Introduction to Korean Cuisine
Korean cuisine is known for its balance of spicy, sweet, salty, and sour flavors. Many vegetable dishes play an important role in creating this balanced palate. Korea has four distinct seasons, and local vegetables are readily available and often fermented or preserved to be enjoyed year-round.
Some of the most popular Korean vegetable dishes include kimchi, namul (seasoned vegetable side dishes), jeon (savory pancakes), japchae (glass noodles with vegetables), and bibimbap (rice bowls with assorted vegetables). Soups, stews, and hot pot dishes also showcase seasonal vegetables.
While some vegetable dishes like kimchi and jeon may contain meat or seafood, Korea has a long tradition of Buddhist temple cuisine that is completely vegetarian. Many Koreans also enjoy sanchae bibimbap (mountain vegetables on rice) as a meatless dish.
Here is an overview of some of the most common vegetables used in Korean cooking:
Leafy greens are widely used in Korean cuisine, often blanched or briefly sauteed and seasoned to make namul side dishes. Popular varieties include:
Cabbage: Napa cabbage is used to make kimchi. Smaller bok choy and chard are quick-cooked into namul.
Spinach: Spinach is often blanched and seasoned, or added to soups and stews. Wild spinach like sigeumchi namul is also popular.
Lettuces: Romaine, iceberg, and other lettuces are commonly used for lettuce wraps called sangchu-ssam.
Fernbrake: Also called gosari, this green is often pickled into kimchi.
Mugwort: This herb known as ssuk or chwinamul is commonly pan-fried into jeon pancakes.
Perilla leaves: Called kkaennip, these aromatic leaves are used as ssam wrapping and added to soups.
Korean root vegetables tend to be hearty and filling. They are often used in soups, stews, and porridge:
Radish: Korean radish or mu is larger and crisper than daikon radish. It’s used in kimchi and sliced thin into noodles or matchsticks.
Potato: Potato is a common thickener for stews like gamjatang (pork spine stew). It’s also pan-fried into jeon.
Sweet Potato: Roasted sweet potato is popular as a street food snack. It’s also used in tempura, jeon, and desserts.
Taros: Called toran, these tubers are common in soups and stews.
Lotus root: Renkon is often sliced and added to namul or vinegared dishes.
Burdock root: Called u-eong, it’s simmered in soy sauce or added to soups.
Summer and winter squash varieties find their way into many Korean dishes:
Zucchini: Jukini namul features julienned zucchini seasoned with sesame oil.
Pumpkin: Danhobak features blanched pumpkin seasoned or simmered in stews.
Acorn squash: Called dotori, it’s often candied or simmered in soy sauce.
Winter melon: Donggua is added to meat or seafood soup stocks.
Spaghetti squash: Used similarly to zucchini and in place of noodles.
Butternut squash: Features in roasted veggie side dishes and rice bowls.
Mushrooms lend rich, earthy flavors to Korean cuisine:
Shiitake mushrooms: Called pyogo, they’re enjoyed in soups, stews, and hot pots.
Oyster mushrooms: Called nabang pyogo, they have a tender texture and subtle flavor.
Enoki mushrooms: Called paengi beoseot, these are gently cooked in seasonings.
King oyster mushrooms: Called ungsi pyogo, these large mushrooms are often grilled.
Pine mushrooms: Songi mushrooms are prized for their fragrance and used sparingly.
Spicy chili peppers are essential for the heat and red color in many Korean dishes:
Korean red pepper: Called gochugaru, these dried chiles are the basis for kimchi and many pan-fried dishes.
Green chili pepper: Called cheongyang gochu, they are often pickled into kimchi.
Jalapeno chili: Gochu is increasingly used for its bright green color and spice.
Legumes and Beans
Beans and soy foods also have a place in Korean cuisine:
Soybean sprouts: Kong namul features blanched soybean sprouts seasoned with sesame oil.
Mung bean sprouts: Sukju namul is made from blanched mung bean sprouts.
Edamame: Kong japchae features shelled edamame in sweet potato glass noodle stir fry.
Tofu: Dubu features silken, firm, or extra firm tofu added to soups, stews, and porridge. Fried tofu can be added to rice bowls.
Sea vegetables offer unique flavors and textures:
Kelp: Dasima adds natural umami flavor to broths and is pickled.
Sea mustard: Miyeok is commonly used in soup stocks.
Laver: Gim are toasted sheets of dried laver enjoyed as a topping or snack.
Fruits and Berries
Some sweet fruits and berries are incorporated into Korean cooking:
Asian pear: Called bae, it’s diced into namul or marinated as a salad.
Persimmon: Gam is enjoyed raw, dried, or cooked into desserts.
Jujube: Daechu is simmered with teas and used in rice cake desserts.
Korean strawberry: Called meori, it’s larger and less sweet than Western varieties. Enjoyed fresh or cooked into jams.
Omija berry: Used to flavor teas, wines, and sauces with its tart taste.
Other Unique Vegetables
Here are some other vegetables commonly enjoyed in Korea:
Fernbrake: Called gosari, this highly nutritious green is often pickled into kimchi.
Bellflower root: Doraji is valued for its crunchy texture and eaten raw or cooked.
Aster scaber: Chwinamul are the edible leaves of this relative of chrysanthemums.
Shepherd’s purse: Called naengi, this delicate green is often used in Buddhist temple cuisine.
Arrowhead: Cheon-gaknamul features the edible tubers of this aquatic plant.
Most Popular Korean Vegetable Dishes
Here is an overview of some of the most well-known Korean vegetable dishes:
Kimchi: This fermented vegetable dish can be made with napa cabbage, radish, cucumber and other vegetables. It’s a staple side dish with spicy, tangy flavors.
Namul: These are seasoned vegetable side dishes made from blanched or sauteed greens, roots, mushrooms and other produce.
Jeon: These savory pancakes are made by coating vegetables in wheat or rice flour batter and pan-frying. Popular versions include seafood, kimchi, green onion and mugwort jeon.
Japchae: Sweet potato glass noodles stir fried with vegetables like spinach, carrots, onions and mushrooms.
Bibimbap: A bowl of rice topped with namul vegetables, gochujang sauce, and often a fried egg.
Kongbap: Soybean sprout rice bowls topped with assorted vegetables and gochujang sauce.
Janchi guksu: This chilled noodle dish is served with vegetables like cucumber, radish, pear, and egg garnish.
Sujebi: A hand torn wheat flour noodle soup with vegetables like zucchini, mushrooms and seaweed.
Samgyetang: This ginseng chicken soup always includes small whole onions and gingko nuts.
Yachaejeon: A large pancake with thinly sliced vegetables like zucchini, carrots, cabbage and onion.
Vegetable Cooking Methods
There are several classic Korean methods for preparing vegetables:
Blanching: Quickly boiling then shocking vegetables in ice water to preserve color and texture. Used to prepare namul.
Sauteeing: Quickly cooking vegetables over high heat in a small amount of oil until just wilted. Also used for namul.
Roasting: Dry roasting root vegetables like sweet potato or lotus root to caramelize their natural sugars.
Stir-frying: Cooking sliced vegetables on high heat while tossing in a pan. Used for japchae and certain namul.
Steaming: Steaming vegetables over boiling water in a covered dish. Common for pumpkin, potato, and eggs.
Simmering: Gently boiling vegetables like burdock root or dried shiitake in seasoned broths.
Pan-frying: Cooking jeon pancake batters or fritters in shallow oil until crispy.
Pickling: Immersing vegetables in salty brine for extended periods to lactic-ferment them. Essential for kimchi and vinegared dishes.
Seasonings and Sauces for Vegetables
Korean vegetable dishes are enhanced with various seasonings:
Gochugaru: Korean red chili pepper flakes. Provides heat and color.
Gochujang: Spicy fermented soybean and chili paste. Adds sweet and spicy flavor.
Doenjang: Fermented soybean paste. Provides deep, savory umami flavor.
Ssamjang: Spicy paste of doenjang and gochujang. Used as a dipping sauce.
Sesame oil: Roasted sesame oil provides nutty aroma and flavor.
Soy sauce: Used for simmering mushrooms, roots, and other vegetables.
Rice syrup: Called ssalsaet, this adds sweetness to stir-fry dishes.
Vinegar: Rice vinegar offers mild tanginess and color to namul.
Sesame seeds: Toasted white or black sesame seeds add crunch and nuttiness as garnish.
Green onions: Chopped green onions are commonly used as garnish.
Vegetables by Seasonality in Korea
Korea’s four seasons feature seasonal produce:
Spring: Asparagus, fernbrake, lettuce, onion, pea shoots, spinach, wild greens
Summer: Bean sprouts, bellflower root, chili peppers, cucumber, eggplant, green onion, mushrooms, radish, soybeans, zucchini
Fall: Acorn squash, cabbage, chestnut, daikon radish, ginkgo nut, pears, persimmon, sweet potato
Winter: Burdock root, dried shiitakes, kimchi, napa cabbage, potatoes, pumpkin, taro root
Health Benefits of Korean Vegetables
The vegetables in Korean cuisine provide excellent nutritional value:
High in antioxidants: Peppers, spinach, mushrooms, cabbage contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation.
High in fiber: Beans, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, and root vegetables provide filling fiber.
Rich in nutrients: Broccoli, bok choy, soybeans, seaweed offer vitamins like A, C, and minerals.
May protect against disease: Compounds like allicin in garlic may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Aid digestion: Fermented foods like kimchi contain probiotics that support gut health.
Vegetarian Adaptations of Korean Cuisine
Many classic Korean dishes can be adapted to vegetarian and vegan diets:
– Use mushrooms, tofu, or eggplant as meat substitutes in soups, stews, and rice bowls
– Prepare kimchi and namul without the salted seafood
– Use vegetable broths instead of meat broths
– Make rice porridge and soups with nuts like pine nuts or walnuts
– Saute or roast a variety of vegetables for bibimbap
– Load up jeon pancakes with carrots, zucchini, and onion
– Avoid the traditional fish sauce when making sauces and condiments
Where to Find Vegetarian Korean Food
Many Korean restaurants offer vegetarian options or can modify dishes:
– Bibimbap and Korean tofu stews are naturally meatless
– Ask for vegetarian versions of soups, hot pots, and porridge
– Request kimchi and other banchan without fish products
– Order vegetable jeon, japchae, or bean sprout rice bowls
– Buddhist temple cuisine restaurants serve completely vegan menus
– Grocery stores sell vegan kimchi, tofu, and mock meats
– Follow vegetarian Korean food bloggers and Instagrammers for recipe ideas
Easy Korean Vegetable Side Dishes to Make at Home
Some simple Korean vegetable banchan can be easily made at home:
– Cucumber namul: Thinly sliced cucumbers tossed in sesame oil, rice vinegar, and toasted sesame seeds
– Spinach namul: Blanched and squeezed spinach seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil
– Koren potato salad: Potatoes boiled, sliced and seasoned with carrots, vinegar and mayo
– Sauteed zucchini: Zucchini sliced and quickly sauteed with soy sauce, garlic and sesame seeds
– Marinated bean sprouts: Refreshing cool bean sprout salad made with rice vinegar
– Sauteed mushrooms: Shiitake, oyster or button mushrooms sauteed in soy sauce and sesame oil
Korean cuisine highlights the flavors of seasonal vegetable ingredients. From spicy kimchi to satisfying soups and nutrient-rich side dishes, vegetables play an important role in Korean food culture. With some key ingredients and preparation techniques, it’s easy to start cooking popular Korean vegetable dishes at home. Exploring vegetable focused Korean restaurants and recipes can be a delicious way to eat more veggies.