Korean cuisine is diverse, as it has hundreds of dishes that use different kinds of ingredients. Despite being known as a “spicy” cuisine, Korean cuisine is actually more than just its kimchi and spicy “ramyun” or noodle soup dish because there are also dishes that aren’t spicy but are still rich in flavor. The richness of the dishes when it comes to flavor is attributed to the fresh and natural ingredients used to prepare and cook them, and without these ingredients, you would call a Korean dish truly authentic. There are more than 30 ingredients in Korean cuisine, but there are only 15 that are must-haves for almost all Korean dishes. Here are the 15 essential Korean cuisine ingredients.
Some of the classic Korean dishes like kimchi and bibimbap wouldn’t have their signature sweet and spicy flavor without gochujang, a fermented red pepper paste that is made using gochugaru or red pepper flakes and meju or fermented soy blocks. If you are going to buy gochujang, look for the iconic plastic red tub that has served as its container for many years.
While gochugaru is mainly used as an ingredient to make gochujang, it is also essential as a primary ingredient for dry Korean dishes and also as a condiment for pizza and other snacks. Gochugaru is red pepper flakes that are dried so that they won’t retain moisture and have a crunchier texture. Much like gochujang, you can easily buy gochugaru in grocery stores, although a pack of the ingredient is usually contained within a small bottle.
If you want the non-spicy version of gochujang, you can try doenjang, which only contains fermented soybeans crushed into a paste. People typically use doenjang as an alternative to gochujang if they don’t like spicy food, so this ingredient can also be used for bibimbap. Besides bibimbap, doenjang can serve as a dipping sauce for Korean BBQ and lettuce wraps, but it can also be a marinate for stews and different types of meat.
Huchu is the Korean ground black pepper that is usually found in marinated dishes for Korean BBQ. Moreover, huchu is also used as one of the ingredients for tteokguk or rice cake soup.
Another essential ingredient in Korean cuisine is sesame seeds, which are called ggaesogeum in Korea. Sesame seeds are widely used as a garnish or topping for various Korean dishes, but it is primarily an ingredient for chamgireum or sesame oil.
Sesame oil is often utilized in Korean cuisine as a cooking oil when mixed with a neutral oil, and the sesame seeds used to make the oil will bring out a sweet but not too overpowering flavor to any Korean dish. Aside from cooking, sesame oil can also be a finishing oil that can serve as a condiment for meats and other savory dishes.
Baechu is the Korean name for Napa cabbage, a special variety of cabbage that is lighter in color and actually packs more flavor than regular cabbages. Baechu is one of the main ingredients for the common kimchi, and it is also the lettuce wrap utilized for eating Korean BBQ dishes.
Dried seaweed is called gim in Korea, and it is used as a wrapping for kimbap, which looks similar to sushi but is a little bit bigger and usually contains Korean BBQ meat. In addition, gim is also served as a garnish for rice and other dishes.
Besides baechu, another popular ingredient for kimchi is mu, a type of white radish that is common in Korea. While kimchi that uses Napa cabbage is called baechu kimchi, the kind of kimchi that has mu in it is called kkakdugi, and it is usually eaten as a snack.
Rice vinegar is an ingredient and condiment that is made from rice wine, a well-known alcoholic drink in Korea. Rice vinegar is utilized as a dipping sauce for Korean BBQ, kimbap, but it also serves as a flavor enhancer for salads.
Ginger or seanggang is not as important as most of the ingredients in this list, but it is a great ingredient to have if you want to get a bit of spice on your dish or if you want to get tea that will cure your sore throat. The saenggang cha or Korean ginger tea is a popular drink in the country because of its relaxing taste and its effectiveness in treating coughs and mucus congestion in the throat.
Daepa is the Korean name for spring onion, which is supposed to be a larger and much sweeter version of a scallion, another common ingredient in Korea. This vegetable is mainly used as one of the ingredients for vegetable stock utilized for soups or stews.
Dasima is dried kelp or Kombu that is a primary ingredient for broth in order for the liquid to be much richer in flavor. The broth would then be utilized for making soup for noodles or for main dishes.
There are several countries that have their own way of preparing a fish sauce, and in Korea, it actually has different methods of utilizing fish sauce as an ingredient or as a condiment. The fish sauce in Korean is called jeot, and it is the main ingredient used for making mulchi aecjeot or anchovy sauce, and saeu jeot or shrimp paste. The fish sauce in Korea is not as strong as the ones found in other Asian countries, so it is a great condiment that doesn’t overpower the flavor of dishes.
Bap is the term used by Koreans to describe cooked rice, one of the staple grains in Korean cuisine that should be found at every dining table in Korea. Without bap, Korean BBQ and other classic Korean dishes wouldn’t be complete in flavor, so they need to be complemented with cooked rice.
Those are 15 essential ingredients for Korean cuisine, although there are more than you can explore by searching online or by actually visiting Korean restaurants in your city or in South Korea. Try out the flavors brought by ingredients or use them to make Korean dishes at home.