Get to know Korean cooking with James Beard Award finalist Rachel Yang.

By Rachel Yang and Jess Thomson
May 13, 2021
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Rachel Chang with staff at Joule
Credit: Charity Burggraaf

This article is excerpted from Rachel Yang's cookbook My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines.

Introduction to Korean Cuisine with Rachel Yang

Instead of saying "hello" in Korea, we say "did you eat?" It's a good reflection of how important food is Korea.

If a friend is hungry, you feed them. Hot pots are the physical incarnation of that dictum. Served in large bowls (usually in the center of the table on a butane burner), they're meted out with a big ladle into separate bowls for each person and served with rice and banchan. In Korea, it's often the type of meal you share with people when you want to impress them and get to know them, because it's warming and sharable and intensely satisfying. No one goes home hungry.

Get to Know Korean Banchan

When most people imagine Korean food, they picture volume—plates and plates of wildly colored foods, sometimes stacked multiple dishes high, with bowls resting on other bowls. There is no coursing in Korean food, the way there is in other parts of the world. Instead, side dishes, or banchan, come as a series of small plates, often eight or ten on the table at a time. They're sometimes just enough for a few bites per person, but their size often reflects how much you're expected to eat—small dishes are typically salty and spicy, while larger banchan are more saladlike. Traditionally, banchan are meant to be served with rice.

mushroom noodles in bowl with greens and wild sesame seeds
Credit: Charity Burggraaf

Get to Know Korean Barbecue

Kalbi, which simply translates to "short rib" in Korean, is often synonymous with Korean barbecue. Koreans love the marbling so much—the way juicy, tender meat transects firmer cartilage and bone—that it's become one of the most expensive meats there.

A sweet and savory marinade is the best way to tenderize and flavor kalbi. Ours gets its sweetness from a base of Asian pear and onion, along with a bit of mirin. Marinate your meat based on how you decide to cook it. If you want to grill thin pieces, they only need two to four hours in the marinade, whereas larger steaks take four to six hours to get tender, with bigger pieces taking even longer.

In Korea, pork belly is one of the most common cuts you'll see on a barbecue menu; it's cheaper than beef, satisfying in relatively small amounts, and delicious with the simplest sauces. In Korea, you'll often find it served with toasted sesame oil sprinkled with crunchy salt.

Short ribs on wooden cutting board
Credit: Charity Burggraaf

Get to Know Kimchi and Korean Pickles

Pickles, like kimchi, are technically part of the class of Korean foods known as banchan. Eaten as a snack or as part of a larger meal, they're ubiquitous on Korean tables, both at home and in restaurants. Pickles are a great way to add bright, interesting flavors (pickles, like salt, bring out the flavors in other foods); and because pickling foods extends their shelf life, pickles are also an economical way to waste less.

I think in pickles as though they were another language. For me, pickling is automatic—I know that I always use two parts rice vinegar to one part sugar and one part water to make my brine, and that if the pickles refuse to stay under the liquid, I can use a plastic bag filled with water to weigh them down. But what's most important is that, deep down, I know that you can pickle anything, in any way, with any flavor you feel like using. This is why, even though they start with a pretty formulaic brine, pickles can be a great creative outlet.

Shelves of pickles and kimchi
Credit: Charity Burggraaf

Making kimchi consists of two basic steps: salting the ingredient you're using, which softens it and rids it of excess water, and layering it with a chili paste, which flavors the ingredient and provides nutrients for the healthy bacteria that help the fermentation process. Each component serves a specific role. The pear and the onion, which are both inherently sweet, serve as food for the bacteria that give kimchi its hallmark fermented flavor. The ginger and garlic provide flavor and funk, and the salted shrimp, sand lance sauce, and anchovy sauce balance the paste with their deep, earthy flavors. The chili is, of course, for heat and color. In general, kimchi gets spicier as you move southward in Korea. Since I grew up in Seoul, I got used to something in the middle of the Korean spice range.

How to Eat Korean Food

There is a very good reason why Asian chopsticks are often longer than regular forks or spoons: in most of Asia, eating as a group requires good reach. At Korean dinners, it's very common to see the traditional metal chopsticks striking out in different directions on the table; it's not considered rude at  all, the way it can be in America, but instead more convivial.

Clinking as you go for the same banchan dish or colliding while cooking barbecue together over a tabletop grill, chopsticks bring people together in ways forks and knives never can. With the rise of shared plates, the concept of communal eating at a restaurant is more commonplace in America today, but in Korea eating has always been a communal act. At Korean barbecue restaurants, whether they're grilling meat, cutting it, or piling it into tender lettuce rolls, every person at the table is involved. It's a kind of eating rarely seen in the United States. Laughter rolls down the table. Hands get dirty. At the end of each meal, life feels a little more understandable.

sweet and spicy all-purpose sauce poured over rice cakes
Credit: Charity Burggraaf

Rachel Yang’s Sweet and Spicy All-Purpose Sauce

This is a simple and versatile chili paste sauce. Make sure you grate the ginger and garlic extremely finely with a Microplanetype grater. (If you double or triple the sauce, you can use a blender, mixing it in with the rest of the ingredients.)

MAKES 2 CUPS

½ cup Korean chili paste

½ cup mirin

½ cup sake

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger

1 teaspoon finely grated garlic

MAKE THE SAUCE. In a medium bowl, whisk together the chili paste, mirin, and sake to blend. Add the soy sauce, ginger, and garlic, and whisk again until smooth. Store in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 month.

Rachel Yang is a James Beard Award finalist, owner of Seattle's Joule and Revel and Portland's Revelry restaurants, and author, with Jess Thomson, of the cookbook My Rice Bowl: Korean Cooking Outside the Lines.

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