Eastern Allure: Food and Culture in Korea

  • Preparing steamed buns

    Street food distinguishes Korea with its affordability and goodness. This woman is making a mainstay – steamed buns. In a nod to modernity, her classic bamboo steamer has been replaced by a metal model. Buns come in a variety of formulations, all of which are delicious. They can be filled, for example, with sweet bean paste, finely chopped kimchee with veggies, or veggies alone. Steamed buns are frequently sold at markets and at roadside stalls, and you can usually get three for an American dollar.

  • Deciding what to eat

    Street vendors typically sell fantastic foods that are quick to take along and broad in variety. The main dish in this photo consists of rice cakes cooked in red chili paste with sugar, sesame seed oil, and fish cake. Also available at diverse stands are soups, seafood on skewers, steamed buns, and pastries.

  • Baking flower breads

    These irons used by street vendors produce hot, steaming snacks called flower breads due to the shape of the molds. (Fish-shaped ones are also common.) The treats are made by putting a spoonful of sweet red bean paste into the individual compartments and then topping them with the batter, which is similar to American waffle batter. After being cooked in the irons for a couple of minutes, the little cakes are ready to be eaten (once they've cooled a bit, of course). Delicious.

  • Making a quick stop

    At locations that regularly attract travelers (like this picture-perfect field of yellow flowers), street vendors set up shop, plying folks with freshly prepared snacks. Here, visitors take delight in red bean bread and steamed corn.

  • Laying out the options

    In this market stall, various types of salted seafood are prominent. The ones that are decidedly red in hue include a heavy heaping of red chili peppers on top of the salt. Among the alternatives displayed are bowls with fish eggs, squid, baby crabs, and anchovies.

  • Gathering for a meal

    Dining in South Korea is a communal event, and food, conversation, and camaraderie are shared among all. (Yes, that means double dipping!) Rules of etiquette dictate who begins the meal, how food and drink are consumed, how table settings are arranged, and even body positions and posture (knees below the table, for instance). Here, low tables and floor seating are evident, and smoked duck is the main course. Korea's signature, too-many-to-count side dishes are also laid out for everyone to indulge in.

  • Exploring new delicacies

    This popular South Korean dish is one that visitors rarely forget. The native name, san nak ji, is much more exotic than the reality: live octopus. Chopped into small pieces while the creature is still wriggling, the octopus is mixed with garlic, chilis, and green onion. To eat it, you clench a morsel in chopsticks and then dip it in hot (slightly sweet) chili paste or a mixture of salt and sesame oil. Drop it into your mouth and prepare for a taste sensation – and a disconcerting swallow.

  • Toasting to good friends

    Korea's celebratory drink, soju, is often taken in shots and is comparable to a sweet vodka. It's consumed frequently in group and business settings. Accepted rules of etiquette impart a certain ceremonial quality to drinking soju, including turning away from someone older than you when you drink, never filling your own glass, and using both hands to pour or receive a drink. Another practice worth noting happens when a Korean calls "one shot." At that time, everyone is expected to finish their drink in a single gulp!

  • Getting a good start

    Breakfast in South Korea often follows the model shown here. There's fried, salt-cured fish for protein, a bowl of rice (in the gold container), soup (not pictured), and a variety of condiments that are standard on Korean tables. Hot tea is included, of course, and visible are the set utensils: metal chopsticks (slightly flattened for easier use) and a long-handled, broad-bowled spoon. When eating, it's preferable to be quiet, polite, neat, and to be courteously accepting of what you're given to eat.

  • Surveying the spread

    Beautifully composed trays of food allow diners to make their own wraps. Here, sliced, smoked duck is positioned beside lettuce leaves, ready for assembly. Three different sauces stand ready to complement the duck: a) a honey mustard variety, b) a soy sauce-based dip, and c) a version composed with shaved radish.

  • Composing a bite

    Ssam, a Korean word that means "wrapped," refers to a dish or snack comprised of leaf lettuce encasing meat or seafood and other seasonings and add-ins. This particular example includes lettuce, pickled radish (daikon), and smoked duck. Below it are finely sliced onions, wasabi, and a sauce made up of vinegar, soy sauce, water, and hondash (seafood seasoning).

  • Building a meal

    Another example of a ssam, this one with lettuce, sesame seed leaf (the bright green minty leaf), green onion salad, and grilled mushrooms. Also included is hanwoo, or Korean beef (equivalent to Kobe beef), and a mixture of miso and chili paste. The dipping sauce is salt and sesame seed oil used for seasoning the meat prior to wrapping. Mixing and matching various side dishes and sauces allows you to bring out different flavors in the beef.

  • Pouring the tea

    The woman serving this type of green tea was so proud to serve it because the leaves were handpicked at their earliest. As a result, the tea was very light in comparison to regular green tea. The process itself is also considered relaxing. First, you pour hot water into a kettle which has the leaves already inside. A filter inside the kettle strains the leaves out, and you pour the brewed tea into a big bowl. From there, it's distributed into individual tea cups.

  • Making unexpected combinations

    A juxtaposition of vibrant flavors is critical in Asian cuisine, and South Korea employs ginger, garlic, chilis, and other comparables. This dish couples a filling squash with more expensive seafood, spicing the latter heavily and steaming it in the former. The high-low ratio of carbohydrates and vegetables to meat is standard in Asian cuisine.

  • Slurping the goodness

    Soups and stews are common in Korean cooking, and this broth-based fish soup is a familiar dish. Its component ingredients include udon noodles, two different kinds of mushrooms, onions, garlic, and chili pepper. The soup base is made from daikon and both fresh- and saltwater fish. The green herb punctuating it is mugwort, a variety of artemisia that's believed to have medicinal (and sometimes, hallucinogenic) properties.

  • Adding the finishing touch

    Presentation is critical, and the appeal of every dish is visual as well as flavorful. The garnish accompanying this dish at a Chinese restaurant in Korea, for example, is amazingly detailed and executed. Carved from a carrot, the intricate character represents a dragon standing on a radish mountain.