After being accepted into the Bahrom International Program at Seoul Women’s University, I made it my mission to try Korean food.
Luckily for me there was (and thankfully still is) an awesome Korean restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Strip District-Sushi Kim (don’t be misled by the name-while sushi is offered the owners are Korean and Korean food is the focal point).
It is hard to believe but next July it will be 10 years since I studied in South Korea but whenever I get pangs for Korean food, I make a trip to Sushi Kim.
While I struggled at times with the food while living there, I definitely have my five favorites all people should try in the world of Korean cuisine.
Bulgogi (or pulgogi as it is also known) was the first ever Korean dish that I tried. It’s simple grilled, marinated meats (bulgogi can apply to chicken, beef, and pork) although being Korean fare, they always have a spicy “kick” to them. The proper way to eat them is to take some meats, rice, and then enclose them in a lettuce leaf. Trust me when I say that pulgogi is delicious and it’s a dish that I enjoy eating year-round. When I have made bulgogi, it never tastes as good as when you get it at a Korean restaurant.
Although it may have a funny name (it means mixed rice in Korean), bibimbap is actually quite tasty. My initial tasting of it was on my first full day in South Korea. As I was still jet lagged “out of my mind” as I like to call it, food was tasting horrible to me, so this dish of white rice that is topped with an egg, sliced meats, and a variety of vegetables just was not appealing to me. Thankfully I would try it again later on and really liked it. From a photographer’s perspective, it is a great subject with the beautiful array of colors present.
No joke when I say that kimchi, a traditional fermented side dish of vegetables, is served morning, noon and night. While I could understand it being placed in the cafeteria buffet line at the dormitory where I was living, the smell of fermented spicy cabbage at 7 in the morning alongside the Frosted Flakes container was a bit much to take. I never actually tried it when I was in Korea as kimchi enjoys a reputation of being extremely spicy and for me, that is a traveler’s no no. I also always avoided it at Korean restaurants, too afraid of the spice. But on my recent trip to Oahu, on our last night we did carry out from a great hole in the wall Korean eatery and one of the sides I had was kimchi (cucumber style). It was spicy, but it was surprisingly good. So Korea, I promise you this-when I return I will try kimchi, just not at breakfast.
Mandu, or Korean dumplings, literally saved me. Okay, that may be an exaggeration but after staying the weekend with a Korean student and not eating my usual amount of food due to almost everything having tentacles, on our last night there the mom ordered take out. Imagine my immense relief and sheer joy when I discovered that take out was none other than dumplings filled with minced pork. I had a ton and forever dreamt about eating them again. I haven’t found mandu in Korean restaurants here in Pittsburgh (the Japanese dumpling gyoza always seems to be on menus). However, on numerous trips to New York City, I have traveled to “Little Korea” and gotten mandu from a place called none other than the Mandu Bar. Check them out if you’re ever in the Big Apple.
As I mentioned above, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the food served at the dorm’s cafeteria. Breakfast was okay since I could partake in toast and cereal but lunches and dinners were hit or miss. I made do but often escaped to nearby Itaweon, an expat neighborhood where every fast food place you could think of was located (my frequent trips there are probably the reason why I did not lose any weight while in Korea), or picked up rolls and breads from the French bakery that was near to the subway stop. However, one Friday the program threw a party and kalbi, barbecued beef short ribs were served (they had outdoor barbecue pits and all). They were delicious and I finally sampled them again at the small Korean eatery I mentioned above in Hawaii.
I feel Korea is often overlooked by American travelers, especially when paired next to China and Japan. However, even if a trip to Korea is not in the cards anytime soon, if there is a Korean restaurant in your area, I highly recommend trying it. It’s a cuisine you’ll be happy you were introduced to!