The Korean Meal
The Korean Pantry
01 Rice & Savory Porridge
02 Soups & Stews
03 Vegetables, Pickles & Sides
04 Pancakes, Fritters & Tofu
Our Korean kitchen is an unusual one: a kitchen found not in Korea, but
in London, and with only one true Korean at the helm, my wife Jina, a
fashion designer in her own right but equally passionate about the food of
her birthplace. And then alongside her is me, an Irish chef, who somehow
found himself besotted with not only the girl from Korea, but also the
food and culture of a nation so far away from my own.
While I am still passionate about the classical and Mediterranean
food of my upbringing, training, and indeed my daily work as a
chef, it is fair to say that the allure of Jina’s Korean home cooking
and the food of her country has been so great that it has, in less than
a decade, gained equal footing in my world of food. It has brought
us not only together, but on many exciting and extended
pilgrimages throughout Korea – Jina retracing her roots, the food of
her childhood, and a life lived there until her mid-twenties, and I,
working in restaurants and learning from chefs and culinary masters
of this beautiful and fiery cuisine, the most important teachers being
Jina’s mother and father.
Years ago, when Jina first introduced me to proper Korean food, I
was astonished that I had known so little of it prior to meeting her. I
couldn’t understand how a food and culture this wonderful could
have remained relatively unknown to the rest of the world in
comparison with its close neighboring countries, China and Japan,
whose traditional dishes are famous and familiar to us all. Jina too
was in astonishment – but for another reason – in her first year of
living in London, having longed for a taste of proper Western food,
she suddenly realized how lucky she had been growing up in a
culture where such affordable, healthy, and great-tasting food was
available everywhere, from schools and hospitals to street-food
stalls, corner stores, and of course at home.
Good food and cooking is so ingrained in Korean culture and
everyday life that even the standard Korean greeting is grounded in
food. Korean people don’t ask how you are, but, “bab
mogosoyeo?” which translates as, “have you eaten?” or literally,
“have you eaten rice?” The idea being that how you are entirely
depends on how well nourished you are, so they might as well get
straight to the point.
Back in London, with a fridge full of various fermented chili pastes,
homemade kimchi, and pickled vegetables, we keep this wonderful
country and cuisine alive in our own Korean kitchen, fifty-five
hundred miles away from its birthplace. We do this in part out of
nostalgia for the food we have eaten there, but mainly we do it
because we adore great food, and the food of Korea is quite simply
some of the best we have ever encountered, anywhere.
Fortunately, in the years that have passed since Jina first cooked
Korean food for me, it has exploded onto the world stage, with food
trucks and restaurants popping up all over the place and Korean
produce becoming increasingly easy to find. The word is out, and it
could not be more positive. People are enthralled by the robust,
complex, and subtle flavors of this country’s food, and what was for
many years the “secret” Asian cuisine is now fast becoming the
most popular Asian food of all.
This book is somewhat of a shared journey through the most loved
and authentic recipes of Korea, dishes that have in some cases been
cooked by Korean families in one form or another for centuries, and
yet here we are in London cooking a version of those same recipes.
While we have made these dishes our own, we were very keen to
keep as close as possible to the traditional and authentic ingredients
and methods of Korean cooking. This is particularly important now,
as up to this point there has been relatively little written about the
food and cooking of Korea, so we feel an extra onus has been
placed upon us to get it right. We want to honor the truly
exceptional food of Jina’s home country, her family, and indeed the
many great chefs and masters of Korean food from whom we have
had the great privilege of learning. You can of course tweak the
recipes if you like, swapping one vegetable for another, or lowering
the quantity of chili paste to suit your palate, but at the very least
we wanted you to have as authentic and traditional a starting point
What is fascinating about Korean cuisine is the sheer quantity,
literally hundreds, of national dishes, each one being unique to the
country, and within that there are numerous regional varieties. This
is even more impressive when you consider Korea’s difficult past.
Although hard to imagine when you visit the historic but ultra-
modern and sophisticated city of Seoul today, over its history Korea
has regularly been levelled, rebuilt, and then obliterated once again
by its expansionist neighbors, China and Japan. Even as recently as
the 1950s, Korea remained a war-torn and poverty-stricken land, as
the communist north and the capitalist south fought for control in
the civil war.
The result of which is the present-day North and South Korea – two
countries which now share little more than a border and a similar
name – the south having leapfrogged in a matter of only a few
decades from a decimated post-war country to one of the wealthiest
nations in the world, with a capital city so cosmopolitan and fast-
paced it would make New York look parochial.
Despite all this historical jostling and extended periods of
occupation, Korean cuisine remains distinct from that of its
neighbors with a range of differing cooking techniques. The most
noticeable of which are the preservation and fermentation
techniques they employ, giving their food a unique combination of
flavors. Perhaps because of their past, Koreans are incredibly
passionate about their national dishes and have very strong views
on how certain foods should taste and be presented. Even the
slightest departure from the norm can cause disturbances with
heated debates ensuing – both sides declaring their way of cooking
said dish to be “the best.”
However, if you then ask to be guided through their version of a
recipe, it all becomes rather vague, “a little bit of this, a little bit of
that.” This is largely because Koreans are natural and instinctive
cooks, using recipes passed down from generation to generation.
They cook intuitively, according to a clear set of flavor profiles that
they have been brought up with. Asking them to provide you with
precise measurements is pointless – you just have to watch and
learn, slowly building up your palate to match theirs.
Of course, not everyone has a brilliant Korean cook on standby to
watch and learn from. In light of this, we hope that this book will be
a good alternative, guiding you through the traditions and staples of
authentic Korean home cooking.
The Korean Meal
For anyone new to Korean food, one of the most enjoyable aspects
of the meal, aside from eating it of course, is the presentation of the
dishes. Unlike the Western meal, Korean meals are not separated by
courses. Instead, everything comes to the table at the same time.
This can be a most impressive sight, particularly in traditional
restaurants, as the number of side dishes (known as banchan) can
seem endless, and that’s before an individual bowl of rice and soup
is served for each guest. Whatever main dish is to accompany the
meal is then served in a large communal platter in the center of the
table, for everyone to share. The overall effect is one of a banquet,
with practically every inch of the table taken up with small plates of
This method of presentation is known as bap-sang, which literally
means “rice” (bap) “table” (sang), where each person’s bowl of rice
is considered the main dish with the multitude of other dishes there
to accompany it. If the main dish is noodles, then it becomes
myeon-sang, “myeon” meaning “noodle.” Historically, the social
status of a household would dictate the number of side dishes that
could be served at any given meal, which would generally be an
odd number. So three or five side dishes would be considered
acceptable in working-class households, with the number of side
dishes increasing according to social rank – nine dishes reserved for
nobility and finally twelve side dishes, known as surasang, which
could only ever be served to the king.
Key among any Korean table of food, however, is a balance of
flavors and textures, being mindful to always offer contrasting
dishes, both hot and cold. So alongside a particularly spicy dish you
might also serve a more subtly flavored soup.
For every hot stew, there might also be some room-temperature side
dishes, and so on – each dish prepared to complement the other.
Of course, at home, such grand and lavish affairs are not expected,
particularly these days. However, as a lot of the side dishes served
in Korea can be prepared in advance and keep very well, as with
kimchi or other preserved vegetables, even a rushed lunch will
often include a bowl of rice, two or three side dishes, and then
perhaps soup or some other dish that might have been prepared for
the previous night’s dinner.
For Westerners dining in Korea for the first time, there may be
some surprise to see a table of friends or family all diving into a
central shared dish, with enough double-dipping to send a
germaphobe foreigner running for the hills! This concept of sharing
comes from Korea’s Confucian heritage, which places considerable
significance on a sense of community and fellowship, and so with
food they believe that sharing from the same dish can forge closer
relationships between friends and family.
Spoons and chopsticks are the main utensils used for eating in
Korea. The spoon is considered the primary utensil, as Korean
cuisine is made up of so many stews, soups, and mixed rice dishes,
which require one. Chopsticks are generally reserved for side and
main dishes, and for this reason it is considered impolite to lift your
rice bowl off the table, like they do in Japan where they eat rice
with chopsticks, as your spoon should be more than adequate.
Although, if you really are struggling, you are permitted to lower
your head down toward your bowl.
As with most Asian countries, Korea also uses chopsticks, the
design of which is unique to their country – in this case they are flat
and metal, rather than round and wooden. They do require an extra
degree of dexterity, but once you get used to them they are very
practical, especially when dealing with something like slippery
noodles. Chopsticks can also do things that a fork and knife can’t;
for example, it is common in Korea to wrap crispy seaweed or
kimchi around rice, creating a little parcel, which would be almost
impossible to do one-handed with a fork.
A NOTE ON RICE COOKERS
The one piece of equipment that is used in every Korean kitchen,
from a student flat to a high-end restaurant, is an electric rice
cooker, and while you can of course cook rice in a pot, we find ours
Initially, I was very skeptical of Jina’s rice cooker; having cooked
rice on the stovetop for my entire life, I couldn’t see the need for
one. But then I met “Cuckoo,” one of the most famous brands of
Korean rice cookers. Not only does it have multiple rice settings
that cook the different types of rice to perfection, it also works as a
pressure cooker. And, as if that was not enough, it also talks to you,
keeping you abreast of how your rice is doing.
Fortunately for those of us outside Korea, there are no other
essential pieces of Korean cooking equipment that you will be lost
without. Stone and earthenware bowls called dolsot and dduk-baegi
are commonly used for both cooking and serving food, as they keep
food piping hot. While they are certainly a nice addition to your
kitchen cupboard if you are cooking a lot of Korean food, they are
not essential by any means.
A NOTE ON SPICE LEVELS
While we have kept the recipes in this book, including the levels of
heat, authentic to what you might find in Korea, we of course
appreciate that not everyone will be able to tolerate the same level
of heat as a Korean person, so do feel free to adjust the quantity of
gochujang chili paste and gochugaru red pepper powder used in the
recipes. However, please remember these two ingredients are not as
hot as some of the chili pastes, powders, and sauces that you might
find in other Asian countries – they have a rounder, more full-
bodied flavor that a lot of people tolerate very well. If you are
concerned, start by adding half the stated quantity and then build up
from there. Of course the beauty of Korean food is that for every
spicy dish there is an equally delicious yet altogether more subtly
flavored counterpart, so there really is something for everyone.