South Korea: Chilli, Spice, and Everything Rice

Two months of South Korea and endless Korean food – three meals a day might seem like a dream for people who are currently deep in the ‘Hallyu’ wave that is taking the world by storm but the truth is – it is not easy.

A restaurant meal or a takeout, which normally consists of meat (usually chicken and pork), rice and other side dishes would easily cost one anywhere between ~ 9000 to 15000 (~RM 33 to RM 55) and to afford that every day, three times was no easy feat but at the same time, it was one of the best parts of the journey.

The methods employed in cooking Korean food are intriguing as the South Koreans meticulously follow a diet that complements their four vivid climate patterns that are experienced throughout the year in quarters. If one sees beyond the famous Ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and Kimbap (Korean rice roll), it opens doors to a much wider range of dishes ranging from rice to different starches, soups, stews, grills, barbecue and 250 kinds of kimchi.

Kimchi ranges from Napa cabbage, radish, mustard greens, beansprouts and burdock root

The word Kimchi on its own signifies a vegetable fermented in chilli, vinegar, shrimp paste and lots of chilli powder. It is then left inside an earthen pot until the fermentation provides the vegetable the most distinct flavour punch one could experience.

Life in South Korea is drastically different to what one could have pictured from the dramas and the colourful Korean pop music videos. It was hard to find people sporting anything other than black, white and grey but the food was anything but. The city comes to life in the late hours of the day and for a country that is driven by long school and office hours, night proves to be the best time to let loose and connect with friends and family over food.

Fried chicken delivery – two flavours of chicken with potato fries and pickled radish

If there is one thing that connects all Koreans, it has to be fried chicken. Anywhere in Seoul will one be able to see fried chicken specialty restaurants and delivery places that operate 24 hours a day to deliver the most succulent, hot and fresh chicken. It does not matter if you are standing on the shores of the Han river or playing in the Haeundae beach in Busan – you order, they deliver!

To those who think banana and steak are a weird combination – prepare to get your minds blown because … TA-DA!

Premium steak with bananas and vegetables

Premium steak was served along with bananas and let me break the truth to you – it was amazing! The banana slices were slightly charred, caramelising them enhancing the flavour. The grilled bananas not only gave the dish a different texture and taste but elevated the whole eating experience.

The period from June to August is considered the peak summer season of the country and temperatures easily soared to 30°C and above. This was when we were introduced to a wide range of traditional country tea. The concept of tea is a celebration in its own right as the Koreans take great pride in delivering the best tea to the customers and make them feel warm and welcome in the traditional Korean houses, Hanok.

Citron tea, served hot and cold in handmade ceramic cups

South Koreans hold a great pride of their self-produced tea, with a range from floral to fruit flavours – the most popular ones being Insam-cha, a ginseng steeped tea, maeshil-cha, tea with plum extract and Ssanghwa-cha, a tea made from the root extract of many herbs.

To sum up my Korean journey in a few hundred words is impossible but I would like to advise anyone travelling to South Korea to not be fazed by the chili and image of Korean food because it is truly one of the most beautiful, diverse, and delicious cuisines in Asia. By approaching it with open-mindedness, you will certainly feel good, and who knows, if you add an Annyeong haseyo or a Kamsahamnida before and after your meal, you will leave the restaurant with a full stomach and a satisfied heart!

By Samudhra Sendhil

"I am not a glutton - I am an explorer of food." - Emma Bombeck

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