It was almost six months ago that I left the familiar shores of one republic to live in another. Since arriving in the Republic of Korea, I have learned a lot about the world and myself. I can read and write in Hangul (listening and speaking is much more difficult). I’ve met some amazing people and made some wonderful friendships. And I’ve grown in ways not possible had I chosen to remain at home and can only hope and assume that growth continues over the next six months.
One thing that hasn’t grown since I arrived is my waistline. So far I’m 20 lbs slimmer and still going. My hope is to have dropped a staggering 50 lbs total by the end of my term here. There are a few reasons why this is possible and all of them are completely due to the cuisine of the Korean culture.
The first reason is portion size. As many of you know, I previously worked at the theme parks of American restaurants: The Cheesecake Factory. During that tenure, I witnessed many people order (and subsequently ingest) meals of upwards of 4,000 calories and hundreds of grams per fat within one sitting. If any of you have ever eaten at a Cheesecake Factory, you’ll understand what I mean (and why I love that place so damn much); the plates are huge and often come to the table piled high with delicious food. Even most of the salads on the menu are over 1,500 calories each (I’m not kidding). By contrast, Korean portions are slightly smaller and by slightly I mean way freaking smaller. One standard portion at the “Cheese” is the equivalent of four Korean servings.
The second reason isn’t how much they’re eating but what they’re eating. Most of the dishes are fish and vegetable based although Koreans do enjoy their meat and chicken – I’m sure you’ve heard of Korean Barbecue. The difference is that while American dishes centered on one huge entree of meat and a few mini sides of vegetables, Korea has flipped that around. Many meals here are a series of ‘sides’ known as banchan (like tapas). On any given table, you’ll see a dozen small plates of various vegetables most of which are served at every single meal. The portion of meat eaten is about what the USDA has approved a single serving of meat to be – three to four ounces.
The third reason is rice. Rice is served for every meal and in snacks. Bap is the Korean word for rice and that syllable appears in so many names of dishes, I can’t even count them all. A lot of the anti-carb contingency in America swears off white rice but if you take a look at the fat and calorie content of this wonder food – that expands in your stomach as you eat it, thus preventing you from over eating – you’d most likely be surprised at what you find. A cup of steamed, white rice is approximately 100 calories. Compare that to other foods you may enjoy: potatoes, pasta, even meat and you’ll see that filling up your tummy with rice is far healthier than most American food.
The fourth reason is chopsticks. Navigating your food to your mouth between two sticks is a much more meticulous and an evidently slower process than using a fork and knife. For years, my Mom told me to slow down when I eat – from the time I was five until last year – when she could’ve just taken away my fork and replaced it with chopsticks instead. She’ll be thrilled to know that I’ve slowed down when I eat and that, combined with the rice expanding in my stomach, means I’m eating less per sitting.
When eating a Korean meal, regardless of the time of day, you’ll notice piles of leaves marinated in something that turned them red. That is the most popular Korean dish – pickled (fermented) cabbage with pepper spices and other ingredients. Kimchi is served at every meal and most Koreans will tell you it’s their favorite food. For westerners, kimchi is most definitely an acquired taste. I, myself have yet to really enjoy it. I eat it because I know it’s healthy and it contains bacteria that helps digestion. Rumored to cause stomach cancer in large portions, kimchi is best eaten in smaller quantities throughout the day – or maybe only a few times a week.
Another popular Korean dish is called Bibimbap (there’s that bap again). This dish is a pile of rice covered in vegetables (and sometimes an egg), and mixed with sesame seed oil and red pepper paste. It can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. I prefer mine, like most of what I eat, hot. But it is good cold as well. There are regional differences in all Korean food, primarily due to the ingredients available. Both bibimbap and kimchi have slight variations in almost every restaurant and city in the nation.
The popular Korean meat dishes are bulgogi, dunkass, and dakgalbi (beef, pork, and chicken respectively). Bulgogi can be prepared in any number of ways and put into many different dishes including noodle soups, rice, and even on Korean pizza (don’t get me started on their pizza toppings here). It’s the name of the dish and the sauce they use to create it. You can order bulgogi burgers at fast food restaurants and my buddy who owns the Philly Cheesesteak place makes a bulgogi cheesesteak.
One noodle dish that goes well with bulgogi is called japchae (or chapchae) and is a bowl of noodles made from sweet potatoes. The noodles are served piping hot and mixed with vegetables, almost like a stir fry.
Dunkatsu is essentially breaded and fried pork cutlets and before you ask, yes I have made it at home with spaghetti gravy and melted cheese. Dunkatsu parmigiana is my favorite Korean entree! Dunkatsu is typically served over a bed of – yup – rice and covered in a brown sauce that I’ve only seen labeled as ‘Dunkatsu Sauce’. My favorite restaurant in town covers it with an Indian curry sauce!
Dakgalbi is a very spicy chicken dish that wreaks havoc on your intestines as it passes through them. Most Koreans enjoy their chicken with beer, hof, and this obviously exacerbates things next morning. If you’ve ever ordered General Tso’s Chicken, that’s a lot like what dakgalbi is like… only much spicier.
Some Koreans also eat dog meat (nureongi) but it’s only a small minority and they only eat it certain times of the year and on special occasions. the dogs are raised to be eaten – like Americans raise chickens, cows, and pigs. Koreans do not eat other people’s pets. I promise.
The last Korean food for this article is called kimbap (bap again!) and it’s a snack food similar to the Japanese sushi. You take seaweed paper and roll it around sticky white rice and other ingredients (again, they vary) like hard boiled egg, vegetables, fish, cheese, and beef. The roll is sliced up and eaten in little round pinwheels. I prefer to dip mine in soy sauce but most Koreans don’t. Kimbap is the least expensive food I’ve bought – one roll is about $1.50 and is enough to hold you over for a few hours. Two rolls is an entire meal. One of my coworkers enjoys it so much, he buys a handful of rolls at a time just to keep in his fridge for when he gets hungry.
If you have yet to try any Korean food, I recommend hitting up a Korean Barbecue place near you. I’m sure you can find one if you look it up. I know for a fact there’s a good one on Rt 70 between Cherry Hill and Mt. Laurel-Marlton. So while you’re all enjoying your Thanksgiving leftover turkey sandwiches, I’ll be sucking down bowls of rice and vegetables. With any luck, I’ll come home swimming in my clothes!
Until Next Time…