The first thing we did when we were thinking of moving to the lovely Korean shores was investigate the food. As any researcher would we headed for the source of all knowledge, Google. We promptly typed in ‘what is Korean Cuisine?’. Our small town of Bridgend hadn’t quite reached the sophistication of a Korean restaurant. In fact we barely have a Thai restaurant.
We spent hours researching the unknown and fancy things we could consume. Unfortunately our research would produce the same results ever time. Every site told us to try the same things. We knew we were going to live on 비빔밥 – Bibimbap (vegetables and egg mixed into rice with a red pepper sauce) and we knew we’d be trying 김치 찌개 – kimchi jjigae (a spicy red broth with tofu, kimchi and onions). We also knew to expect to snack on 김밥 – Kimbap (rice, veg and meat wrapped in seaweed, similar to a Californian roll). Be warned – never accidentally call kimbap ‘sushi’ or you will have some offended Koreans on your hands. Lastly we were quite confident that fish bones would make an appearance.
Please note that these are exactly the kinds of search results we should have found since they are exactly what we eat each day and I have a soft spot in my heart for them. What no one talks about is the random items that you can find here that are a) better than most other countries and b) completely random and very Korean.
1. 수박 or Watermelon – Fruit and vegetables are extremely seasonal here. You can buy them out of season but they will cost you a pretty penny. When we arrived in Korea we were advised to bring fruit to work as a gift. In the UK if you took some bananas into the office instead of biscuits you’d be shunned by your fellow co-workers but here fruit is so expensive that it’s a delicacy. This doesn’t mean you can’t find it, it’s in most stores but it is expensive and you have to buy in extreme bulk in most cases. It may be the fact you can only get items at certain times, but the fruit just tastes better here. During the watermelon season in June and July I just can’t eat enough of the stuff. It may be in my mind (or my aging taste buds) but the Korean watermelon is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I will miss it so much when I’m gone. A watermelon will set you back about $11 or 8 pounds but it will feed you for a week. It is also great for parties since you can stick a soju bottle in the top of one and let it absorb the alcohol throughout the night for a tasty alternative to a cocktail.
2. 빙그레 or Binggrae Fish Ice Creams – These may look ominous with their less than appealing design but once you try these delicious treats you will be hooked. It is a simple item, wafer shaped like a fish on the outside with soft scoop ice cream and a layer of red bean on the inside. Red bean is something you either love or hate but when it’s made into a jam and put with ice cream its heaven. Many of these will be keeping us going during this hot Korean summer.
3. 땅콩 버터 오징어 or Peanut butter dried Squid – Yes you read that right. I realise that your instinct is to think I’ve made a spelling mistake or that I’ve lost my mind but this is Lee’s favorite discovery in Korea and he has demanded it be listed. I quite like it but he lives on the stuff. This is something you can find in most convenience stores such as 7-11’s and Gs-25’s. It is strips of squid similar to jerky that’s has a distinct peanut buttery flavor. It has a strong smell but once you get over that it is fantastically chewy and delicious. It is the perfect bar snack. In fact some bars serve it in a red sticky sauce that will also tickle your taste buds. If you are in Korea its worth giving it a taste and if you don’t like it, it still makes a fantastically weird present to take home to the family.
4. 만두 or Mandu – This shouldn’t really be on the list since I’m sure most websites will tell you to try mandu at some point but mandu is so good it deserves to be reiterated here. TRY IT! Don’t’ just settle for trying one type, either, try them all. From the small fried pork mandu to the dessert red bean breaded mandu. It is all delicious and addictive. If you aren’t familiar with mandu it is a Korean dumpling. It comes in a few different varieties such as 왕만두 or wanmandu (translated as king dumpling) which is more of a steamed breaded bun with a chive and pork filling, 물만두 or mulmandu (translated as water dumping) which has a thin almost pasta like exterior that’s steamed or 군만두 or Junmandu which is a fried variety. If you are lucky enough to be in the city of Daegu I’d also recommend you try the cities specialty which is 납작만두 or Nabjang mandu. This is very different to normal mandu since it is a very thin sliver of batter fried with chives and dipped into soy sauce. It is perfect to wrap rice in and is a great fried treat. If you see a shop with steam billowing out of tall metal cans you have stumbled on a rare and beautiful mandu house. Try everything!
5. 가나 초콜릿 or Ghana chocolate – Lotte is a huge company in Korea. It owns buildings, theme parks, toilets and chocolate companies. It would be impressive if you came to Korea and didn’t find their name somewhere. You’d expect that a company that has its finger in so many industrial pies would not be a good fit for a chocolate making company but you’d be surprised. For the first few months we lived in Korea Lee refused to eat any chocolate because he was in mourning for Cadburys. Eventually the cravings became too much to handle (he is a complete and utter chocoholic) He ventured into the American market and bought a Hersey’s bar. They sell them readily here in Korea. He was not a happy bunny. If you have grown up on very sweet chocolate Heresy’s can be a bit of a shock to the system. I am a fan, especially of their cookie and cream bars but even I didn’t think it was a good enough substitute so like any normal expats we begged our families to send supplies. This kept us going for a while but the crazy price tag did taint the flavor. Luckily for us a friend of ours came to the rescue. He offered us a Lotte Ghana bar. The bar was red in colour so our British chocolate brains had always just assumed it was dark chocolate but what it was in fact was delicious creamy chocolate. This once again may just be our mirage mechanisms cutting in after a Cadbury’s fast but it tastes really good and it is very satisfying. If you are in Korea and in need of a British chocolate boost this is the closest thing to home and definitely worth a try. It is also great when you melt it down and combine it with peanut butter. Once it sets you have your very own peanut butter chocolate.
So there you have it, five random Korean foods you have to try when you arrive. Obviously there are a stupid amount of things that will make your mouth happy in Korea but these are the surprising finds that make my days (and hung over mornings) happy ones.
What surprisingly good items have you found on your travels? Is there anything you are looking forward to trying in Korea that I haven’t listed or do you miss a particular things from your trips to this lovely country? Let us know your opinions and surprising finds from all around the world.