Beginner-Friendly Korean Food

Koren Bowl of Kimchi on a wood grain table next to chopsticks

Thanks to more and more adventurous Americans, Korean food has taken its place as one of the country's most popular international and fusion cuisines. Signs of its influence have reached everywhere, from finding kimchi and gochujang at our local grocery stores to Bulgogi appearing on restaurant menus. Korean BBQ has become a staple in almost every major city, with Korean-inspired burgers, tacos, and more influencing traditional American fast food.

But if you've never had the chance to sit down and try Korean food for whichever reason—where do you start? What's the easiest to try and make at home?

We're excited to showcase some mouth-watering Korean food for beginners, which we think you might find cooking repeatedly.

  1. Common Korean Cooking Ingredients for Beginners
    Cooking Korean food at home can be relatively easy with the right essentials. Here is a short, beginner list of items to consider keeping in your pantry if you explore Korean cooking at home.
    • Ssal – Ssal is short-grain rice, also known as 'sushi rice.' This rice is a Korean staple and something they eat and cook frequently.
    • Jinganjang – You are probably far more familiar with its English name, soy sauce. Most Korean dishes use dark soy sauce, as the lighter or regular soy sauce tends to be saltier.
    • Doenjang – Good, quality doenjang, or fermented soybean paste, smells and tastes earthy and is a light golden brown. It should never smell bad and keep in the fridge after opening. Doenjang is crucial for Korean stews, soups, and dipping sauces.
    • Gochugan – Hot pepper paste combines spicy, sweet, tangy, and umami. Even though the main ingredient is hot pepper powder, this versatile paste is not as hot-spicy as it is flavorful-spicy. It's used to make all manner of sauces, rice cakes, fish dishes, meat dishes, and side dishes and is a flavor enhancer for bibimbap.
    • Gochugaru – Hot pepper flakes. Unlike gochugan, which has various other ingredients, gochugaru is only the dried hot pepper flakes, imparting sweetness and spice. There are generally two kinds: mild and hot.
    • Chamkireum – Toasted sesame oil has a strong caramelized, nutty flavoring and is another essential ingredient in capturing authentic Korean flavors.
    • Aekjeot – The fish sauce has a deep, umami flavor that can seem very fishy from the container, but when melded with Korean dishes, it enhances and elevates them and is used in many side dishes, soups, and kimchi.
    • Kkae – Toasted sesame seeds impart the same unique, nutty flavor as toasted sesame oil but are a must-have for any vegetable (Namul) side dishes and a garnish for many dishes.

  2. Kimchi
    If you aren't yet familiar with this fermented food, kimchi, usually created from Nappa cabbage, is one of the most famous and possibly ubiquitous dishes in Korean cuisine. Nappa cabbage is preserved with a mixture of salt, garlic, sweet rice flour, sugar, Korean radishes (or daikon radishes), gochujang, or red pepper flakes for a spicy kick.

    Unlike traditional cabbages, Nappa has a sweeter, less intense taste and beautifully absorbs spice flavors. Recipes can be customized by a restaurant, brand, region, and families with extras such as carrot matchsticks, additions of minari, scallions, buchu, or Asian chives, or be made milder or spicier to taste.

    If the idea of fermented cabbage has you pausing, kombucha, yogurt, aged cheeses, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, sourdough bread, and cottage cheese are also fermented foods. If you enjoy eating any of these, you may wish to give kimchi a try.

  3. Tteokbokki
    Spicy rice cakes known as tteokbokki are a favorite roadside and food stall treat, trendy among Korean youth. Cakes made of rice flour are cut into short cylinder shapes and then covered with a savory sauce made of chili powder and added sweetness from rice syrup. Tteokbokki can also be served with slices of fish cake, boiled eggs, or scallions for variation.

  4. Bibimbap
    Did you know that bibimap translates into ""mixed rice"" in Korean? This dish is perfect for beginners to Korean food as it is a dish of rice mixed with any ingredients you have on hand, especially leftover food. The ingredients vary from region to region, household to household, but the most common are spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, mushrooms, and bracken. Bracken is also known as Fernbrake.

  5. Haemul Pajeon
    If you adore seafood, you may want to find a recipe for haemul pajeon—or Korean fried seafood pancake. It's a simple flour and water batter with scallions for flavor, and then seafood is added in. You can use any seafood you love, such as shrimp, muscles, oysters, clams, and squid. The mixture with seafood is dropped into a pan, fried in hot oil until a lovely golden brown, and typically served with a sauce that works for savory pancakes and dumplings.

  6. Japchae
    Japchae is a dish of sweet potato noodles stir-fried with vegetables and meat. It is one of Korea's most loved dishes and is extremely popular in Korean restaurants. This dish incorporates many delightful flavors, such as shiitake mushrooms, garlic, soy sauce, toasted sesame, scallions, and beef, pork or meat of choice.

  7. Kalgooksoo / Dak- Kalguksu
    A favorite Korean childhood and adult comfort meal, Kalgooksoo is the Korean version of chicken noodle soup. Kalguksu means knife-noodle, meaning the noodles in this soup are cut by a knife from the dough by hand. Kalguksu is created with chicken, garlic, onion, noodles, ginger, and green onion as a base; this recipe can be adapted in many ways. Some families might include using dae chus or jujubes for the broth, adding soy sauce, sesame oil, and red pepper sauce, while others add vegetables such as zucchini cut into match sticks.

Korean food continues to become an increasingly popular cuisine that Americans try to cook at home. In addition to being an entire world of fantastic flavors, the philosophy and communal values behind Korean food culture are as fascinating as the dishes themselves. The Korean tradition of gathering together and the ritual of uniting with friends and family around a table of shared dishes is a beautiful opportunity for reconnection and fun.

At Wholey's, we love everything about food and hope to inspire families nationwide to experiment with different cuisines and cooking styles to make you fall in love with mealtime again. We hope we've inspired you to try and find a Korean dish to add to your meal plans!