I realized that I have a penchant for weaving long threads on this message board, so I decided to start a new one. This is in reference to the thread regarding Roast Pyonchae. A Chowhound asked if I could give suggestions on learning the basics of Korean food.
Chris, Heidi, first let me say that I am always really glad when people ask about Korean food. I am Korean and as trivial as it may sound, its just heart-warming to find people who get as excited about food and Korean food as Wonki and I are.
Now lets get on. I thought about what I would do with total strangers to Korean food. For first timers, the choice would be to go to a meat place. A place where they specialize in barbecues cooked at the table. To some, this may have already become blase, but even in Seoul, celebratory dinners are held in these places, and actually the quality of food is better at some places in K-town, NY than here in Seoul (price is another matter)...
Here's what I would order:first, some sort of jun (fish or veggies dipped in egg and then fried, or a sort of scallion pancake containing seafood or oysters) as an appetizer. Order a large pancake and if acceptable, order some soju or appropriate beverage. Second, order barbecue meat. For first-timers, kalbi or bulgoki works fine. You eat this with profuse amounts of soju and along with the little side dishes (banchan) that the restaurant should provide, along with the kimchee.
The meat portions are ordered by the number of people, and usually the restaurants expect you to order equal to the number of people in attendance. It would be considered a bit faux for a party of four to order one portion. If you order beef, do not cook well done, especially bulgoki. The meat should be cooked medium and consumed by itself or with the veggies, such as using the lettuce leaf to wrap the meat with some raw garlic dipped in miso/chili paste or with the marinaded scallions that they provide. The funny thing is we're not done yet.
The last round consists of filling up the diners in case anyone missed out on the meat. The basic choice is between rice and noodles. If you chose rice, each diner gets a bowl of rice in a steel bowl (always steel for some reason) and then you would all share a soup/stew which is placed in the middle. Always order one bowl. The communal atmosphere is a must. The soup stew can be kimchee chiggye (kimchee stew), dwenjang chiggye (miso stew), soondoobu chiggye (soft tofu stew), or some fish based stew. You fill up by taking spoonfuls of stew directly with your spoon, and consuming it directly, or ladling a bit over your rice and eationg it with the remaining banchan (a good place will replenish your kimchee or serve you a new sort of kimchee). If some are uncomfortable with this, you can ask for separate serving dishes, but I would mildly advise against it. If you are already filled up, then a better choice might be noodles which are less filling, or least they feel that way. Naengmyun (cold noodles in chilled broth) or somyun (cappelini type noodles in a warm beef broth) are representative examples. There really is little in the way of sweets as part of a mean, but fresh fruit always seems to be appropriate.
And that is my recommended first time meal. Do know, this is not a "typical" Korean household meal, and there are some distortions here. Seafood is vastly under-represented. Also, there are a myriad of things by which you come to measure how well a restaurant hosts you when you order this stuff. Ordering this sort of a meal would be considered pretty big-ticket at any Korean restaurant. Even though service usually leaves a lot to be desired at these restaurants (the barbecue places in K-town, NY), they should be relatively more attentive when you order meat. Also, if you can find a charcoal grill place over a gas-fire place...
Next time... We shall take it up a notch and add some spicy variations. Til we meet again.