Seoul Food: Ingredients for Backyard BBQ, Korean-Style

Seoul Food: Ingredients for Backyard BBQ, Korean-Style 628 423 David Rosengarten

Rosengarten Classic. Originally Published: ROSENGARTEN REPORT, June 2004.

Here’s the all-star line-up of ingredients you’ll need for making Korean BBQ at home. Some of them may be familiar to you from other Asian cuisines, but read the notes to learn about the Korean spin on those things. For every item, I will give you alternatives, should they exist, in case you are not able to locate the Korean ingredient. I have listed staples first, then a few specialty items:

Korean Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is called kanjang in Korea—and it is as important to the Korean kitchen as it is to the Chinese or Japanese kitchens. The Korean brands I’ve been tasting seem to have a distinct character—a little more nuanced in flavor than the standard brands of Chinese and Japanese soy sauce, with maltier elements, even in the inexpensive ones. If you cannot find Korean soy sauce, feel free to substitute Chinese or Japanese brands. Korean soy sauces tend to be a little richer than light Chinese soy sauce, but not as rich as  Chinese dark soy sauce—inspiring the home chef to make his or her own blend, if Korean can’t be found!

Korean Bean Paste
Toenjang is one of the great, distinct ingredients of Korean cuisine. It is a pungent brown paste made from fermented soy bean cakes—in fact, once upon a time, it was made in many a Korean home, where particularly good versions would be kept for decades to mature! Today, a slew of commercial varieties are available. To imagine the taste of toenjang, think of a medium-brown Japanese miso—but with deeper, saltier flavor, and a grainier texture. I love toenjang smeared on lettuce leaves at a BBQ dinner. Good news: this product is shipped shelf stable, and, after opening it, you can keep it indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Korean Red Pepper Paste
Rounding out the big three of the Korean kitchen, kochujang is like a thick tomato paste…only it’s made with red chiles! This is, in fact, one of the world’s greatest chili pastes—hot, but sweet, round in the mouth, not bitter (as some chili pastes are), full of flavor. Pure Korean kochujan does not have the kinds of additives you find in chili pastes from other countries (vinegar, cornstarch, artificial color, etc.) Fantastic on BBQ-destined lettuce leaves, and necessary for a number of panchan items. Kochujang was traditionally made in homes on the first day of spring by the lunar calendar—but is now mostly made in factories. As with toenjang, it’s shipped unrefrigerated and, after opening it, you can keep it indefinitely in the refrigerator. Substitute? None really—but you can take tomato paste and jazz it up with a good hot sauce. NOTE: Toenjang and kochujang are sometimes mixed together in Korean cooking (they’re delicious that way!). If you want the blend, you don’t have to buy both—they come mixed together in a product called ssamjang.

Korean Red Pepper Powder
Another crucial ingredient—and more evidence that Korean chefs are world-class chile-meisters! Kochu karu is simply a powder made from dried red chiles—but, again, you won’t find a purer, sweeter, more fragrant chili powder made in any other culture. You can find three different grinds: very fine, kind of coarse, and very coarse (like the Italian crushed red pepper flakes). It is the in-between one, kind of coarse, that is used most often in making kimchi. Keep in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator for a few months. You may substitute other chili powders (but not flavored ones).

Korean Red Pepper Threads
A nice touch. Korean producers machine-shred dried red chile peppers, yielding a fiery-looking tangle called sil kochu that resembles deeper-colored saffron. Sil kochu is used as a garnish—often part of a more elaborate garnish known as five-color garnish. But feel free to sprinkle a few threads alone on any dish that needs a visual and gustatory boost.

Korean Radish
Large white radishes (muu) are used in many ways in Korean cooking; the most important way for our purposes is in kimchi, to accompany the BBQ. I’ve seen two main types in Korean markets, both with a thin white skin. The long ones, the size and shape of fat zucchini, are very much like the Japanese radish called daikon. Slightly more exotic are the big round ones with a green-ish tint to the white skin; these are called lo bok, and are a bit milder. Either type is great for kimchi. They are available year-round, but the best flavor is found in fall and winter.

Korean Cabbage
The most popular and famous form of kimchi is made with a particular type of cabbage—the long, fat, oblong, non-round one with crenellated leaves, often called Napa cabbage in the U.S, and called paechu by the Koreans. Easy to find these days in good produce sections of any grocery.

Korean Sesame Seeds
The Koreans love sesame, and sesame seeds (kkae) play a big role in Korean cooking. At Korean markets you will find all kinds of variations: whole ones, crushed ones, unroasted ones, roasted ones, black ones, brown ones, sandy-white ones. There’s even a variation called “wild sesame seeds,” which are wonderful: dark-brown, very crisp and poppy, with a taste that’s more nut than sesame. Let’s keep it simple: all you need for your BBQ side dishes are the sandy-white ones. Buy them unroasted, and roast them yourself. One of my favorite Korean cookbook recommends washing and draining the seeds, placing them in a skillet that was pre-heated over medium-high heat, adding and stirring the seeds, turning the heat down to medium, then stirring constantly for 20 minutes until the seeds are golden and fragrant. That’s a lot of time—but if you start with a large amount of seeds, like 2 cups, they will be protected. Another author likes to mix ¼ pound of freshly roasted seeds with 4 teaspoons of salt in a mortar, and crush them with a pestle. If you don’t want to make this yourself, you can also find roasted Korean sesame-seed salt commercially available. Note: grinding roasted sesame seeds in an electric spice grinder creates an incredible powder that adds a great deal of body and flavor to marinades.

Korean Sesame Oil
Another very characteristic flavor in Korean cooking. Asian cooking oils, as you undoubtedly know, are made from roasted sesame seeds, giving them their dark color and rich flavor. It’s not so easy to find Korean brands in the U.S.; most markets, even Korean ones, stock lots of Japanese and Chinese sesame oils instead. But the Korean ones do exist, in a range that goes from light to dark. All of them, I’ve found, are exciting—with extra flavors that the Chinese and Japanese oils don’t usually have.

Korean Vinegar
Most Korean markets are filled with Japanese products when it comes to vinegar—which you can substitute. However, you can find a staggering array of Korean cho, or vinegar. The striking thing is the range of colors they have—and the range of base products used to produce them. Rice vinegar is particularly popular, as is its darker partner, brown rice vinegar. But you’ll also see vinegars made from apple, plum, pumpkin, persimmon, lemon, and others. The key distinction for cooking is: is a vinegar non-sweet or sweet? Sometimes you can tell; the ingredient list may say “sugar,” or “fructose,” or “corn syrup;” sometimes the label is no help. I would advise you to buy a few different types of vinegar…and to discover which ones are sweet, which ones are not sweet, and which ones you want to buy again.

Korean Rice Wine
The choice of Korean products is usually even more meager when it comes to this ingredient—and the choice of Japanese products, again, is wider. I have been able to find a few Korean rice wines for cooking, and have discovered that they’re all lightly sweet. You can, of course, substitute Japanese sweetened rice wine—the key Japanese ingredient called mirin—but I think you’ll find it’s usually a little sweeter and thicker than sweetened Korean rice wine.

Korean Fish Sauce
Korean fish sauce takes two forms—either the brine that results from mixing dried and crushed anchovies with water, or the brine that results from mixing dried and crushed shrimps with water. Fish sauce from Thailand (nam pla) is a good, more widely available substitute, as is fish sauce from Vietnam (nuoc mam). Keep in mind that the Korean versions can be even saltier than the versions from southeast Asia. 

Korean Shrimp in Brine
Saeu chot is one of my favorite Korean specialty items—tiny shrimp in glass jars, bottled in brine. These shrimp are widely available at Korean markets, and are used in many ways in Korean cuisine. I especially like to perk up my Napa cabbage kimchi with these critters; Korean chefs sometimes do the same, and sometimes use bits of fresh oysters in kimchi for a similar effect. One of my sources tells me that June is the high season for saeu chot; the shrimp caught then are supposed to be especially sweet. It’ll be interesting to see this month if special saeu chot from Korea—called yuk chot in June—come into the American pipeline.

Korean Dried Anchovy Seasoning
Here’s a non-staple that I love—a brownish, fine powder with a big, salty, dried fish taste. This makes a wonderful pick-me-up sprinkle on various kimchi and panchan items.

Korean Ginseng Powder
Korea has a huge reputation for the quality of its ginseng—and Korean folk medicine has always relied heavily on the root’s restorative powers. By all accounts…this stuff is Korean Viagra! In modern times, the price of ginseng has become almost obscene—but that has not deterred several generations of chefs from using it in their food (it can be fresh, dried or powdered). I got interested in it because a Korean chef used it in a beef marinade, yielding the most succulent Korean beef BBQ I’ve ever had. I did some experiments, and found that it does tenderize meat (I thought it had the opposite effect?)…but doesn’t add much flavor. Look for red ginseng.

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