From stews, soups, meat, side dishes that range from salty, sweet, fermented to funky taste, all exploding in colors and bombing flavors into your mouth, Korean cuisine is undoubtedly one of the most distinct and vibrant across the world. Koreans value and take pride in their food culture, making it a major aspect of their national identity. If you are an adventurous food-lover, you can learn about many interesting foods such as salsas and more.
Yet, Korean cuisine is no longer confined within the borders of South Korea. It’s becoming a global sensation and it’s easy to come across people who take a liking to Korean food. If you’re one of them and want to elevate the experience by making your own Korean dishes, be wary that it involves having a stockpile of the vital condiments, spices, vegetables, grains, and other food items into your pantry.
Don’t fret, though! Here’s a good start. We’ve rounded up 15 of the essential Korean cuisine ingredients. Have them in your kitchen and you’ll have an easier time planning and cooking your favorite Korean meals that will surely satisfy your heart, soul, and palate. Here are more interesting cooking techniques that you should also not miss!
1. Gochugaru (Korean Hot Pepper Flakes)
Most of the spiciness that you can taste in Korean dishes comes from this magic bright red powder called gochugaru. It’s pepper flakes made out of sun-dried red chilis. Two versions are available: fine and coarse. The former is usually used for creating dipping sauces, marinades, and dresses, while the latter is added to spice up Korean dishes, such as tteokbokki, kimchi, and kimchi-jjigae. For the best flavor, store them in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.
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Gochujang is a fiery chili paste, with a hint of saltiness, sweetness, and umami. It’s an essential Korean condiment made from gochugaru, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, and salt. Some of the most popular Korean foods like Korean barbecue, buldak or Korean fire chicken, bibimbap, and grilled marinated spicy shrimp won’t be complete without gochujang. Veer away from brands that use corn syrup in their ingredients, as it can be too sweet and won’t bring the best flavors in meals.
3. Ganjang (Soy Sauce)
Soy sauce is a common ingredient among many Asian cuisines, with each having its own version, and Korea is no exception. Two soy sauce varieties are available, the darker soy sauce called jinganjang, and the lighter, but more salty soup soy sauce called gukganjang. Usually, people only stock the all-purpose jinganjang, as you can always achieve the added saltiness of gukganjang with some extra fish sauce or salt. Jinganjang can make any dish delicious, from seasoned vegetables to seafood, bibimbap, and fried tofu, making it a staple in Korean cuisine.
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Doenjang is made from fermented soybean paste and brine, similar to the Japanese miso. What makes the difference is that Japanese miso has a milder, sweeter, and smoother taste, while the Korean doenjang has a more earthy, pungent, and complex flavor. The Korean paste packs lots of umami that provides vegetables, marinades, soups, stews, and dipping sauces an extra kick. You can see them in grocery stores, usually sold in a tan rectangular plastic tub.
5. Chamkgireum (Toasted Sesame Oil)
If Italians have their oil, Koreans have toasted sesame oil as one of the cores of its cuisine. Boasting a rich nutty, buttery flavor and aroma, chamkgireum, in the local language, is not used for cooking but rather as a flavor enhancer and binder or as a seasoning. It makes many Korean dishes tastier, with a few drops on bibimbap, fried eggs, and side dishes enough to make them more palatable.
Kkaesogeum is basically toasted and crushed sesame seeds. Though often used as a garnish in many vegetable sides and dipping sauces, making them look more professional, these little nutty sesame seeds also boost the flavor of any food you add it to, much like its sibling, the toasted sesame oil. Grocery stores sell whole untoasted sesame seeds if you’d like to do the extra work. You can toast them in a skillet, while continually stirring to keep them from burning. Once done, savor the delicious aroma that’ll envelop your home.
7. Cheongju (Rice Wine)
Cheongju is Korea’s traditional rice wine. Translating to “clear liquor” in the Korean language, it’s often consumed as an alcoholic beverage but is also incorporated in sauces, seasoning, and marinades for fish and meat. It has a rich flavor, with a subtle sweet taste. Some use Japanese mirin or Korean soju as a substitute, but the latter doesn’t provide that hint of sweetness.
8. Sikcho (Rice Vinegar)
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Koreans use sikcho or rice vinegar’s acidity to balance all the oily, fatty flavors from pan-fried and deep-fried foods like dumplings and jeon (fritters). Compared to wine vinegar, rice vinegar has a milder taste and lower acidity level, making it perfect in seasoning many banchan (side dishes) and dipping sauces.
9. Short-Grain White Rice
Like in other Asian cuisines, rice is also an important part of Korean meals and won’t be complete without a serving of rice for all. The most preferred variety of rice is short-grain white rice that is cooked unseasoned. All the flavors are derived from the meats, stews, soups, and side dishes, with rice providing the balance. No surprise that it’s simply ubiquitous in Korean cuisine.
10. Myeolchi (Dried Anchovies)
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Though it can be eaten as a snack, dried anchovies or myeolchi are the backbone of Korean stews, and soups. Along with dasima or dried kelp, larger, silver-skinned dried anchovies are simmered to add a rich, umami flavor to braises and stocks. Smaller dried anchovies are used for all other cooking needs and go deliciously great with side dishes, whether in sweet, salty, or sticky sauces. Otherwise, it can also be consumed with a hot bowl of rice.
Another must-have in Korean cuisine is gim or dried and roasted seaweed. Non-seasoned ones are used for kimbap or Korean rice rolls or as a garnish to rice and side dishes. Seasoned seaweed using salt and oil are perfect as a side dish, especially to kids, while adults enjoy it as a snack alongside their favorite alcoholic beverage.
Daepa or spring onions or scallions are another essential part of Korean cooking. It’s used as a fresh garnish, to flavor stocks, and to add a hint of freshness in namuls (seasoned herbal dishes) and meaty soups like gomtang (beef bone soup), haejang-guk (hangover soup, or seolleongtang (ox bone soup). Daepa is also added to kimchi, pancakes, and pajeori (green onion salads).
13. Saenggang (Ginger)
Though less commonly used than the next item on this list, ginger is still a vital ingredient in many Korean dishes. It is widely used in recipes involving pork and fish as its unique flavor and spicy taste help eliminate the strong odor from the meat. It’s added in kimchi, marinade, sauces, and used in Korean teas.
14. Manul (Garlic)
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Koreans embrace manul or garlic and it’s a staple in many Korean dishes, be it pounded, minced, pounded, or in whole cloves. Minced ones are used for marinades and seasoning. Meanwhile, whole garlic cloves are added to stock, soups, and stews to make them more flavorful. Koreans also enjoy grilled garlic with Korean BBQ and manul changachi or soy pickled garlic, a crunchy, spicy, and salty side dish.
Dubu or tofu is a key ingredient and one of the most common ingredients in a Korean kitchen. Many tofu types are available, from silken to soft, medium, and firm tofu, which are used in a variety of dishes, mainly in banchan and stews like sundubu jjigae (soft tofu stew), dubujeotguk-jjigae, (tofu stew with pickled shrimp), and dubu jorim (braised tofu).
That’s the rundown of the essential ingredients used in Korean cuisine. Print this list out and rush into the nearest supermarket or grocery store to search and stock up on these items. Afterward, start creating the best Korean dishes that take you to a distinct, memorable, and tasty culinary experience.