is eaten at every meal
Last but not least, if you plan to really get into Korean food, you might want to have some garlic around. A lot of it, in fact. Garlic is ubiquitous in Korean cuisine and most Korean homes usually keep a large jar of pre-minced garlic in the fridge, on-the-go. Embrace the garlic breath.
Uses: for pretty much everything