There are several staple items necessary to successfully embark on a journey of Korean cooking. You’ll find that with just a few ingredients, you’ll be able to transform your cooking.
Click/tap on an image to see a larger version.
Similar to fish sauce, Korean anchovy sauce is a savoury seasoning used to give depth of flavour and umami. It is traditionally used mainly for making kimchi, but do feel free to add a splash to various soups, stews, and vegetables. This essential condiment is made from fermenting raw anchovies with sea salt, and is cloudier, darker, and funkier than other fish sauces. It is a fundamental and essential ingredient in kimchi.
APPLE VINEGAR (Sagwa-shikcho)
Naturally fermented apple vinegar is popular in Korean cooking, partially due to its alleged health benefits and digestive properties. Its delightfully tangy and crisp notes can be used to lift and balance dipping sauces, dressings, and marinades.
Asian Pears (Bae)
Asian pears, also called Nashi or apple pears, are one of the sweetest and most popular fruits in Korea. Round like an apple but much larger, and texturally like a crisp pear, these large fruits are ambrosial and delectably juicy. The most famous ones are from the southern town of Naju, and these varieties can grow as big as melons. Eaten fresh or used to marinate meats, or even in kimchi, these pears are wonderfully versatile.
BLACK SESAME SEEDS (HEUKIMJA)
Widely used to bring colour, texture and nutty flavour to Korean dishes; perfect for sprinkling over white fluffy rice for contrast. These healthy seeds are rich in oil and so are most effectively stored in a fridge or freezer to prevent them from spoiling.
Brown Seaweed (Miyeok)
Miyuk is a dried seaweed that is considerably thicker than kim but thinner than kombu or dashima. Like dashima, it comes in long packets, but it’s texturally much more wrinkly and twisted in appearance. It can also be found pre-cut into strips, and expands greatly as it soaks in liquid. Miyuk is used for soups, especially the famous birthday Seaweed Soup, Miyeok Guk.
Citron Tea Syrup (Yujacha)
This marmalade-like citron syrup or honey is often used for making tea. Technically, it is not citron but yuja, known as yuzu in Japan, a fragrant and floral citrus fruit that tastes something like a lemon crossed with a tangerine. I use this for tea as well as in desserts and savoury dishes.
CORN SYRUP (Mul-Yeot)
Used in Korean cooking as a sweetener, this syrup is clear, thin and somewhat interchangeable with rice syrup.
Doenjang (Korean Soya Bean Paste)
This dark brown and richly flavoured paste is made from fermented soya beans, and has a 2,000 year history. It is coarser (often contains whole beans) and stronger in flavour than its Japanese counterpart, miso. The soya beans are boiled, pressed into blocks called meju, and then hung to dry using dried rice stalks, which are rich in bacteria (bacillus subtilis) that starts the fermentation process. Once the meju is fermented and dried enough (depending on the size, up to 50 days), the blocks are placed in salted water and allowed to ferment further, for up to 6 months. Once the process is complete, the liquid is drained off – this is used to make soy sauce. The remaining bean pulp is then made into doenjang. This paste has a deep, rich, salty flavour that goes a long way in soup, stews, marinades and dressings.
Dried Anchovies (Myulchi)
Dried anchovies come in several sizes. Use the large ones for making broth, removing the head and innards beforehand. The tiny and smaller ones are stir-fried with honey and soy and other flavourings to make Crispy Anchovies for a very tasty banchan (side dishes).
Dried Black Soya Beans (Seoritae)
Korean black soya beans are the base for another fundamental banchan side dish, kongjorim. Sweet and salty, this side is surprisingly addictive.
Dried Chilli Threads (Silgochu)
These intricate fiery threads look much like saffron, but are longer and more wiry. Made from thinly sliced chillies, silgochu add a dramatic colourful touch as a garnish, as well as heat.
Dried Kelp (Dashima)
Dashima, also known as kombu, are dried sheets of kelp, and are often used with dried anchovies to make a classic Korean stock. This base makes for an umami-filled, rich broth that tastes of the sea. It is akin to chicken broth in the West, and my mum uses this stock instead of water to add to kimchi.
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms (Pyogo Beoseot)
Add dried shiitake mushrooms to dashima broth and you’ll have an even more umami-infused, rich broth.
Fresh Korean Chillies, Red and Green (Gochu)
Korean chillies have evolved into their own species, and are closely related to the bird’s eye chilli. Ironically, the much-loved chilli is not indigenous to Korea, but was introduced to the country in 1615 via Portuguese missionaries travelling with Japanese troops. Red or green in colour, they are medium-spicy and used fresh, dried and ground. Koreans love spice in their food.
Garlic is a staple ingredient in Korean cooking. It is eaten both cooked and raw and used in every- thing from kimchi to barbecue marinades to dipping sauces. It adds a punchy hit of flavour and is full of antioxidants. I use so much garlic that I often just buy the pre-peeled fresh cloves from the chilled section at the supermarket. My favourite quick way to ‘mince’ garlic is to grate it on a fine rasp or microplane.
Ginger is another primary ingredient in Korean cooking, and is usually freshly minced alongside garlic when making marinades, sauces, soups and stews. Traditionally extracted for its gastrointestinal properties, this fresh root has a warming, zingy and fiery taste to it.
Asian Ginseng has been used since ancient times as a medicine. The root is aromatic with liquorice and earthy undertones, and is used in various soups and broths for its tanginess and nutritious goodness.
Gochugaru (Korean Chilli Flakes)
This staple ingredient is made from dried Korean chillies. Traditionally sun-dried, deseeded and then crushed, this staple chilli flake is used ubiquitously in Korean cooking and is an essential ingredient in many dishes, including Korea’s national dish, kimchi. Gochugaru comes in several varieties: mild to spicy, and coarse or fine. I like to stock up on vibrant red, medium spicy, coarse flakes. I use it as my go-to chilli to sprinkle on top of everything from pizza to veggies. Store it in an airtight container in your freezer to keep it fresh and its pungency intact.
Gochujang (Korean chilli Paste)
This fiery red chilli paste is most commonly made from gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes), dried fermented soya bean powder (meju garu), sweet rice powder and salt. Sometimes honey or sugar is added as well. After this paste has been left to ferment, the richness and complexity of the flavour comes out and makes for a uniquely Korean chilli experience. It is used throughout Korean cooking and is completely versatile. Use it right out of the box or cook it down; it doesn’t matter. This paste can be used in anything you want to give a little spice, and serious flavour.
Jujubes are dried Chinese red dates, used to flavour soups, teas or desserts. They taste more reserved, not as sweet or sticky as Medjool dates.
This Japanese mayonnaise is slightly different from American or English mayonnaise, mainly because it’s made with only egg yolks (opposed to whole eggs) creating a distinctively rich creaminess. Apple or rice vinegar is also added to help balance and add tang.
No meal in Korea is complete without kimchi on the table. Currently, there are officially 187 different varieties of kimchi, and the average Korean consumes about 40 kg (about 88 lb) of it a year. This national dish is made from seasoned and usually brined vegetables that are then left to ferment. This fermentation process creates a notable complex flavour that incorporates spice, tang, sweetness and an addictive crispy texture. The best-known variety is made from Korean cabbages or Chinese cabbage. Kimchi is most often eaten raw, but you’ll find it incorporated into soups, stews and stir-fries, and the liquid, or kimchi juice, can be used to make a killer Spiced Kimchi Mary.
KOREAN BLACK PEPPER
Korean black pepper is subtle in taste and finer than common black pepper. Koreans use black pepper to give dishes a soft aroma, and is usually found in barbecue marinades, soups, and stir-fries.
Korean Chinese Cabbage (Baechu)
Korean Chinese cabbage is the main ingredient in kimchi. Chinese cabbage is longer and leafier than its round, hard Western counterpart. The Chinese variety found in Korean shops is also much larger than those found in regular supermarkets. Korean Chinese cabbages are huge and usually about 2.2 kg (5 lb) each. Look for crisp leaves (not wilted), a firm head and unblemished white ribs. When preparing, remove the tough outer leaves.
Korean Hot Mustard (Gyeoja)
Korean yellow mustard is hot and spicy, much like English mustard. It comes in both powdered and prepared forms. As the prepared versions can vary greatly in their spiciness, I prefer to use the powder for my dressings and marinades.
KOREAN PANCAKE MIX (BUCHIM GARU)
It’s not difficult to make pancake (Pajeon) batter from scratch, however Korean home-cooks regularly use commercial pancake mix for ease and optimal flavour and texture. The mix comprises of wheat flour, corn starch, rice flour, baking powder and seasoning for the ultimate crispy and addictive pancake.
Korean Radish (Mu)
Korean radish is large, greenish and fat, unlike its long, skinny, white counterpart, the mooli or daikon radish. It has a lower water content, too, so the flesh feels denser and has a slightly spicier taste as well. You can substitute mooli if you cannot find Korean radish. Use in soups and stews and for making kimchi.
Korean Sweet Potato (Goguma)
Korean sweet potatoes have reddish skin and whitish flesh. They are sweeter and softer than Western sweet potatoes, and a bit longer and knobbier in appearance. In Korea, they are a common street food snack, either simply roasted and served up in brown paper bags or fried into an addictive sugar-coated snack called mattang, Candied Sweet Potato Wedges.
Lotus Root (Yeongeun)
All parts of the lotus plant are used in Korean cooking, but the roots are the most common. Resembling the spout of a watering can, the roots are both a gorgeous garnish and tasty addition to many dishes. As a side dish, pickled, candied or deep-fried, its crunchy texture and mild flavour make it a popular ingredient in Asian cuisines.
MATCHA POWDER (NOKCHA GARU)
Nokcha garu or matcha is a finely ground powder derived from green tea leaves. Traditionally the powder is served as a tea, but modern Koreans use it to infuse, sprinkle over, and flavour a wide variety of foods and desserts.
Usually described as a cooking wine, mirin (aka mirim) has a sweet flavour and low alcohol content. It is used in numerous applications in Korean cooking. It’s widely available at regular supermarkets, but if you cannot find it, feel free to substitute lemon-lime-flavoured fizzy drink.
Koreans add mixed grains to a variety of dishes to enhance flavour, texture, and to benefit from the nutritional value. Mixed grain rice, similar to multigrain bread, is a staple food in Korean households.
MIXED GRAIN POWDER (MISUGARU)
Mixed grain powder is made up of several roasted grains including barley, rice, soybeans, corn, wheat and sesame seeds. It is commonly added to water or milk to make a nutritious health drink (Misu), which is considered to be high in vitamins and low in calories.
Mung Beans (Nokdu)
Whole mung beans wear a green skin. When the skin is removed and the bean is split, their dark yellow flesh is revealed. Mung beans and their sprouts (sukju) are commonly used to make pancakes called bindaetteok.
Perilla Leaves (Ggaennip)
Perilla or sesame leaves are not to be confused with the Japanese shiso leaf, which is smaller and more jagged around the edges. Although they are also referred to as sesame leaves, they actually do not come from the sesame plant. Perilla leaves have a slightly minty flavour and are thicker and heartier in texture. They are rounder than shiso leaves and often have a deep-purple fuzzy under- side. Use them as ssam (wrappers) for meat or make them into a version of kimchi. I like to toss them into salads for a welcome fragrant note or even muddle them into a cocktail.
PERILLA OIL (DEULGIREUM)
Derived from cold pressing perilla seeds, this nutty oil is a rich source of fatty acids. It is commonly used in Korean cooking as a base for dipping sauces, for pan frying, and seasoning vegetables. Drizzle on top of various dishes to give a earthy nutty flavor with anise and liquorice undertones. It can also be bought in toasted and untoasted varieties, with the toasted kind boasting a stronger flavor and darker golden brown.
Persimmons (Gam), Fresh and Dried
There are two kinds of persimmons found in Korea. One is the soft, heart-shaped, astringent ‘sour’ persimmon, hongsi, or Hachiya in Japanese. It is quite pulpy and must be ripe before eating. The other is the ‘sweet’, squat and hard in texture dan gam or Fuyu persimmon. It boasts a pumpkin-like flavour and can be eaten like an apple. There is also a popular flat, seedless version of the hongsi called bansi. Persimmons can be dried and used to make dessert drinks such as sujeonggwa, Cinnamon and Persimmon Punch, or when frozen they can be made into a sorbet-like dessert. They are also used to make wine, vinegar and biscuits.
PLUM EXTRACT (MAESIL CHEONG)
Korean green plum extract is a type of fragrant green plum (maesil) syrup which is widely used as a sweetener in many dishes including dipping sauces, marinades and Kimchi. It can also be used as a cordial and made into a refreshing iced tea drink.
PLUM TEA (MAESIL-CHA)
Similar to green plum extract, green plum tea can be mixed with water to create a hot or cold drink. Plum tea is made from plums and honey, has a jam-like consistency, and is usually found in a jar.
Pork belly is a very popular cut in Korean cooking. It finds its way into stir-fries, soups and barbecue. Either cut into slabs for bossam or samgyeopsal, or thinly sliced for bokkeum or barbecue, pork belly marries well with Korea’s national dish, kimchi, and another staple ingredient, ginger.
Rice (Ssal: raw, Bap: cooked)
Many different types of rice are consumed in Korea, but the most popular and prized varietyis white short-grain rice. Short-grain rice is fat, roundish and when cooked the kernels stick together (but not as much as ‘sticky rice’), giving It is a satisfying toothsome quality. Rice symbolizes wealth, purity and prosperity. White rice, in particular, was the food of the noblemen, while the peasants ate the cheaper brown rice mixed with grains. Korean rice is cooked with just water, and no flavourings are added. It has also been completely stripped of all its nutrients, in favour of a white pearly complexion. It is also very common to mix rice with pulses or other grains such as amaranth, spelt, barley or oats, as well as other kinds of rice such as black, red or brown.
Rice Cakes (Dduk)
These dense, cylindrical rice cakes are served in a variety of ways, including in soups (traditionally on New Year’s Day), stir-fries and straight up from the grill. I grew up loving their toothsome, chewy texture. Made from glutinous rice flour, they come in various widths and shapes and are used in both savoury and sweet dishes. The cylindrical sticks must be pulled apart before using. They are also often sold sliced into discs called ‘ovalettes’. Fresh rice cakes are perishable and must be used quickly after buying; they can also be frozen (wrapped well) for later use.
Rice Flour (Ssalgaru)
I use a lot of rice flour to add crispiness to any- thing fried. If used solo as well, it can keep your meal gluten-free. Note that rice flour and sweet rice flour (aka glutinous rice flour), are not the same and are not interchangeable. Sweet rice flour (chapssalgaru) is ground from glutinous rice and yields a completely different (stickier and chewier) texture and end product. Ironically, despite its name, glutinous rice is gluten free.
RICE SYRUP (ssal-jocheong)
Rice syrup is the darker coloured, and nuttier alternative to corn syrup. Koreans use this syrup as a sweetener and also to add a shiny glaze to dishes.
Roasted Seaweed (Kim)
Koreans eat a lot of seaweed in various forms. Kim (or gim) is probably the most popular and can be bought ready-made and used as a wrapper, but differs greatly from nori, its Japanese sister. Kim is much thinner, seasoned delicately with salt and lightly toasted, giving it a crispy, addictive quality.
Throughout this book, I’m using sea salt. Korea, however, has a long tradition of artisan salts of numerous varieties. Korean solar salt, cheonil- yeom, is particularly fortified with minerals and cultivated in a meticulous way. I also like the aged bamboo salt, jukyeom, of the south. These special salts, however, proved too hard to find to call for in these recipes. If you do find yourself in a Korean supermarket, try to seek them out for a pleasant surprise.
Salted Shrimp (Saewoo Jeot)
These tiny salted shrimp are used in kimchi, but they are also incorporated into seasoning banchan, soups and stews. They are very salty, so rinse and drain well and use sparingly. You’ll find the flavour is quite intense, adding serious depth to whatever you add these tiny shrimp to.
SEAWEED SNACK (GIMJABAN)
Claimed to be healthy due its vast assortment of vitamins and minerals, seaweed snacks are very popular in Korea, mainly because they taste so good. They usually come roasted, salted with a sprinkling of sesame oil, making it the ultimate bar snack; perfect with a cold beer. Sprinkle on top of rice or use in desserts like my seaweed shortbread.
Sesame Oil (Chamgireum)
This earthy oil is used as a flavouring rather than to cook with. Made from roasted and ground sesame seeds, it has a unique nutty aroma and rich distinguishable flavour. A little goes a long way, and sometimes a quick drizzle is all you need to give a dish that final flourishing touch of finesse. When purchasing, make sure you buy 100% pure sesame oil as there are many cheaper blends that are quite muddled in taste.
Sesame Seeds (Kkae)
Koreans use sesame seeds (both black and white) in copious amounts. The white variety is more common, and you can buy sesame seeds pre- roasted and crushed in Asian supermarkets. If you can’t find them pre-roasted, a quick toast in a frying pan or oven will do the trick as well. Use them as a garnish and in dipping sauces to enhance the flavour with a bit of crunchy texture. I like to use a mix of whole and ground seeds for a contrast of textures, both visually and to the bite.
Short Ribs (Galbi)
Beef short ribs are the cornerstone of the famed Korean barbecue. Sliced either along the ribs, butterflied or thinly sliced around the bone, this marbled cut is tender and full of flavour. Blocks cut between the bones are used for stews that are cooked until the meat pulls away from the ribs.
Although soju is referred to as Korea’s rice wine, it is not a wine. Soju is a distilled spirit similar to vodka. In its purest form it is made from just rice and water. It is the most consumed alcohol in the world, which gives you an idea as to how much Koreans drink!
Soy Sauce (Ganjang)
Another fermented product, soy sauce, is the by-product of making doenjang. There are many different kinds with various uses. Dark soy sauce is used for heartier dishes, while the lighter variety is used for seasoning vegetables. Through- out this book, just use regular soy sauce, as the different varieties can be hard to find. Naturally aged soy sauces are the best, but can be expensive. The older and higher-quality the soy sauce, the richer and deeper the flavour – think umami.
Soya Beansprouts (Kong Namul) and Mung Beansprouts (Sukju Namul)
Soya beansprouts are served in everything from soups to banchan. They have large, yellow, crunchy heads, skinny whitish stems and a long root that should be snipped off. Soya beansprouts are slightly sweet and have a great firm texture even when cooked. The bright yellow heads are the best part. They are a vital ingredient in many soups and stews and a very popular and healthy banchan. Greenish mung beans produce sprouts that have small, unremarkable heads and fatter, watery stems. Mung beansprouts are most commonly used in banchan, pancakes and salads.
Sweet Potato NOODLES (Dangmyun)
These noodles are made from sweet potato starch and become transparent and glassy when cooked. They are satisfyingly stretchy and hold a bite to them; perfect for tossing in stir-fries such as japchae, soups and salads.
Tofu (Dubu), Silken, Soft, Medium, Firm
Koreans love the soya bean in all forms, and tofu (dubu) is no exception. It is considered a staple source of protein and is eaten with or without meat. It is a food in its own right and not considered a vegetarian-only ingredient. Also known as beancurd, tofu is made from pressing soya milk curds mixed with a coagulant into blocks. There are numerous varieties, but the main types are silken, soft, medium and firm. Silken tofu is the softest due to its high water content. It is used mostly in stews and in the West as a dairy substitute. Soft, medium and firm tofu are named according to their firmness, the result of the amount of draining and pressing each type has gone through. Use the type of tofu that best suits your needs without it falling apart easily.
TWIGIM FRYING MIX
Frying mix is a type of Korean batter mix widely used for fried foods called twigim. It helps to create a light crispiness and delivers a delicate flavoursome batter akin to tempura.
Twist Peppers (Gwari)
These wrinkled smallish green peppers (shishito in Japan) are mild in flavour. They are good for pickling with soy sauce, eaten fresh with doenjang, or just simply grilled.
Koreans usually use white vinegar as a cooking and pickling vinegar, as opposed to using it for dips and sauces due to its natural flavour and humble price.
Top image: Photo by Julian Hanslmaier on Unsplash