While you may have anticipated a lot of ways that moving to a foreign country could be difficult, finding something to eat in a modern, industrialized country like South Korea might not have been one of them. After all, it's not like it's difficult to find food here. On the other hand, getting food out of a store or restaurant, into an edible form and into your stomach in a reasonable time frame is another issue entirely. Don't be surprised if there's some sort of heavily disorienting, deeply disheartening hour-long trip to the grocery store in your first weeks here. But have no fear! It happens to everyone, you'll get over it soon enough. But let the experiences of one who has gone before you be your guide to cushion the blow...
To start you on the path to enlightenment, let's start by identify what you don't know - what sort of essential culinary items you probably won't be able to find in Korea:
- English. This one you probably anticipated, but you may not have anticipated how profoundly it can affect your ability to buy groceries in a timely manner in your first weeks. You may assume that you can identify enough grocery items by sight that not being able to read the labels and signs in the aisles won't be a big issue, but you'd be surprised. For example, when I first arrived in Korea I couldn't find rice at the grocery store. This seems like it would be akin to not being able to find a hooker in Bangkok, but in Korea buying rice isn't nearly as easy as going to the rice aisle and choosing white, brown or Uncle Ben's. First off, you might not recognize it. Most of the rice in Korea is short-grain rice, so sometimes it looks more like coarse salt than than long-grain rice that's most common in North America. Most grocery stores also sell a bunch of shit that combines dry rice with other grains and seeds that looks more like something you would find in the birdseed section than something you would boil and eat yourself. On top of that, there's more types of rice here than white and brown (and almost no one here regularly eats brown rice, by the way). Ever heard of 참쌀, greenhorn? That's glutinous rice. It's mostly used for things like desserts and rice cake. If you're buying it with the expectation of dumping a serving of stir-fry on top of it, your in for a sticky, sweet surprise. Also, since Koreans eat white rice at literally every meal (at lunch I often see my co-teachers eat all their rice and throw away half the food, while I normally eat all the food and throw away half the rice - who the hell eats rice and spaghetti at the same time, anyway?) you often can't find white rice in anything smaller than a five kilo bag. Watch out for rice weevils if you're buying that much at one time for just yourself. (By the way, a blogger once advised me that you can sift rice weevils out of dry rice with a coarse colander, as long as you catch them before you soak the rice. Supposedly almost all rice has unhatched weevil eggs in it, so sifting out the weevils instead of throwing away the rice doesn't really make a big difference. Then again, not going back to the store for more rice may have mattered a lot more to this blogger.)
Another issue with the lack of English is that not every item in the grocery store has a description of what it is written biggest on the label. Sadly, we do not live in the world of Repo Man or Lost where every product has a generic label. Even if you have a Korean dictionary or a phone with a translation program handy, what's on the label may not readily translate to the name you know something by back home. I encountered this problem in a big way trying to buy dry beans. Ever heard of fermented black soybeans? They're found in some Chinese dishes. They're also nearly impossible to distinguish visually from what anyone who lives in the US and eats Mexican food knows as black beans. If you buy one when you're trying to buy the other, however, you're going to end up with some very strange fusion cuisine. Unfortunately, if you feed "black beans" into Google Translate or a similar program, you'll most likely to get the Korean word for "black" and a list of terms for "beans" with no indication of what type of bean the Korean word actually refers to, and if you ask a Korean to help you find "black beans" they probably won't understand which type you mean since the only Mexican food you usually find here is "Mexican" fried chicken (which, as far as I can tell, is just fried chicken).
By the way, through research and some trial and error I eventually figured out that "콩" refers only to soybeans, and "흑태" and "서리태" both seemed to be passably similar to the black beans I used to get back home. (I know the level of detail in some of these remarks may seem tedious, but I'm hoping that some of the tidbits in this blog may be of help some day to some confused and desperate English teacher searching Google for clues as to how to survive here. I can't tell you, for example, how grateful I am to the blogger who posted an image of a translated Korean washing machine on his blog. Seriously, I could bear hug that guy.)
- Ovens. If you have a full-size oven in your apartment, you're either very rich or very, very lucky. For the most part, you're probably going to be doing all your cooking with a microwave, a rice cooker and a two-burner gas range. You may be able to find an electric toaster oven or convection oven, or a gas range with a small oven built into it, but they'll probably be tiny, expensive or both.
- Convenience Foods. Hey, remember those freezer aisles at the supermarket back home that just seemed to stretch to the horizon? The frozen pizzas, the pre-mixed stir-fry vegetables, the TV dinners, the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches, the Steak-ums, the crappy, gooey store-brand panini, the Banquet pot pies with two tiny chunks of meat mixed in with all that gravy? Forget about it. Likewise, say goodbye to canned soups and chili, Hamburger Helper, Rice-a-Roni and just about anything other good staple of the lazy bachelor kitchen. The only things you'll find here that could be described as "instant" are ramen noodles and some crappy bland curry mixes. And speaking of convenience...
- A Korean Wife or Mother: Koreans are still very attached to the idea of the nuclear family, and it's still women who are expected to stay home and do most of the cooking. In my humble opinion, that's probably why so much Korean food is so labor-intensive. Your male co-teachers at school may not understand how you're able to survive at all without starving as the single head of a household, and occasionally ask quizzically, "In your home, what do you eat?" (They'll also be very amused if you tell them you eat cereal for breakfast. I guess cereal is something that's only for children and exhausted housewives on diets here.)
By no means should you read the above as advising against getting a Korean wife (or mother), even if only for the sake of convenience. In fact, if you do start dating a Korean woman and she likes you, you may find that she begins arranging a wedding for you, possibly without bothering to consult with you or inform you beforehand.
Also, if it makes you feel better the next time you're cutting carrots into matchsticks to make bibimbap or shredding green onions to make pajeon, remember that a lot of Korean wives are still expected to not only provide a main dish, but also freshly prepare half a dozen side dishes to go with the meal. These days a lot of homemakers are buying side dishes pre-made from the grocery store, but I hear there's a significant number of husbands out there who insist on having things the old-fashioned way. (Also, if you are making pajeon, don't buy the small green onions and try cutting them all in half one at a time. Buy a big green onion and get one of those fork-looking things to shred it. I certainly learned that the hard way.)
- Basically Any Foodstuff Not Involved in Korean or American Cooking. This may be the welcoming kick-to-the-nards for many of you who come from a country or region with an internationally diverse selection of cuisines. Koreans, for the most part, eat Korean food and not much else. The dishes that Koreans consider foreign, like "Chinese" black noodles (jjajangmyeon), will probably be unrecognizable to you. Of course, due to the global ubiquity of American food and a large amount of food aid during the Korean war (resulting in some marvelous fusion dishes like budae jjigae, better known as "hot dog soup"), you'll find a fair number of American classics with a Korean twist, such as pizza, spaghetti, and hamburgers, are widely available. On the other hand, you may be somewhat less likely to find, I don't know, for example, whatever it is that British people eat. What do British people eat, besides tea and biscuits? Do they have special English hamburgers or something? Like, do they use an English muffin for the bun, maybe?
This also applies to other Asian cuisines, including Chinese and Japanese food. Don't assume that just because Korea is right next to these major influential world powers that you'll be able to get bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, edamame or other specialty ingredients found in other East Asian countries.
- Limes. Korea is known to have fairly restrictive agricultural tariffs due to the politically powerful farmers' unions, and rumor has it that by coincidence Korea doesn't import produce from any country that grows limes. Try to make do with lemons. If you can find them that is, because another thing you'll have trouble finding is...
- Any Produce that's Not in Season. Almost all the produce you'll find in Korea, especially if you live in a rural area, is grown in Korea. The good news is, if you're used to buying produce that's been picked green and shipped a thousand miles before it's artificially ripened, the produce in Korea is way more fresh and delicious than what you're getting back home. The bad news is, just because the grocery store has tomatoes or lemons or celery one week doesn't mean they'll still have it next week. A lot of fruits and vegetables can be grown in greenhouses out of season, so there's not as much variation with some items, but other things that you're used to getting flown in from South America or South Africa (or wherever South Africans get stuff from in the Northern Hemisphere) may not be available at all when they're not available from local growers.
- And Also This Stuff. Almost any spice other than hot pepper, black pepper, turmeric, and Schezwan pepper; any fresh herbs; lamb and mutton; Worcestershire sauce; Balsamic vinegar; any type of green beans or fresh peas; cauliflower; asparagus; Brussels sprouts; artichokes; okra... You get the idea.
And as if that wasn't enough, here's a bunch of stuff that's not easy to find:
- Meat in Cuts that You're Used to Working With. Know how to debone chicken? Or clean a fish? Or humanely kill a live fish? Time to study up on that. Also, you'll find that chicken is often chopped up in ways you won't be accustomed to, and beef and pork often come pre-sliced into thin strips meant for bulgogi or samgyeopsal, which may seriously screw with your plan to enjoy a nice thick, onion-smothered pork chop.
- Cheese. Cheese that doesn't suck, at any rate. Same goes for other specialty dairy products like heavy cream or sour cream.
- Decent Beer. All knowledgeable sources agree that Korean beer sucks. Also, apparently the major breweries have conspired to make microbreweries illegal. Not that it matters since all forms of alcohol are more or less a means to an end here rather than something to be savored and enjoyed.
- Decent Wine. The Korean palate is not acclimated so much to wine as it is to grape juice spiked with soju.
- Specialty Bread. Buns, rolls, etc. Oh, and try finding a baguette that's not stale, I dare you.
- Peanut Butter. And if you do find it, you're gonna pay an arm and a leg for it.
- Coffee. Koreans adore coffee. You can't walk two blocks in Korea in any decent-sized town without stumbling across a coffee shop. Unfortunately, Koreans don't generally make coffee at home. Automatic drip coffee makers are virtually unheard of. Unless you're ready to pay three bucks a cup for an espresso drink or buy it whole bean from the coffee shop, grind it and use a coffee press or hand-drip filter to prepare it, you're going to have to put up with the little individual tubes of the freeze-dried stuff. I'm not going to guarantee that the local grocery store has black tea, either.
So as you may have guessed, you're in for some adjustments here unless you already know how to prepare a lot of Korean food. But enough with the bad news. Here's some good news about what you can find:
- Costco! That list of stuff it's hard to find in Korea? That's pretty much my Costco shopping list. Costco in Korea is awesome - it's basically America in a big box. Every time I walk into Costco I feel like I've come home for a few hours. Ground beef? Gorgonzola? Tortillas and salsa? Parmesan cheese in the shaker bottle? Hamburger buns? Actual bacon? A quart of sour cream? Electronics that aren't made by Samsung or LG? Real actual sour dill pickles in a gallon jar? All at Costco. Plus, they have hot dogs and real, non-crazy pizza in the cafe! You may have to travel a ways to get to a major urban center with a Costco, but pretty much every major urban center in Korea has one. Make friends with someone with a membership and a car as soon as you can. Also, make sure you have cash; Costco in Korea only accepts the special Costco credit cards issued by Samsung (yes, Samsung and Hyundai do issue credit cards in Korea) and when I tried to apply for one they told me that only foreigners on record with the tax office (which generally means you've lived in Korea for at least two years) can apply for one.
When you get home, you'll probably want to divide up a lot of the stuff you just bought into portions the right size for two to four meals and then freeze all of it that you're not using right away. This rule, however, does not work for sour cream. I learned that lesson the hard way as well...
Heaven... I'm in heaven...
- Homeplus (Tesco) and E-Mart. For those of you not in the know: Tesco is the British version of Wal-Mart, Homeplus is the Korean affiliate of Tesco, and E-Mart is the Korean version of Homeplus. There's one or both of these discount stores in just about every good-sized urban center in Korean, and E-Mart and Homeplus (Homeplus especially, since it's owned by a European corporation) usually have a good number of hard-to-find foreign foods and beverages, such as imported beer, real wine, chicken bouillon, and a limited supply of baking goods and dairy products. Tesco also has one of my personal favorite products, those Asian Home Gourmet spice packets from Singapore that let you quickly and easily make things like Indian curry that actually tastes like Indian curry by adding meat and a few other simple ingredients.
(Side note: Yesterday on my most recent trip to Homeplus, I tragically could not find any Asian Home Gourmet spice paste packets in stock. They did, however, have asparagus is the produce department, which was a minor miracle. Also, Tesco Corn Flakes were two giant boxes for W6,500. Yes, these are the things that are noteworthy and exciting when you teach in a small town.)
If you can't find something at Homeplus or E-Mart, you could also try one of Korea's upscale department stores like Lotte or Shinsegae, which usually have a foreign foods section tucked away somewhere in the grocery section with "exotic" foreign goods like oregano, canned tomatoes and peanut butter. Be prepared to pay Gucci prices for this stuff if you buy it at a department store, though.
Lotte Department Store - Home of the $8 Jar of Peanut Butter
- Specialty Shops and Websites. You wouldn't believe how happy I was when I stumbled across this blog with a piece about the specialty baking store in Daegu, just around the corner from Daegu Station. This place has everything - vanilla extract, balsamic vinegar, you name it.
If you hunt around, there's also for specialty foreign foods shops around Korea that will ship items to you. I had been a big fan of The Underground Grocers in Gwangju (mostly because they were the only source I could find for corn tortillas in Korea) but apparently they've closed up shop and rolled the business into a restaurant called The First Alleyway. (I haven't bought any corn tortillas since Underground Grocers closed - my freezer is full of enough wheat tortillas from Costco to last for an extra contract - but this website also apparently has them. I can't vouch for it personally because I haven't used it, though.)
Another source for hard-to-get foreign goods can be shops catering to guest factory workers and laborers in Korea. For example, if you go to the Bukbu bus terminal in Daegu you'll find several shops offering South Asian, Southeast Asian and South American goods. There's also a really kick-ass Pakistani restaurant there if you're craving a good curry. If you're looking for something specific, try to figure out what that item is called in Peru or Pakistan before you go in case the name is different where you're from.
There's one more type of "specialty shop" you can try if you're really having difficulty finding something - the black market. Just because you can't get something imported here doesn't mean someone hasn't figured out how to avoid a couple import regulations and get their hands on it. I've never actually tried this method personally, but if you Google "Daegu black market" you get some pretty explicit instructions as to how to find them in Daegu.
- US Armed Forces. Make friends with someone at the local military installation and you can get just about any foodstuff from the US at a reasonable price. If you're not friendly with anyone on post, you may be able to find some goods that have been smuggled off-base available on the black market.
- Your Suitcase. If there's some spices you're certain that you'll miss from home - especially things like cumin, cilantro, basil and paprika, which are hard to get and/or expensive here - pack a bottle or two before you leave. I've brought several sealed bottles of spices here in my luggage and it's never presented a problem. I'm not sure how the TSA would feel about this stuff being in carry-on luggage, so consider sticking it in your checked baggage.
If there's any fresh herbs that you think you might want, like cilantro or basil, consider bringing a packet of seeds with you and growing it yourself. Korea has strict import bans on meats, seedlings and a lot of other fresh food products, but as far as I know spices and seeds are okay. (Admittedly, when I brought cilantro seeds with me from the US, I slid them into the lining of my suitcase and didn't mention them to the customs officials.)
- Affordable Korean Food. Can't cook? Too busy for the grocery store? Luckily, you can get a relatively healthy hot meal in Korea pretty easily for less than 5,000 won. Then again, this option depends heavily on how much kimbap and ramen you can stand to eat in a week.
And while we're on the subject, let's talk about some foodstuffs that you can find all over in Korea, many of which are definitely worth trying while you're here (and some of which are good substitutes for stuff you can't find):
- Compressed Meat Products. Like I said, Korea received a lot of food aid from the United States during and after the Korean War, and I'm guessing this food aid included a lot of tinned meat, judging by Korea's continuing adoration of Spam. I haven't actually indulged in too much Spam since I've been here (just because it's popular doesn't mean it isn't still Spam), it's pretty tasty when it's prepared as jeon, a Korean dish where items like sliced Spam, zucchini and young pumpkin are dipped in an egg and flour batter and fried in oil.
In addition to Spam and all the various versions of it produced by Korean food manufacturers (some of it with clever brand names like 런천밋 - transliterated as "Luncheon Meat") you'll find many varieties of chopped pressed ham, hot dogs and sausages. Korean hot dogs and sausages really run the gamut in quality - I once bought a package of about twenty skinny franks for less than $2, but couldn't get rid of them fast enough as they all tasted like sawdust encased in plastic. There's some decent sausages out there, though, including some fairly good varieties of andouille and these sausage four packs that include some pretty good spicy green and neon-orange sausages and a couple of those curly Italian sausages.
Another type of compressed meat product you can buy here is fish paste. It's the key ingredient in odeng (오뎅), those wiggly strips of white stuff you see impaled on skewers and available in a hot water bath at snack stands around Korea. I wouldn't exactly say it's a must-try delicacy or anything, but in a pinch you can use it as a substitute in Chinese recipes that call for sheets of compressed bean curd, assuming you're not too choosy about duplicating the flavor (the similarity is mostly in the texture) and you're not a vegetarian.
- Lotus Root. Lotus root is available either whole or pre-cut and soaked in water. It's white with a honeycomb appearance when it's pre-sliced, and the texture is crunchy and slightly starchy. Most of the time in Korea I only see it in a kimchi side dish where it's been soaked in soy sauce and sesame oil (or something like that), but if you boil it quickly in a little vinegared water it makes a reasonable substitute for water chestnuts in Chinese recipes. Oh, and speaking of...
- Sesame Oil. If you've been doing stir-fry at home and been wondering why it doesn't seem as good as the stuff from the takeout place around the corner, this may be what you're missing. Use it sparingly in Chinese recipes, and feel free to dump in a whole tablespoon if you're doing something Korean like japchae.
- Daikon Radish. I don't think you can eat a meal in Korea without finding some daikon radish in it somewhere. Daikon radish is bitter and a little starchy, but gets sweeter when you cook it. I have a recipe for a chicken and daikon radish stew that I really enjoy (mujorim, 무조림), although I don't think I've seen the same dish served in any restaurants here, so I don't know how authentic it is.
- Garlic Stems. Also sometimes referred to as "young garlic" or "fresh garlic," these are the stalks of garlic plants before they mature. They can be a bit tough it they're harvested late, but they're fairly tender when boiled and good for adding something green and garlicky to a recipe when such a thing would be called for. I've also used them as a substitute for green beans occasionally, although I don't suggest doing this unless you really love garlic. (I really, really love garlic.)
- Young Pumpkin. This is essentially a long, light green variety of squash, similar in shape and size to a zucchini or a cucumber. I think they may actually grow these by taking a standard pumpkin and putting it into a tight tube of plastic when it's young, so that it grows long and thin instead of round. It's a bit like a cross between a pumpkin and a zucchini or a yellow squash. As I said above, they're quite delicious when they're prepared as jeon (specifically, hobak jeon), and I substitute them into any recipe that calls for yellow squash, which I've never seen here.
- Sweet Potato. This is another foodstuff that you probably won't be able to aviod here, even if you try. Korean sweet potatoes are smaller than American yams, with a white or purple color and a texture closer to a standard potato. In fall, if you're lucky, you'll find people roasting and eating them whole. You'll also find sweet potato paste in everything from pizza crusts to sweet potato latte. (Yes, I'm not kidding, sweet potato latte.) Feel free to throw them into any recipe that calls for regular sweet potatoes or yams - I've had some pretty mean Korean sweet potato casserole around Thanksgiving here.
- Pizza. Okay, admittedly, this is not a food unique to Korea, and a lot of foreigners really hate what they do to pizza here, but I'm sure at some point when I'm back in the US I'll be ordering a pizza from Papa John's and thinking, "Man, I wish I could get a pizza here with green tea in the crust, a ring of sweet potato paste on the outside, corn, potatoes and bacon (or squid, shrimp, and clams!) as the toppings, and those lines of brown, yellow and white sauce that I think are probably teriyaki, honey mustard and either alfredo or mayonnaise criss-crossing the top, with a packet of hot sauce and a cup of sweet pickles on the side." (If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, Costco has normal pizza available by the slice and by the pie.)
- Mushrooms. I've gone through large portions of my life believing that I don't like mushrooms, but since coming to Korea I've discovered that a lot of that has to do with the type of mushroom, how fresh it is, and how it's prepared. Westerners are kind of behind-the-times when it comes to mushrooms. For example, did you realize that most of those fancy-schmantzy mushrooms that you buy at the grocery store are actually all varieties of the same mushroom? It's true. Moonlight mushrooms, brown mushrooms? Same mushroom, different color. Portobello mushrooms? Same mushroom, different maturity. Crimini mushrooms, champignon mushrooms? Same damn mushroom, different fancy foreign name. Wild mushrooms? Very possibly the same damn mushroom with different marketing. You provincial saps have been paying good money for the same fucking mushrooms under different names. And you thought you were cultured.
Korea, on the other hand, actually has mushrooms other than the white and brown mushrooms that are pretty much the only variety widely available in the US. You're probably familiar with shiitake mushrooms (pyogo in Korean) from their use in Chinese and Japanese cooking. You may have also run into black mushrooms, also variously known as black fungus, wood ear mushrooms, cloud ear mushrooms, or, hilariously, according to one of my Korean cookbooks, Jew's ear mushrooms, in Chinese food - they're mogi in Korean. While you're in Korea, though, you should definitely try some of the varieties of mushrooms that you might not find fresh back home, like white, thin, thread-like enokitake mushrooms (paengi in Korean), button-like shimeji mushrooms (mattari in Korean), or - well, I don't think there's a proper description of them other than phallic - oyster mushrooms (saesongi in Korean). I find them all a little meatier than the standard Western mushroom, plus they don't get all mushy and slimy as quickly if you accidentally overcook them a little. All three are excellent on the grill with some bulgogi, by the way.
(If you're familiar with Japanese, you may have noticed that most of those mushroooms are known by their Japanese names in the West. You'll find that's true for a lot of foodstuffs here. Be prepared, however, for Koreans to come up with some sort of crazy English name (like "laver") when you're talking about something that you know by the Japanese name (like nori dried seaweed - it's kim in Korea) and to look at you queerly with a vague air of insult if you insist on using the Japanese names for these things. "You call dubu 'tofu'? But my phone's dictionary says it's 'bean curd'! And you call ramyeon "ramen"? Ha ha ha, what a crazy, mixed-up world you Japan-loving round-eyes come from!")
To help cushion the transition, though, it's not a bad idea to consider familiarizing yourself with Korean cooking and see if you can learn a couple simple recipes before you get here. Before I got here I picked up Quick and Easy Korean Cooking for Everyone at a national chain bookstore in LA, but I was disappointed to realize when I arrived in Korea that the book uses a lot of Japanese ingredients and names for ingredients because the publishing company and the Korean-born author are both from Japan. My co-workers also turned up their noses at the idea of a Korean cookbook being from Japan, even if the author was born in Seoul. Nevertheless, I actually prefer some of the recipes in the book, since I enjoy the taste of a little wine in many of these dishes, and many recipes in the book incorporate a few spoonfuls of rice wine, which is not a common ingredient in Korean cooking. For more authentic recipes, a friend here recommended Lee Wade's Korean Cookery, which I would also recommend. (Sadly, that book seems to be out of print now, so you may have to hunt around for a used copy or find a different book.) The main difficulty you may find with Korean cooking is how labor-intensive it can be - most recipes involve a lot of chopping and shredding, which is all very time-consuming when you're coming home after a day at work and want to get dinner on the table as soon as possible. One pro tip I've found that will speed up a lot of Korean recipes: if a recipe calls for you to fry several ingredients separately, just fry the meat first and then throw all the vegetables in together second. A lot of Korean recipes do suffer tremendously if they're overcooked or prepared carelessly, but if you're just looking for sustenance you probably won't notice if one or two vegetables in your dish are a little over- or underdone.
I also brought a Chinese cookbook here - Chinese Cuisine from the Wei-Chuan's Cookbook series, alas, also possibly out of print - but that choice proved to be a little less fruitful. As I mentioned, a lot of ingredients common to Chinese recipes aren't available in Korea, or it's very difficult to figure out what the Korean equivalent to an ingredient is or what it's called. Still, you'll find that Chinese cooking methods and ingredients are similar enough to Korean ones to allow for a fairly simple translation of many Chinese recipes to the Korean kitchen, and there's a wide variety of recipes in this book. Parts of the book may seem a little dated, occasionally there's a confusing instruction (Three pieces of tofu? When was tofu sold in uniform pieces in the US?) and you may want to skip the recipes that call for ketchup, but you should get the hang of how to do a basic stir-fry after trying a couple of the simpler recipes.
Given some time and patience, you'll find yourself adapting more recipes that you know and discover to your new home-away-from-home in Korea. If I could summarize my experience learning to cook here, I would do it this way: 1) meat and vegetables; 2) fry, boil, nuke and stew. If you can do a recipe with only those ingredients and those cooking methods, it's probably doable in Korea. Start scanning your cookbook for anything that calls for a saute or a simmer and you should stay fairly well-fed here.
To give you some ideas to get started, I want to share a few of my favorite dishes to prepare at home. I'm not going to post entire recipes here, but hopefully some of these suggestions might give you some ideas of how to add some variety to your kitchen if you're living here. Bon appetit!
- Ramen: Fight the urge to get lazy and eat it every day if you care about your sodium intake, but if you drop a lightly beaten egg and a few dumplings into the hot water with the noodles and the soup base, you can make a fairly filling meal out of it.
- Stir-fry: Not sure what to eat tonight? Make some rice, toss some meat in a frying pan, brown it, and add chopped kimchi and green onion - bam! Instant kimchi bokkum. Kimchi is also good for spicing up a batch of fried rice if you're in the mood. If you've never done stir-fry, you can't go wrong with this basic guide: Chop your meat and add equal parts water and corn starch, with some soy sauce. You can pre-fry the meat after this step if you're feeling fancy. Fry up some finely chopped garlic, green onion, ginger root, Lee Kum Kee hot pepper sauce or what have you for less than a minute ("until fragrant" is how my cookbook likes to put it). Throw in the meat, and when the meat is about done throw in your favorite fresh vegetables. Don't overdo frying the veggies. If you want to get crazy, stir in some more soy sauce, vinegar, cooking wine, sugar and/or sesame oil with some water and corn starch at the end.
- Italian Food: You're probably not going to be able to pull of a lasagna here, but any dish that involves sauteing meat and vegetables and dumping it on pasta should be manageable. Here's some examples:
Spaghetti: You should find the noodles and the sauce here just about everywhere, although it'll probably be a little more expensive than it was back home. If you want to add some extra sustenance, fry up some vegetables to add to the sauce, like some yellow onion or, if you want to adapt a popular Korean addition to the recipe, some kimchi. Sausage is also a good complement, and it's not too difficult to make meatballs if you've got the spices - you can find bread crumbs with the flour in the grocery store, they're used for breading deep-fried foods here.
Shrimp Scampi: Costco has cleaned frozen shrimp at a very reasonable price, but if you're cheap and lazy like me you can just use seafood flakes (also known as mock crab, or sometimes "razor clam" in Korea) instead. My favorite recipe has shallots, which you can't get here, so I use a large green onion and throw away most of the green part which is too onion-y for this recipe. Mix equal parts olive oil and melted butter, throw in whatever white wine or rice wine you can find, fry up the onion, seafood flakes and lots of chopped or crushed garlic, add some ground hot pepper to give it a little kick, top it with Parmesan cheese from Homeplus or Costco and serve it over rice or spaghetti.
Pasta Primavera: Take advantage of all those fresh vegetables in your grocery store in spring and summer and saute some onions, sweet peppers, zucchini and young pumpkin in olive oil, and serve over your favorite pasta tossed with a little more olive oil.
Chicken Parmesan: If you can find boneless chicken breasts somewhere, you can get the spaghetti sauce, flour, eggs and bread crumbs at any grocery store, and most grocery stores will have shredded "pizza cheese" available in the dairy section. Homeplus and Costco have grated Parmesan. "But how do I make chicken parm without an oven?" you ask. Easy - find a recipe that calls for deep-frying the chicken in oil. Add the oil-fried chicken to a frying pan with a little sauce in the bottom. Smother the breasts with the cheese, add the rest of the sauce, slap a lid on it and simmer until the cheese melts. Voila!
- Jambilaya: The trickiest part of this recipe is finding chicken bouillon to use to make chicken stock. Unless, of course, you actually know how to make stock from scratch, in which case you are definitely one or two rungs above me on the cooking ladder. Fry up some andouille sausage with chicken or ham cubes, garlic, onion, and maybe a little celery if you can find it. Add chicken stock, white rice, ground hot pepper and canned tomatoes (try Homeplus or Costco for those). Simmer it until the rice is cooked. When you've got about seven or eight minutes of cooking left, you can throw in a little white wine and some chopped green pepper. Don't throw in the green pepper at the beginning or they'll disintegrate by the time the rice is done. See if your local grocery store has some cayenne hot pepper sauce if you want to add a little kick to it.
- Goulash: I'm talking about the Hungarian meat stew here, not the Middle America hamburger, cheese and pasta casserole of the same name. No oven, remember? Paprika costs a fucking fortune here, if you can find it, so you might want to bring a bag or a couple bottles from home. The recipe I have also calls for marjoram, which you can't get here, so I usually do a very white trash thing and use oregano instead. Also, small red and yellow sweet peppers are called "paprika" in Korean for some reason, even though they're completely unrelated to the pepper that paprika is made out of, so if you ask for paprika at the grocery store you may confuse the shit out of everyone. The key to a good goulash, as any Czech worth their salt will tell you, is to eschew red wine and pour a bottle of Pilsner Urquel or Budvar (proudly sold at Homeplus!) into that mess before you put it to simmer. I can't find egg noodles here and I'm too lazy to make dumplings so I usually serve it over buttered macaroni instead.
- Mexican Food: Korean hot peppers are actually very close to what we call an Anaheim pepper in the United States. (Interesting fact: most of the hot peppers in Asia were originally brought from the New World by Portuguese traders. How's that for globalization?) Thus, Korean hot peppers and Korean hot pepper powder are passable substitutes for the hot peppers and chili powder in many Mexican recipes. Your main obstacles in doing anything Mexican are going to be getting cheese, beans and tortillas. Also, tomatoes are somewhat seasonal here and as I said earlier you'll never, ever encounter a lime. I know, that sounds like I pretty much just wrote off most of the key ingredients in popular Mexican cooking. You can, however, get most of these ingredients with a little work. Costco has flour tortillas in stock regularly, and see the link in the "Specialty Shops and Websites" section above for a website that advertises corn tortillas, along with canned refried beans and jalapenos. Costco also routinely has salsa, canned crushed tomatoes, canned kidney beans and big blocks of yummy, delicious cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. So once you've stocked up on that stuff, here's some Mexican stuff you can do:
Chili: Too easy. Easy as pie. Easier than pie, actually. Much easier. Have you ever tried to make a pie? It's really difficult. But chili is super easy. Brown a pound of ground beef with a chopped onion, a chopped sweet pepper and a couple chopped hot peppers if you want it to have a bit of a kick. Add a can and a half of chopped tomatoes, followed by some cumin and ground red pepper powder. Dump in two cans of kidney beans. (1 1/2 to 2 cups of dried beans, soaked overnight and boiled for two hours, will do if you can't get them canned.) Let it simmer for a little bit until the tomatoes are wilted and the beans are heated through. Sprinkle some cheddar cheese on top if it's too healthy for you.
Enchiladas: For the sauce, brown some flour in oil, mix in a couple tablespoons of ground hot pepper, slowly stir in some water, add garlic and reduce it to the right consistency. Mix fried ground beef or stewed shredded chicken with some fresh chopped onion, roll it in a flour tortilla with some cheese, nuke it until the cheese melts and cover it with shredded lettuce. Personally, I prefer to do a stacked enchilada - quickly fry a corn tortilla, cover it in meat, onions, cheese and sauce, repeat with a second layer and cap it with another tortilla, cheese and sauce.
Huevos Rancheros: You can buy refried beans by the can, or you can soak some black beans overnight, boil the shit out of them with a little oil for at least two hours and then mash them into a paste. For the sauce, fry some onion, garlic and chopped hot peppers, add some chopped tomatoes (I highly recommend using fresh tomatoes), cook them until they wilt, mix in some cumin, cilantro or oregano, and ground hot pepper to taste, and simmer it for another five or so minutes. Fry a corn tortilla or two, add beans, cheese and a fried egg, and top the whole mess with the sauce.
Fajitas: Here's a fun way to do a fajita stir-fry - Brown strips of chicken or beef, add thinly slice sweet pepper, onions and hot peppers if you feel like giving it a kick, and just before you pull it out of the pan, throw in a shot of lemon juice mixed with ground red pepper, cumin and a little corn starch and stir it up until everything's coated.
Calabacitas: This is a simplified version of a Mexican recipe I ran into while I was looking for a side dish to go with the fajitas. One chopped onion, one chopped sweet pepper, one chopped tomato, two finely chopped hot peppers, one large can of corn, one smallish zucchini, chili powder, cumin; mix and saute until cooked through.
In addition to keeping well-fed and healthy, learning to cook at home will also help you while away the hours without resorting to silliness like taekwondo lessons or heavy drinking if you live in a small town. So anyway, I hope some of this information is useful to you and I didn't just waste too much of the Internet's valuable bandwidth by committing all this to binary. Got comments? Or recipes you want to share? Please, feel free to leave some! I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what's possible in a confused foreigner's Korean kitchen. Like I never touched on the popular subject of alternate uses for your rice cooker...
So as I was saying, I intend to post some more summary thoughts on life in Korea working for EPIK before I flee the country, including (in no particular order, with the assumption that I'll come back and put links here later) advice for aspiring EPIK teachers, my thoughts on what EPIK is doing right and what could be improved (I was going to make this an open letter, but I later realized that an open letter might be a bit presumptuous), and my top five favorite and least favorite things about living in Korea. So I hope you'll enjoy hearing my thoughts, and I hope none of them will get me fired before I can collect my pension reimbursement. Cheers!