Korean Cooking Guide
Ingredients and Cooking Basics

Table of Contents

Introduction to Korean Food History and Guide

Some people say Korean food is difficult to make. This is because most Americans do not have basic ingredients and condiments semi-prepared and stored for long term use because these ingredients are often daily used when cooking Korean foods.

If there is no semi-prepared ingredients (which some of them you can get from Asian market, by the way), preparing each and every ingredient for each Korean dish will take a lot of time and effort. For example, minced / crushed ginger, garlic, and green onions are often used in Korean recipes. Same goes for half crushed sesame seeds mixed with sea salt. Soy sauce and soy paste are a must.

Having crushed/chopped garlic, ginger, green onion in quantity in the refrigerator will save a lot of time. Later, there will be more explanation about how to prep semi-prepare ingredients and store it for long term.

Also, Korean foods do not have to be spicy. The hot pepper came to Korean peninsula some time during 17th century. That was when the Korean food became spicy. Previously, none of the dishes were spicy. Also, because more the 1500 years, Korea was Buddhist country, meat was not the prime choice of cooking ingredient.

So the real traditional Korea food does not use much of hot pepper or meat. In most of the dish that requires hot peppers, meat and/or fish, hot peppers and meat can be omitted, unless the main ingredient of that dish is the meat or fish – in which case, it can be replaced with fake meat / soy protein / wheat protein / grinded beans.

When hot pepper was first introduced in Korea, it was used to pickle stuffs. It was also used to start gastric acid of stomach for poor peasants who are tired after work and didn't have much appetite due to hard day's work. Therefore, spicy food was food for poor people. Sweet food was food for nobles – as was also in Europe.

Other then condiments, there are food ingredients that are often used in Korean cooking. For example, tofu is usually included in majority of Korean soups and frequently used in other recipes. If you want to cook Korean foods often but living in an area where tofu is expensive or hard to get, then your option is make your own tofu.

Thankfully, there is packaged tofu that you can buy from online stores such as amazon.com. This type of tofu that is packed in carton can be stored for indefinite period of time.

All Korean dishes are meant to be eaten with rice, except noodle dishes (but Japchae is meant to be eaten with rice, despite of being a noodle dish, because it is considered as a side dish), porridge, deserts, and rice cakes. So if you don't know how to cook rice in oriental style, here is link how to cook perfect oriental rice.

You can of course eat these side dishes without rice, but with rice, a new taste is brought about which cannot be achieved just by eating these side dishes or rice alone. Some side dishes are also very good with steamed / boiled potatoes.

In fact, the most basic of Korean main dish is a bowl of rice and a soup. This is the most basic of all, and many poor people in old days would eat a meal only with these two. Also during early spring, when rice was in shortage, barley was replaced for the rice. When barley went out, it was replaced by potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables.

So rice bowl and soup is the basic of all Korean dishes, and side dishes are added to this. The more number of side dishes on the table, the wealthier the person was. There is Korean name for a meal with rice bowl and soup with a number of side dishes. It is called "Jung-sik."

"Jung means straight, correct, upright, right way, etc., "sik" meant meal, eating, menu course, etc. So Jung-sik is really a "standard meal." The basis of all jung-sik is rice bowl and soup. Number of side dishes increases their numbers start with adding condiments as side dishes, such as soy sauce, soy paste, and pickle to adjust the taste for rice and soup. Vegetables are next on the list, then fish and meat.

Number of side dish increases by odd number 3-5-7-9. This is because during Yi Dynasty (called Chosun) which lasted approximately from 15th century to 19th century was Confucious society which has philosophy that males were better then females. What does that has to do with odd number? In Oriental numerology, odd number is considered as masculine and even number as feminine.

When Korean culture and history is studied thoroughly, one would notice that Korea was not such an extreme discriminatory society against women with heavy taboos relating sexual issues up until 15th century. That was when Yi Dynasty was established which decided Confucius as the ruling philosophy. And all others were considered as superstitious garbage, including Buddhism.

If any Korean meal has main dishes that are not rice and soup, they are not Jung-sik. For example, Naeng-myun noodle dish is main meal by itself with no side dishes – though nowadays, if you go to restaurants, there are side dishes coming out with Naeng-myun. Also, Japchae is not a main dish, but a side dish even though it is a noodle dish.

This means since Korean BBQ is coming with rice and soup, it is a type of Jung-sik, and BBQ is not the main dish, it is the side dish!

Also, there are rules of eating order. When one eats, first dip the spoon into soup – this is to prevent rice from sticking too much on the spoon. Then, eat the rice once then any side dish once alternatively so. One should not just keep eating side dishes or keep eating rice. This is because side dishes and rice are meant to bring flavors together.

All the side dishes are cooked with this in mind. This is why all the side dishes are little saltier and spicier then western dishes because they are meant to be eaten with rice!

The only thing you can eat multiple times without trying any side dish or rice is the soup.

In Korean foods, there are essential ingredients in cooking but there are also many other ingredients that can be omitted or replaced with other ingredients and make the similar or better taste then original.

These are required and recommended foods and condiments you should have around kitchen if you cook Korean food at least 2-3 times a week. The most well known names are listed for these ingredients whether they are English, Korean, or Japanese.

If the ingredients are not common in western cooking and it is not well known with Korean name, then the name in a parenthesis is Korean name. The English words in parenthesis right after Korean characters are phonetic way to pronounce the Korean words.

I couldn't get International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for all the Korean words. When that was the case, I used "what-you-see-is-what-you-read" method for the pronounciation. For those of you who don't know how to read IPA, click on this link.

Knowing how to read Korean characters can be useful if you are living near H-Mart or any Asian market which carries Korean brand items.

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Equipments You (may) Need

  • Good rice cooker (I recommend Aroma or Zojirush Rice Cooker) – Recommended if you can't or don't have patient to watch over cooking rice.
  • Blender and Food Processor
  • Vegetable slicer (Mandoline or Spiral Slicer. I recommend Progressive International HGT-11 Folding Mandoline Slicer and World Cuisine A4982799 Tri-Blade Plastic Spiral Vegetable Slicer) – Korean cooking needs a lot of thin slicing and dicing of vegetables, so unless you can handle a knife like chief, it is well worth to get one. It saves a lot of time and labor.
  • Juicer or Soy Milk Maker – Recommended if you live in area and have no access to store which sell tofu or what they sell is expensive. Soyapower Plus soy milk maker, which is also rice milk maker and nut milk maker is good brand to buy. Plus you can make all rice milk and nut milk you want with this machine.

    Juicer is another good machine to have if you are going to make a lot of vegan milk and/or tofu. How the juicer is used in making milk and tofu, look at How to Make Tofu.
  • Sushi Maki Bamboo Mat – only need it if you are going to make gimbap / sushi.

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Essential Condiments

These are most often used condiments to make soup and side dishes. With these condiments you can make almost any ingredients into Korean soups and side dishes.

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Soy Sauce (간장: gaan-jaang)

I recommend Nama Shoyu brand. Average soy sauces you see in supermarket have artificial preservatives and numbers of carcinogenic.

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Soy Paste (된장: doenjang)

Either Doenjang or Miso will be fine – Americans tend to like mellow miso, which is soy bean paste fermented with brown rice. There are many different types of soy pastes. I know at least 20+. I recommend Miso Master brand.

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Soy Paste Varieties

    Doenjang (된장: [tøndʒ͡aŋ] or [twendʒ͡aŋ])
    Doenjang is a traditional Korean fermented soybean paste and used in soup. It is also eaten with rice with lettuce, as a dip mixed with garlic sesame oil, honey, gochujang and others, similar to dipping raw vegetables into cheese. Such dipping is called Ssamjang.

    Doenjang soup is called Doenjang-Jjigae which usually includes tofu, various vegetables, onions, scallops, mushrooms, sea foods, red meats, and etc.

    Doenjang is rich in flavonoids and beneficial vitamins, minerals, and hormones which are anti-carcinogenic. It also has good amount of lysine, an essential amino acid that rice lacks. Doenjang has 53% linoleic acid and 8% linolenic acid. Both of these acids are important in growth of blood vessels and prevention of blood vessel related diseases.

    Miso (みそ / 味噌)
    Miso is a traditional Japanese soy bean paste by fermenting soybeans with salt and other grains such as rice, barley, rye, buckwheat, etc. There are at least 10 different kinds of miso according to what kind of grain or vegetable it has been fermented with soybeans.

    Fermenting is done by the fungus kōjikin (麹菌). Fermentation time ranges from as little as five days to several years. For mellow miso, Miso Master brand by Great Eastern Sun is recommended. It is organic, kosher, made in traditional way, and aged in 1 and ½ years – you can't beat that.

    Cheonggukjang or Chung-gook-jang (청국장: [tɕʰʌŋɡuk̚tɕ͈aŋ])
    Cheonggukjang is made by fermenting boiled soybeans in above room temperature. Its fermenting time is only a few days and used in soup. It is also used in dip, but not as often as Doenjang. Cheonggukjang is most often used to prepare a stew, which is also simply called cheonggukjang.

    Cheonggukjang is rich in vitamins and other nutrients. It also aids digestion, though its very strong odor similar to strong cheese, which is not enjoyed by everyone. Doenjang may be used to replace it by people who dislike its smell.

    Making Cheonggukjang is same as making natto with one key difference. For how to make Cheonggukjang, click here.

    Natto (なっとう / 納豆 )
    Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. When natto is crushed and mixed with sea salt, it is Cheonggukjang. Natto is not exactly a type of soy paste, but it can be used in making a soup.

    Natto has a nutty, savory, and somewhat salty flavor. Cheonggukjang and Natto is rich source of protein, vitamin K2. They contain Vitamin PQQ (Pyrroloquinoline quinine – vitamin which is very important for skin). They also have Pyrazine is a compound (this nutrition is responsible for that distinct smell) and a serine protease type enzyme which reduce blood clotting.

    These two compounds help to prevent heart attacks, pulmonary embolism, or strokes. A 2009 study in Taiwan showed that this enzyme also has ability to degrade insoluble fibrous protein abnormally deposited in the body, which suggests that it could be used as a treatment for diseases such as Alzheimer's.

    Cheonggukjang and Natto also contains many chemicals that prevent cancer such as daidzein, genistein, isoflavone, phytoestrogen, and the selenium. Most of these chemicals can also be found in other soy bean products such as soy paste. Recent studies show natto may also have a cholesterol-lowering effect and antibiotic effect.

    They are good diet food due to low calorie content (approx. 90 calories per 7-8 grams of protein in an average serving). Natto is sometimes used as an ingredient of pet food, and it is claimed that this improves the health of the pets. For more information about natto nutrition and how to make it, click here.

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Gochujang (고추장) = Hot pepper Paste

Gochujang is fermented hot pepper paste. It is mixed with cooked rice powder soup and malt. When it is made, it can be eaten right away, or let it age to be fermented, or is mixed with doenjang to be fermented to make Makjaang.

Although I listed it here as an essential ingredient, gochujang is really not a necessity in making Korean food, not even in kimchi (although that may shock some people). Gochujang was first used in Korea in the late 1700s, after chili pepper was introduced through Japan in the 16th century.

So keep in mind that gochujang was not an essential part of Korean food until 300 years ago or so. Korea has over 4300 years of history and for over 4000 years, the Korean cuisine was prepared and enjoyed without hot pepper. Also for the health purpose, I do not use much of gochujang either.

In this website Gochujang is not in the ingredient list for recipes although I may indicate that one can use it in the recipe. Spicy stuffs are mild neurological stimulants (neurologists won't say so, but in Oriental medicine, it is) and only should be taken moderately if at all. It can also be damaging to inner lining of mouth, stomach, and intestine as you would know when you go to bathroom to take a dump.

It is not the cause of ulcer but it definitely make ulcer worse. It can also cause heart burn because spicy food stimulate over production of stomach acid.

Here, I am particularly talking about capsaicin (and not other spicy compounds), which is the chemical compound responsible for hotness in hot pepper.

Not all spicy stuffs are bad. Gingers are good for health and can be eaten for moderate amount. Gingers also have stabilizing effect for upset stomach, as opposite to hot peppers. Indeed, the chemical compound for ginger's hotness and hot pepper's hotness are different.

In ginger, it is gingerol (1-[4'-hydroxy-3'-methoxyphenyl]-5-hydroxy-3-decanone) and shogaol. In hot pepper, it is capsaicinn (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide). In garlic, it is allicin (2-Propene-1-sulfinothioic acid S-2-propenyl ester), which the spiciness is lost when cooked.

Gochujang can be useful in couple of ways. First it helps produce stomach acid to help digestion. Second, according to oriental medicine, it makes nutrition delivered faster to the body. I recommend if you want to use hot pepper, use it little bit and/or replace with ginger / garlic, and/or red bell pepper for spicy taste and red color.

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Oils Used

    Vegetable Oil
    Any regular vegetable oil would do. However, for health reason, it is best to use non-refined, expeller pressed, non-chemical extracted oils. Extra virgin olive oil is sure way to get a good type of cold pressed oil.

    Sesame Oil(참기름: chaam-gi-rm)
    Only use unrefined cold pressed / expeller pressed sesame oil. Spectrum Organic make good quality of sesame oil.

    Perilla Oil(들기름: dl-gi-rm)
    Perilla is sometimes regarded as wild sesame, but to be precise, perilla is not wild sesame, but perilla. Only use unrefined cold pressed / expeller pressed perilla oil because perilla oil is very rich in omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) fatty acid, about 50 to 60% of it is omega-3. It is readily destroyed through application of just little bit of heat.

    Perilla oil is very rich in flavor as well, so it is excellent condiment for Korean vegetable dishes.

    Unfortunately Perilla oil is rarely sold in US supermarket and most of Perilla oil in Asian supermarket is extracted by heating perilla seeds.

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Other Essential Condiments for Making Side Dishes

These condiments are most often used in making side dishes for Korean foods. With these ingredients, almost any vegetables, fish (mock fish), and meat (fake meat) can turn into Korean side dishes.

Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds are used as 깨소금 (kkae-so-gm) or as plain sesame seeds. Plain sesame seeds are called 깨 (kkae) 소금 (so-gm) is salt in Korean, so깨소금 (kkae-so-gm) means sesame seed salt. kkae-so-gm is mostly used in making side dishes. It is also used in makig 주먹밥 (Ju-muhk-baap), means hand rice. Ju-muhk-baap is rice mixed with kkae-so-gm in round shape.

To make kkae-so-gm, crush slightly toasted sesame seeds and half crush them, then mix it with sea salt. Korean grocery stores and supermarket such as H-Mart sells sesame seeds this way. They also sell plain sesame seeds. You can, of course, use plain sesame seed instead of kkae-so-gm.

I would recommend you get sesame seeds as raw and use it as raw for nutritional value. You can lightly toast it without oil too. It can be also grinded up half way mixed with sea salt, then stored in a freezer. Use it by putting it in a shaker.

Most Koreans use toasted sesame seeds, but I don’t recommend toasted seeds because any heat application to food destroys valuable enzymes and denature fatty acid if the food is oil rich. Sesame seeds, being oil rich, should be used as raw.

For easy use, grind it in a food processor in a quantity and store in a container. You can also store ginger by blending it with soy sauce to make ginger soy sauce.

Grind a quantity in a food processor like ginger, and store in a container. You can also store garlic by blending it with soy sauce to make garlic soy sauce. Garlic can be made into pickles by submerge it into soy sauce – either put it as whole or half cut (You can do the same thing with onions by the way).

After 2-3 weeks, garlic's color changes brown like soy sauce. This pickle, you can eat it with plain rice. What's so good about this is that you can eat garlic raw, with all the benefit of raw garlic without spiciness of raw garlic. For garlic, onions, cucumbers, and other Korean pickling recipes, click here.

Green Onions
Mince them in food processor or by hand and put them in a container. Then either put oil or soy sauce a little bit. Mix it and press it down then put it in the refrigerator. This way, green onions lasts for a couple of month.

******************************************************** You can make a lot of Korean soup and side dishes with these essential condiments. Take a look at the list of recipes below with above condiments – click on each links for the recipe.

*List coming soon*

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Brown or White Rice

Organic or eco-farmed brown rice is strongly recommended. White rice is devoid of nutrients and makes blood acidic. Lundberg eco-farmed brown rice is an excellent choice. If you know what eco-farmed means, click here. If you want to read longer version of what it means, click here. To get Lundberg brown rice, click here.

For direction to how to cook oriental short grain rice, click here.

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Tofu (두부: doo-boo), is an essential ingredient in all Oriental cooking. It is especially important in vegan diet as it is so versatile in texture and taste.

Whole Foods and Trader's Joe sell a pound of organic tofu for less then $2. Also you can get tofu off the internet.
If you think buying is too expensive, you can make your own tofu – click here to read more. If you have right equipments, it is not that hard.

For tofu dish by itself, firm tofu is used. For soup, medium to soft tofu is used. In Chinese and Southeastern cuisine, "tofu noodle" is also used.

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Seaweed is one of the essential ingredients in all Oriental cooking. I listed the types and uses of seaweeds in great detail on this page – click here to read more.

Dashima: 다시마[daa-si-maa] (Oriental Kelp, Laminaria Japonica)

    This is kelp is better known as Kombu in America. It is called Dashima(in Korean. It is primarily used in getting flavor for the soup. It is also used to make a side dish by thinly slicing it, then marinate with vinegar, salt (recommend using unrefined sea salt), sugar or maltose (recommend using raw sugar / unrefined maltose), and sesame oil (recommend using unrefined sesame oil)

    Most are sold as dried, which is good for storage. Dashima is especially important for vegan because it would replace fish sauce and meat stock, which are often used in Korean recipe nowadays.

Mi-Yuk / Miyeok: 미역 – Oriental Kelp, Undaria pinnatifida
    There are many types of kelp, but the particular kelp that is used in Korean cooking is Undaria pinnatifida, also called Wakame in Japanese.

    Miyeok is used in making soup (hot and cold), side dishes, and ssam.

    Whole Foods has it, but they tend to be expensive. You can get cheaper in Asian supermarkets. In general, H-Mart has high quality seaweeds and kelps in good price.

Gim: 김 – Red Alga, Porphyra yezoensis (Also known as Purple Alga, Laver)
    More widely known in Japanese name as nori, gim is used as toppings for soup, side dish, and gimbap.

    You can get good quality gim cheaper in Asian supermarkets. In general, H-Mart has high quality seaweeds and kelps in good price.

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Dried Shitake Mushrooms (표고버섯: pyo-go-buh-sut)
Get them from Asian supermarket since it is cheaper that way. If you want to buy organic shitake mushroom, go to Whole Foods or Trader’s Joe. H-Mart (Korean supermarket) always has shitake mushroom but I am not sure if it has organic shitake mushroom. Dried shitake mushroom is rich in vitamin D whereas not dried shitake mushroom does not.

Other Mushrooms
Regular mushroom can be used in Korean recipe instead of shitake mushroom, but shitake mushroom is most often used in Korean cooking. Other mushrooms that are used fairly frequent are listed here for the reference.

  • Oyster mushroom

  • Golden Needle Mushroom
      Chinese name: 金針菇 (jīnzhēngū) or金菇 (jīngū)
      Korean name: 팽이버섯 (paengi beoseot)
      Japanese name: エノキタケ (enokitake)

  • Wood ear mushroom
      Chinese name: 木耳 (pinyin: mù ěr, literally meaning, "wood ear" or "tree ear")
      Japanese name: キクラゲ (ki-ku-ra-ge)
      Korean name: 목이버섯 (mok-ii-buh-suht)
    *Wood ear mushroom retains slight crunchiness despite most cooking processes.

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Kimchi (김치: [kimtɕʰi] or [kɪmtʃi]), also spelled gimchi, kimchee, or kim-chee in English.

Kimchi dish can be used as very versatile cooking ingredients. It is a traditional Korean dish, made of mainly either Chinese cabbage or Daikon, with garlic, ginger, sea salt, Gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste), green onions, and other seasonings, and vegetables. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi. It is also the most common 'side dishes' (= Baanchaan) in Korean cuisine.

A note about side dishes in Korean foods; they do not have same role as in Western side dishes. These side dishes are always eaten with the rice, which is the main dish (soup is also a main dish). They should also be eaten with rice in order to bring full flavor of the side dish. Kimchi is also used as a main ingredient for many popular Korean dishes.

It has been said Kimchi is healthy food due to beneficial bacteria present from fermented process. About 800 million lactobacillus is present per 100gram of ripe kimchi. Lactobacillus is a type of bacteria beneficial to our gut. When making Kimchi, sea salt, must be used, never refined white salt.

Sea salt brings true kimchi flavor and also is rich in mineral. Due to high salt and mineral content, bad bacteria do not grow but only the beneficial lactobacillus takes over the food. Kimchi is high in calcium, phosphorus, iron and other minerals along with rich vitamin A and C.

It is worthy to note that beneficial bacteria present in food made from animal, when they reach to gut, only 20-30% survives where as beneficial bacteria present in vegetarian source, when they reach the gut, 90% of them survives.

This beneficial health effect however, is set off by fish sauce and hot pepper in the food. Fish is not healthy food – even wildly caught ones. To read more why fish is not a healthy food, click here. Also high sodium makes kimchi as a food which should not to be eaten in large quantity.

However, you can get same benefit by making your own Kimchi with little or no hot pepper, and certainly no fish sauce. Anybody who went to a site that makes fish sauce can never eat it again because most of facilities are not up to hygiene standard – like most of meat industries are.

For Kimchi recipe without fish sauce and hot pepper, click here.

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Sprouts are used to make side dish, soup, and Korean style dumplings. Most often, Chinese and Korean grocery store sells them. You can also grow your own in sprouting machine like any other sprouts. When you grow them, make sure they don't see any sunlight, otherwise they would become tough to chew.

  • Soy Bean Sprouts (콩나물: kong-naa-mool)
      Soy Bean Sprouts Recipes
      Coming soon.

  • Mung Bean Sprouts (숙주나물: sook-joo-naa-mool)
      Mung Bean Sprouts Recipes
      Coming soon.

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Other Often Used Ingredients

  • Onion
  • Potato
  • Carrot
  • Green Squash
  • Kirby (can be replaced with regular cucumber)
  • Fake Meat – This will replace either beef or pork in original ingredients.
  • Daikon radish (무: moo)
  • Oriental Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Glass Noodle / Clear Noodle(당면: daang-myun)
    This is either made from mung bean or sweet potatoes. Make sure you check the ingredients if you do not want to eat corn because at times clear noodle is not made out of sweet potato starch, but from corn starch.

    This is also the case with other types of noodles as well as maltose, which are both frequently used in Asian and Korean dishes.
  • Maltose Syrup (엿: yeot) – get unrefined brown rice maltose syrup.

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