Korean dishes you didn't know you should be ordering

Over the last few years, Korean cuisine had soared in popularity in the U.S., exploding out of Koreatowns in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other cities on the back of praise from foodies and chefs and the rise of the Korean wave throughout the West. The Korean government has gotten behind it, promoting specific dishes like bibimbap and bulgogi. But there's more to Korean food than just grilled meat, mixed rice, and slightly sweetish beef strips. Here are some lesser-known Korean cuisine wonders, beginning with sure-fire hits and slowly getting more … adventurous.

Dakgalbi

Galbi means "ribs" in Korean and refers to a number of different things. Sogalbi (beef ribs) and dwaejigalbi (pork ribs) are both wise choices at Korean barbecue. There's even gogalbi, a spicy grilled mackerel dish from Busan, technically containing ribs. But the galbi I always come back to is dakgalbi (chicken ribs). Don't give me that look: it's a spicy stir-fried chicken dish, so you won't choke on a chicken rib.

Dakgalbi originates from the city of Chuncheon in the 1960s. As usual, there are conflicting claims over how the dish originated, but the official line is that pork restaurateur Kim Yeong-seok ran out of pork due to a shortage. He got a hold of some chickens instead and decided to prepare them in the same way he usually cooked pork ribs. His customers loved the results, and other restaurants soon began to sell their own versions.

Boneless chicken is marinated in a spicy gochujang sauce for 7-8 hours and then stir-fried at the table with vegetables like cabbage, sweet potato, carrot, and perilla leaves, along with other extras like rice cakes or noodles. Some places will even top the whole thing with cheese, which some find a bit too much but I definitely enjoy sometimes.

Dakgalbi is a great meal option if you want to eat and drink Korean-style but don't feel like barbecue. It's a protein-heavy and spicy delight pairing well with beer or soju. One of the things I most enjoy after dakgalbi is ordering the fried rice and having the stray sauce and scraps incorporated into a second course. Some might find that gross. Me, I call it delicious efficiency.

Gamjatang

After a few late-night drinks, gamjatang is probably one of the best dishes to fortify yourself. This pork spine dish is believed to have originated in the South Jeolla region, where hogs were raised in greater numbers than other parts of the country and more commonly consumed than cows, which were considered too valuable for plowing and milk to slaughter on anything but the most special occasion. In 1899, the dish became popular among workers building the first railroad between Seoul and Incheon, and spread from there.

Pork spine is the backbone of this dish, slow-cooked until the meat is tender and falling off the bone. There is a common misconception that "gamjatang" means "potato stew" because the Korean word for "potato" is "gamja," but this is a misnomer. The "gamja" in "gamjatang" likely refers either to the (delicious) pork spine marrow or the section of the spine used in preparing the dish.

Stripping the meat from the bones is a finicky process to be sure, but it's well worth it for the flavor. It may not be pretty, but the meat closest to the bone is best and some consider the picking process part of the appeal. The broth is savory and spicy, flavored with perilla seed powder, perilla leaves, scallions, and garlic, with green cabbage leaves and the occasional potato making an appearance. This hearty and nutritious dish was a favorite of hard-working farmers in the old days, and today among hard-working taxi drivers (who always know the best restaurants). Some believe the perilla seeds promote brain cognition, so it might be brain food! It's definitely a popular hangover cure either way. Gotta keep the surviving brain cells healthy!

Sundubu jjigae

Tofu gets a bad rap in the west, seen as an inferior meat substitute with a disappointing texture and bland flavor. This is madness. Understandable, but madness. Sure, "coagulated bean curd" doesn't sound appetizing, but it's amazing when done right.

Sundubu jjigae is a great way to convert a tofu skeptic. Sundubu means "pure tofu," an uncurdled and unpressed tofu often referred to as soft or silken tofu, which gives you an idea of the texture. The tofu used in this dish is believed to originate from Gangwon province, following a genius decision to combine springwater with seawater to make a softer, fresher tofu. Turning it into a spicy stew just made it all the better.

The spicy stew comes in varieties to satisfy vegetarians as well as meat-lovers, including beef, pork, seafood, dumplings, and many more. The tofu is cooked in a bewilderingly delicious concoction of red pepper powder, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, spring onion, and other ingredients, and spice levels can be adjusted to taste. The dish usually arrives in a glazed earthenware bowl or dolsot stone pot at a piping hot temperature. Restaurants usually have fresh eggs to crack straight into the bubbling broth to cook. Sensible people crack a single egg, I have been known to double down on the egg. (On one particularly hungover morning, I cracked a total of four eggs into my dolsot before the waitress started glaring at me.)

And at about 200 calories per bowl (not including the rice and side dishes), it's healthy, too.

Andong jjimdak

Andong jjimdak is a seasoned and simmered chicken dish from the city of Andong in the province of Gyeongsangbukdo. Andong is a historic center of Korean Confucianism, and some have attempted to link its famous chicken dish with the illustrious past, a specialty food eaten by the elite in olden times. But things appear to be a bit more mundane. Sometime in the 1980s, restaurateurs in the Andong's Chicken Alley developed a new dish using ingredients that were affordable and popular. Much of the creative impetus behind this dish might have been the struggle to maintain position against an influx of Western fried chicken chains.

So while the Colonel may have played a greater role in the genesis of this dish than Confucius, it doesn't matter. It's delicious, and little known outside of Korea. "Jjim" means steamed, stewed, or braised in a sauce, and there are a number of braised chicken dishes called jjimdak. Andong jjimdak is cooked in a soy sauce with the fiery notes of chungyang red pepper, and the flavors and colors are very different from the bold redness usually associated with Korean spicy food. These flavors are readily absorbed by the potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables, as well as the wonderfully textured glass noodles.

Dakdoritang

Another chicken dish worth sampling is dakdoritang: chicken, onions, potatoes, and other vegetables marinated and braised together in a thick red spicy sauce combining gochujang chili paste with honey powder. It has had some issues with preferred nomenclature, based on the idea that "dori" comes from the Japanese word for "bird" and so the dish should really be called dakbokkeumtang (chicken stir-fried stew) or dakmaeuntang (chicken spicy stew). Some believe the word "dori" actually derives from the Korean verb "dorida" (to cut out), and in my experience most restaurants prefer it to "dakdoritang," because it sounds less awkward and more appetizing. At any rate, it is a wonderful thick spicy-sweet stew and should be beloved by all.

Samgyetang

Many cultures believe in chicken soup as a cure-all, but Korea takes it a step further with samgyetang. This dish is traditionally eaten on chobok, jungbok, and malbok, allegedly the three hottest days of the year, falling in June and July on the lunar calendar.

Samgyetang is a relatively simple dish: a young chicken less than 50 days old is stuffed with glutinous rice, peeled chestnuts, and jujubes, then cooked in a ginseng broth seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, green onions, ginkgo nut, and occasionally more obscure ingredients like milk vetch root or wolfberry. Some purists hold the ginseng should be aged 3-5 years and come from the ginseng-cultivating Geumsan region. Each of these ingredients is said to have its own health benefits: chicken is high in protein and essential amino acids while ginseng is said to boost the metabolism and have other benefits. According to traditional medicine, garlic supposedly detoxifies the body, jujubes quench thirst, and ginkgo nuts "protect" the lungs … somehow.

You may well ask why Koreans eat a boiling hot chicken dish during the hottest days of summer, but it really comes down to a "fight fire with fire" mentality, the idea that eating cold foods in summer makes the internal organs cold and out of balance with the rest of the body. Samgyetang is said to replenish the nutrients lost through sweat and give people back their lost stamina.

Whatever the justification, it's delicious any day of the year. And think about it. It's not too often you can get away with saying, "I just ate a whole chicken. I'm so healthy!"

Haejangguk

I'll be honest. Where I'm from, we believe the best food cure for a hangover is greasy: pizza, preferably leftover, or maybe something custom-made at Burger King for the meat sweats. But Koreans prefer soups for a hangover and considered my greasy choices to be madness. Having often combated these particular feelings, I've changed my mind. The Koreans know what they're talking about.

Haejangguk translates to "hangover soup" or "soup to chase away a hangover." The soup has a long history, with antecedents in the form of seongjutang ("soup to get sober") from the Goryeo dynasty and hyojonggaeng ("dawn bell soup") from the Joseon dynasty. Today, haejangguk comes in many varieties with a few unifying elements: cabbage leaves, meat or seafood, chili powder or peppers, and vegetables in a hearty broth. It is said the spiciness helps boost the metabolism and expel toxins from the body through the sweat glands.

One of the most popular versions is sunji haejangguk, known for its energizing slabs of congealed cow or pig blood. If you can't handle that one, there's also the popular ppyeodagwi haejangguk, which contains ox tail or pork spine and somewhat resembles our old friend gamjatang. Another option is kongnamul haejangguk, stuffed with bean sprouts. Other varieties contain ingredients as varied as shredded or sliced beef, puffer fish, dried pollack, or even marsh snail.

I know what you're thinking, "Cow's blood? Tripe? Marsh snails? When I'm hungover?!" Trust me. If you've indulged yourself too much, just set Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" to play in the background and tuck into a bowl of haejangguk. You'll thank me for it.

Naengmyeon

Naengmyeon literally means "cold noodles," and that might be enough to turn a lot of people off. But on a hot summer day, nothing beats a chilly bowl of naengmyeon.

Naengmyeon noodles are made primarily from buckwheat, a cultivar first introduced by the Mongols which became popular due to the difficulty of rice cultivation in the frigid northern climate. The first mention of Naengmyeon as a dish describes it as being popular in winter thanks to the ease of chilling it outside and eating it inside while seated on warm, ondol-heated floors. The dish started to spread south during the 1920s and exploded in popularity along with the influx of northern refugees following the Korean War. Thanks to modern refrigeration and restaurant culture, naengmyeon is today considered a quintessential summer dish.

There are two varieties of naengmyeon. The first is mulnaengmyeon, believed to have originated in Pyongyang. Buckwheat noodles are served in an icy chicken or beef broth flavored with dongchimi (a radish water kimchi) and garnished with thinly sliced cucumber, Korean pear, slices of pork or beef, and half a hard-boiled egg. Mustard and vinegar is then added according to taste (sensible advice is to add these sparingly in order to preserve the flavor of the broth, but I tend to be very liberal, just pouring them in while cackling.)

The second variety is bibim naengmyeon, believed to have originated in the city of Hamhung, cold noodles served in a sweet and spicy red chili sauce. These noodles are usually chewier and firmer due to a higher percentage of potato, sweet potato, or cornstarch. Still, both varieties of naengmyeon are pretty hard to chew through, so restaurants usually provide a handy pair of scissors to cut the noodles into manageable sizes.

This dish is a tough sell to many non-Koreans, but it's worth acquiring a taste for. Some might say the whole concept of cold noodles is suspect, but what about pasta salad? This is way better than pasta salad.

Budae jjigae

One might wonder what Spam is doing in an acclaimed Korean dish, but the fact it translates as "army base stew" should give some hints to its tragic history. During the Korean War, American soldiers stationed in the country were well supplied, so U.S. Army ration leftovers were often scavenged or purchased by starving locals. Faced with bizarre American processed meats like Spam and hot dogs, Koreans combined them with garlic, kimchi, gochujang, and noodles to create something resembling a traditional stew. This became the basis of army base stew, which was sometimes known in the early years as Johnsontang, or Lyndon B. Johnson Soup. In the aftermath of the war, American foodstuffs were smuggled off-base by those with PX privileges, despite dangers: during Park Chung-hee's dictatorship, Spam smuggling was punishable by death.

Today, Korea is a developed economy, and yet army base stew remains highly popular, associated strongly with the city of Uijeongbu (famous in the US as the setting of M*A*S*H). Modern budae jjigae retains the American influence of the past, including baked beans, macaroni, and American cheese, as well as Korean ingredients like rice cakes and glass noodles. This combination of American and Korean flavors works distressingly well considering where it came from. You will believe Spam can sing.

If you don't believe me, take it from renowned chef and culinary adventurer Anthony Bourdain, who said of budae jjigae: "Like I used to say to my first girlfriend: how could something so wrong be so right?"

Jokbal

Yes, we're into pig's feet territory now. But it isn't just Koreans who like them. Boiled and pickled pig's feet are part of the Southern U.S. soul food tradition. Bavaria has its crispy pork knuckles in beer sauce. Korea has jokbal.

Jokbal is associated with the Seoul neighborhood where restaurateur Yi Gyeong-seon combined the traditional pig's feet recipe from her northern home town with Chinese five spice. Her "Pyeongan province jokbal" attracted many displaced northern refugees, and other restaurants in the area were soon copying her success. The braised pork trotters are served with a salted shrimp sauce and lettuce leaves, and while the texture takes a bit of getting used to due to the high gelatin content, it pairs very well with spirits for a late-night snack. The dish is said to contain high levels of chondroitin, believed by some to have anti-aging properties, and is also popular among young mothers, as the high protein content supposedly promotes the secretion of breast milk.

Bossam

Bossam is a dish associated with jokbal, and restaurants often specialize in both dishes. Bossam is pork (usually pork belly or pork butt) boiled in a broth containing bean paste, garlic, leeks, and rice wine to reduce its gaminess. It is wrapped in vegetables leaves (salted napa cabbage, perilla, or lettuce leaves) along with radish salad, salted shrimp, ssamjang sauce (combining spicy gochujang with fermented doenjang bean paste), sliced garlic and chili, and even oysters. If you're anything like me, you'll try to fit as many different elements into one leaf as possible.

Bossam's origins are linked with gimjang, the preparation of kimchi for the long winter. This laborious work was done by the lower classes, so the lazy yangban noble class staved off resentment by donating a pig for a feast served with all the prepared kimchi. Now you can enjoy this tradition without the feudal undertones and with your drink of choice. (You should choose soju, trust me.)

Gopchang

What, you don't want to eat intestines? If you've ever had a traditionally made sausage, then you already have.

Gopchang is cow or pork intestine, and it is a wonderful thing. The 17th-century Joseon doctor Hojun claimed the high levels of iron and vitamins in beef intestines meant they promoted strength and stamina, warded off diabetes, and were good for the skin. Some say that during the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula, the Japanese took every good part of cattle except the intestines, which the Koreans grilled. Initially the Japanese thought the Koreans were barbarous for eating the intestines, but after trying it decided it was quite good after all.

Grilled gopchang is amazing: fatty and flavorful. Be warned: it's chewy, but that's just part of the charm. It may look scary raw, but if the quality is good (and the intestines have been thoroughly cleaned to remove odor), it's a treat. Once the intestines are cut up into mouth-sized pieces and sizzling away over hot coals, your mouth will be watering. It also works really well stir-fried or in a jeongol hot pot as seen above. And of course, like all the best Korean dishes, it goes great with soju as its greasiness helps line your stomach and break down alcohol.

Some people might need a drink for courage anyway.

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