Korea could have easily become a nation with no identity when it comes to food. The country was heavily influenced by China, invaded by the Mongols, and occupied several times by Japanese rulers not known for their cultural sensitivity. Despite all this, their cuisine has come through it all unscathed, remaining distinct from those of its neighbors and historic trading partners.
Korean food is somewhat of a mystery to most foreigners. While Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and and even Thai restaurants abound in the US, eateries from this Asian nation primarily serve immigrants or expatiriates from the homeland. While these restaurants sometimes succeed with the general public in Manhattan or on the West Coast, the majority are located in Korean neighborhoods and filled with local customers. Perhaps this is because many of the staple foods are an acquired taste, or that they're difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Besides, when it comes to advertising, they're not exactly photogenic.
Take kimchi, which is served with virtually every meal. Kimchi is a generic word referring to any spicy pickled vegetable concoction, but the most common type is made from cabbage fermented in a brine that includes red chili paste and loads of garlic. It won't make you sweat, but it has quite a bite. The fiery, blood-red pepper sauce contrasts with the white or transluscent cabbage leaves, forming a mixture that doesn't exactly make your mouth water at first glance. Other versions are made with green beans, large white radishes, bean sprouts, and a variety of unique local vegetables. In Korea, it's not unusual to find several different bowls of kimchi laid out with a meal, even in the Chinese and Japanese restaurants. While the taste takes a bit of getting used to, most expatriates living in Korea eventually end up enjoying it regularly.
Bulgogi and Kalbi
The dishes that westerners take to most quickly, however, are usually bulgogi and kalbi--both made from beef. The first is thinly-sliced, marinated beef quickly fried and served with rice or vegetables. Kalbi is marinated beef ribs grilled over a fire at the table. Vents carry away the smoke, while customers take care of flipping the small pieces of meat and removing them with their chopsticks. You lay the morsels in romaine lettuce or sesame leaves, throw in some kimchi and pepper sauce, then stuff the roll into your mouth. There are also many pork kalbi restaurants in Korea, which tend to be a little cheaper.
Korean food is generally quite healthy. Meat is usually eaten in small portions that can be picked up with chopsticks and it is always complemented by a large number of vegetable dishes. With all the pickling and soy sauce, sodium levels are high, but meals are generally well-balanced, high in fiber, and low in fat, calories, and sugar. Vegetarians get plenty of protein, since tofu and other soy products are prominent ingredients. The harmony of spices and seasonings is very important and many ingredients are also chosen for their health and medicinal benefits.
Numerous lunch items are prepared individually since many restaurants serve takeout as well. Dinner meals, however, are eaten family-style. Diners pick at an assortment of dishes with metal chopsticks, or ladel soups or stews into their own individual bowls. Usually each person will have their own rice bowl and perhaps a clear soup, but everyone shares the other items. As you would expect from such a casual dining style, service is far from formal. Waitresses are generally mothers in an apron. To call one over, the proper term is not 'waitress,' but 'ahjuma'--the respectful term for a middle-aged or married woman. Food quality is consistently high from restaurant to restaurant and there are few layers of finery: the 'haemul tang' (mixed seafood soup) you order from a hole-in-the-wall place in a residential neighborhood will generally taste and look about the same as the version you would get in the fanciest restaurant in town. In either case, the 'cook' prepares and combines all the ingredients, but the cooking itself takes place at a burner on your table.