glossary – staples for the Korean pantry

  • To make well-seasoned, loud-flavored Korean food, this is a must-have to have in your pantry. If you do not have red pepper paste, no problem. If you do not have red pepper powder, you have a problem. As L.A. Son's Roy Choi says in his cookbook, "You need this stuff. Kochukaru is to Korea what duck fat is to Gascony. You need it for...--everything." And those pepper flakes that you sprinkle on pizza are a no-no. Paprika or finely-ground chili powder from the standard spice collection will do whenever you need red pepper powder for cooking Korean food. However, a lot of the recipes on this blog require coarsely ground red powder, so I highly recommend investing in some of the Korean brand ones. Remember: look for ‘coarse’ flakes. Try to look for the small green seal marked “HAACP” (passed via Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) on the package--this indicated that the product has been certified sanitary and organic by KFDA. Refrigerate or freeze when not in use.
  • When made to think about red pepper paste, you may be conjuring dduk-bok-gi. Am I right? Or those fusion tacos you get at those gourmet restaurants? Well, I hate to break it to you, but half of that sticky red sauce you savor every time with dduk-bok-gi is made up of red pepper powder instead. Yep. All those fiery stews you may have set your eyes on? It’s not merely go-chu-chang. This jam-like paste is another staple worth investing in when it comes to Korean food, although I don't consider it the most necessary. Keep in mind that some of the peppery paste concoctions can get quite sugary, but some are mellow, some fiery, some--let’s face it--fake. A cheaper price tag does not yield better taste either. Sempio (has a red hexagonal logo) or Hae-chan-deul brands suffice. Be sure it’s a product of Korea or USA.
  • Roasty. Toasty. Smoky. And slightly nauseating. This is the aroma of sesame oil. You can’t miss it. "Ginger. Garlic. Scallion. The trinity. ...One of my professors at the Culinary Institute of America used to always say, 'GGS!'" Roy Choi recalls during his chef education days. I don’t entirely disagree with him, but the ginger component, when added to any dish, has a Chinese bent to it. So, no ginger please. The new more applicable trinity to Korean food is the following: garlic, red pepper chili powder, and sesame oil. GRS. Say it with me. GRS. Yes. Add any one or a combination of this so-called ‘trinity’ to a Korean dish haphazardly, you’re bound to have something good. I promise.
  • Packed with doses of ocean-infused sodium, sae-oo-jut is a salty, addictive condiment that most Koreans use in kimchi or in any side dishes. If you’re familiar with soondae, you may recognize that one of the dips involve a little bit of these delicious mini-shrimp. These go well on a top of steaming white rice and a dash of sesame oil. Everything but basic.
  • Japanese soy sauce (shoyu) with wheat or soy sauce without wheat (tamari) is ideal for dipping rather than for cooking, in my humble opinion. If you can't access Korean soy sauce, you can make do with a standard everyday soy sauce (e.g. Kikkoman) sold at most grocery stores. With Chinese soy sauce, I'm still learning. Korean soy sauce. There are technically two types of soy sauce that Korean households use. One type is called Jinganjang, and it’s relatively new.  It’s relatively similar to Japanese soy sauce. The other, Gukganjang (‘guk’ meaning soup/broth) is more traditionally-based and often homemade in Korean homes. Generally, Gukganjang is good for cooking and brewing. I use the Sempio brand. As a substitute for soy sauce, you may find that Liquid Aminos all-purpose seasoning works for those seeking alternatives. Beware, though.  This condiment tastes quite salty.
  • Fermented soy beans. A great condiment for stews and for acquiring that pungent, umami flavor.  My second favorite Korean food after rice cake soup is a hearty stew called daenjang jeegae. It’s a stew with vegetables, seafood, tofu, and meats. It's as hearty as you can get on a cold night. I can have it for days. Days, I say. Bon Appetit has an informative piece on daen-jang. As for buying this cheesy brown paste, there are certain brands that stand out, but, cheaper is not always best in this scenario.  Some companies claim authenticity when really they add chemicals and unusually large doses of soy sauce to make their pastes bean-ier, darker, what-have-you. If you are unsure, Sempio, once again, is a good fall back. Although a bit pricier, the refrigerated kinds are not a bad way to go in terms of taste. The ideal pastes, red pepper paste included, are made from companies and vendors that are not conglomerates but rather from small, countryside companies that sell homemade goodness. Why? Because they do it in very small batches. If you're ever around LA and serious about finding good pastes, the Korean Fall Festival in Koreatown has great vendors for this cheesy and oh-so-attractive paste.
  • These are the staples of authentic Korean noodles: Glass noodles. (like vermicelli but thicker and made from sweet potato starch for japchae or tangmyun stew dishes) Rice noodles. (flatter and thicker than the Vietnamese banh pho/hoi or Chinese mai-fun, and it's an another great gluten-free option) Wheat noodles. (all-purpose, pre-packaged somen dried noodles, usually tossed with red pepper paste for spicy noodles or soup) Buckwheat noodles. (capillary-thin with a little potato starch at times for chewiness, but unlike Japanese soba. generally used for naengmyun, broth or spicy kind) Hand-cut flour noodles. (no. not udon-like. this is for the ever-consistent comfort food: kal-guksu meaning knife-cut noodles)
  • White. Brown. Black. Mixed grains. Sweet rice. We Koreans have it all. One type of rice we do not use: long grain rice. Ever. Key word: sticky. For added health benefits and for tradition’s sake, Koreans usually add assorted beans and grains (black beans, quinoa, green peas, millets, etc.), or chunks of chestnuts to their rice. On certain occasions, such as the ever-prevalent birthday morning meal of seaweed soup, we make rice that consists of sweet white rice and (azuki) red beans. To cook white short-grain rice, use the rice cooker, but if need be, a standard pot is fine.  Unless you want to end up with risotto-like goo, the less water, the better. Wash thoroughly. Repeat. Wash thoroughly again. It's ideal to soak the rice, for at least 20 minutes before cooking it. This induces the rice grains to get bloated which then yields softer, chewier rice.
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  • There has been a little more stringency on sanitary preparation with store-bought kimchi. If made well by the right vendors, store-bought kimchi is almost as good as homemade kimchi. If you need to go there, you go there. No worries.
  • Whenever I am referring to zucchini in a recipe, I am not referring to Italian squash.  A dear friend indeed, but if you would like the more authentic experience with your dishes, try to use the Korean squash, sold at all Korean grocery stores. Sometimes known as grey squash, Korean squash is rounder and thicker in width than that of Italian squash and closer in flavor to a pumpkin or a kabocha. If can’t get a hold of Korean squash immediately, our friend—the svelte, dark green, cucumber-lookin’ Italian squash—will be happy to be chosen.
  • Mooncakes: in China and most other regions of Asia call them so. Part snack food, part confection, part meal, these chewy morsels of loveliness reign supreme in any Korean’s life. Rice cake cafes are abundant in metropolitan areas of Korea. Now if only we could get a Sprinkles or SusieCakes franchise, something with omnipresence, that sells Korean rice cakes ubiquitously in the states. Wherever you end up trying to acquire some rice cake booty, be wary of the sweet ones because they secretly scream inauthenticity. Oh, and if you’re trying to make ddukbokki (spicy rice cakes) or ddukguk (ovalette rice cake soup), try to avoid the refrigerated ones at the grocery store or the ones that add other ingredients (potato starches for example) to the mix. 100% rice content is what you should be looking for. Buy the ones from the rice cake bakeries. They will be much fresher.
  • Is it Japanese nori? No. So… it’s similar though? Yes. Can it be used instead? Absolutely. Nori is not roasted generally, but Koreans usually roast their squared seaweed/laver sheets when used in their dishes (not referring to the pre-seasoned snacking kind sold in stores). Yes, even for kimbap. Remember, there are no rules here. There are many types of seaweed ‘paper’ in Korea. Even in the states, there are many self-proclaimed seaweed snobs who track down the most well-made, unfettered laver sheets. Some 'geem' have many splotchy, bumpy holes in them; some look like exquisite, smooth black papyrus wrapping paper. Pa-rae geem, Dol geem, Jae-rae geem, you name it. Use what you have access to.  Let’s keep it easy-peasy-seaweedy.

Anna W. Yi © 2017. All rights reserved.

Anna W. Yi © 2017. All rights reserved.
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