While han shik (Korean Cuisine), often varies from region to region, there are a handful ingredients that are staple components in just about every dish. In fact, a number of Korean dishes, particularly banchan (side dishes), use very similar ingredients and the only difference is the way that they are prepared. Below is a list of the 12 most essential staple ingredients for a Korean kitchen.
Known to some as “sushi rice,” this sticky rice is a staple in Korean cuisine and is eaten with just about every meal of the day. To Koreans it is far more than a grain, it’s a symbol of life and representation of prosperity. In the past, one’s wealth in was determined by how much rice they had stored. Even today, the Korean expression for “Did you eat rice?” is used in the same way as the English greeting, “How are you?”
Both salty and sweet, soy sauce adds a unique flavor to Korean cuisine. Although there are countless varieties of the condiment, jinganjang is one of the more common, and is often used to season vegetables, seafood, and various dishes such as fried tofu and bibimbap.
Doenjang is a type of fermented bean paste made entirely of soybean and brine that boasts salty and earthy flavor profiles. It has been used as a condiment in Korean cooking for more than a thousand years, and is added as a main ingredient in Korean classics such as doenjang jiggae (soybean paste stew), a dish that often accompanies Korean BBQ.
Often considered the cornerstone of Korean cooking, gochujang is a savory, spicy and pungent fermented Korean condiment made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt. It literally can go on just about anything, from rice dishes to stews and even French fries. It adds a pleasant sweet heat that Koreans simply cannot live without.
Yet another essential ingredient in Korean cuisine is gochugaru, a coarsely ground red pepper that has a texture that falls somewhere between flakes and powder. Traditionally, gochugaru is made from sun-dried chili peppers, and versions that are prepared in this manner are still considered to have the best flavor. Hot, sweet and perfectly smoky, gochugaru is a must-have ingredient for various sauces and Korea’s beloved kimchi.
Chamkireum, toasted sesame oil, is dark red-brown in color and has a strong nutty flavor that, if used in large quantities, can be overpowering. Because of this, it is usually drizzled over soups, salads, porridge, side dishes and even desserts to add extra flavor.
This savory sauce is made using soybean paste, chili paste, garlic, onion and sesame oil and is most often served with ssam, Korean-style BBQ wrapped in leafy greens. It has been a part of Korean cuisine since the Three Kingdoms era (57 BC – 668 AD). Eating ssam with namul was a tradition on Jeongwal Daeboreum, one of the four major Korean traditional holidays, when it was believed that opening one’s mouth wide and eating a big wrap brought luck into the household.
Garlic, one of the world’s healthiest foods, is also one the most essential ingredients in Korean cooking. Most recipes call for minced garlic as part of the seasoning, but whole garlic cloves are often used to make Korean broths, soups or stews. Koreans also enjoy pickled garlic as a side dish and grilled garlic with Korean BBQ and table cooking.
Good aekjeot, or fish sauce, is savory, salty, slightly sweet and full of umami, a brothy or meaty flavor. It helps to bring out the flavors in dishes such as kimchi, as well as various soups and banchan.
Toasted sesame seeds add a bright, nutty taste to Korean dishes, particularly namul, or vegetable-based side dishes. As they are chewed, they release even more flavor, providing for a delightful culinary experience.
Small dried anchovies are often used as an ingredient, along with soy sauce, sugar and hot pepper paste to make braised or stir-fried Korean side dishes such as myeolchibokkeum. Larger myeolchi, on the other hand, are used when making stock for soups like sundubu jjigae.
Salt is an important ingredient in just about every kind of cuisine, but is especially essential in Korean dishes. Gulgeun sogeum, or wang sogeum is a kind of Korean sea salt or Korean brining salt that has a larger grain size and lower sodium content compared to common kosher salt. It is used primarily for salting napa cabbage when making kimchi. Additionally, because it is only minimally processed, it serves to help developing the flavors of fermented dishes.
While not technically an ingredient, no Korean kitchen would be complete without a box of disposable plastic gloves. Korean food is generally labor-intensive and must be made by hand. Whether seasoning fern bracken for namul, or rubbing salt onto cabbage to make kimchi, the hands are simply the most effective tools – spoons, spatulas and chopsticks simply cannot compare. In fact, “son mat” (meaning “the taste of one’s hands”) is a common term used in Korean cooking that refers to a chef’s own unique style of cooking.
It can also be used figuratively. After all, the best cooks don’t become the best through formal training or expensive kitchen tools, but by the love and passion they bring to their food.