Korean food is hearty, boldly flavoured and nutritious. However, it can be difficult for vegetarians to enjoy Korean cooking as many dishes include fish sauce or fermented anchovies for both flavor and protein. To make Korean cuisine more accessible to vegetarians and vegans, our inventive chef tutor Lydia Downey has been working on fish and meat-free alternatives to traditional Korean dishes such as kimchi which usually always contain fish.
To help you on your own discovery of Korean cuisine, we’ve put together our ultimate guide to Korean cooking, plus listed some of our favourite vegetarian Korean dishes below. (And for more hands-on fun with vegetarian Korean cuisine, check out our upcoming Korean Evening Courses.)
Koreans are firm believers in eating for health. The idea of food as medicine is strong in Korea and they traditionally forage for wild medicinal herbs to add to their food.
Rice (bap) is central to the Korean meal. The word for rice is also the word for a meal. A bowl of steaming rice and a bowl of soup are always served to everyone at the meal, followed by varied shared side dishes. All dishes are served at the same time. There is no concept of separate courses.
Preserving food by pickling, salting and fermenting is a Korean passion with Kimchi being the most famous fermented cabbage side dish. It usually contains fish but you can make your own vegetarian kimchi at home.
Koreans also follow the oriental rule of 5 tastes: salt, sweet, sour, hot and bitter. Salt comes from soya sauce and bean paste; sweet comes from sugar and sweet potatoes; sour comes from vinegar; hot comes from chilli peppers and mustard; and bitter comes from ginger.
In addition to the 5 tastes, they follow an arrangement of 5 traditional colours of red, green, yellow, white and black, which will ensure a nutritious variety of ingredients. They also spend time beautifully arranging the food in different colours. Presentation is essential to Korean meals.
At mealtimes, respect is ingrained into Korean food culture, so everyone waits until the eldest picks up his chopsticks and you must always accept a drink of rice liquor ‘Soju’ or something stronger from an elder. This can lead to very drunken meals!
To cook Korean dishes at home you will need to buy some special ingredients easily available from Chinese stores or buy online.
Kimchi is essentially Korea's national dish and served with every meal made from fermented spicy cabbage. You can buy it ready made, but it will contain fermented fish unless you buy a vegetarian version from a wholefood store. It’s easy and fun to make at home with our recipe for Vegetarian Kimchi.
Gochugaru Korean chilli powder - either finely ground or coarse flakes and varies in levels of spiciness. It can be stored for months in the fridge or freezer. Used in cooking and essential ingredient for making kimchi.
Gochujang Korean chilli paste, usually sold in tubs. It is thick, sticky and slightly sweet, used in marinades, sauces and dips, and for adding richness and depth to stews and stirfries.
Doen-jang, fermented soya bean paste, similar to Japanese Miso, but more concentrated in flavour.
Daikon/Mooli is a long white Japanese radish called ‘danmuji’ in Korea and used for the filling for kimbap. It's crunchy, with a mild peppery flavour, similar to watercress.
Takaun is pickled mouli, which is yellow in colour traditionally from persimmon peels but more likely now to be yellow food colouring!
Soy sauce is used extensively in Korean cooking much in the same way as Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It adds the essential salty umami element to everything from stirfries to soups, stews, marinades and dipping sauces.
Toasted sesame oil, one of the main flavours used to season Korean dishes. It's strong nutty flavour and aroma has a delicious but distinctive taste, so needs to be added carefully to avoid overpowering the other flavours in the dishes.
Toasted sesame seeds. Many dishes are garnished with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, which give a delicious aromatic crunchy texture. They also work very well in many dipping sauces. Toast the seeds in a hot dry frying pan, and be careful as they will jump about in the pan when ready.
Rice vinegar or rice wine vinegar, a mildly acidic slightly sweet vinegar used in sauces, marinades and dips.
Rice. Shortgrain white rice (sticky or sushi) is the most commonly eaten in Korea. Koreans often cook a very nutritious blend known as 'Five Grain Rice, which can be a mix of white and brown rice with other grains such as millet with aduki and black beans.
Noodles. Sweet potato glass or cellophane noodles are a classic Korean variety used in soups and stews. Similar to Japan, Udon and Buckwheat Soba are also very popular as are regular thin wheat noodles.
Nori is seaweed dried as a flat sheet, make sure you buy toasted for making kimbap rolls.
Tofu is soya bean curd made from coagulated soya milk. The resulting soya curd is then pressed to give tofu. Tofu is sometimes known as soya cheese and is sold as blocks packaged in water. It can be bought as silken tofu, which is soft and creamy in texture, or as a denser, firmer version. The firmer kind may also be purchased smoked or marinated. Tofu tends to be fairly bland tasting and is best used in recipes where flavour is imparted by other ingredients. Firm tofu may be marinated, fried, stir-fried, deep-fried, sautéed, diced and added to salads or casseroles. Silken tofu can be used for dips, spreads, sauces and sweet dishes.
For more inspiration, check out our Korean Evening Courses which we run throughout the year.
Delicious food photography by Rob Wicks of Eat Pictures.
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