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15 Most Unusual Korean Dishes
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In my recent article, Top 10 Korean Foods You Have To Try, I explored 10 of the most delicious and satisfying Korean foods. In today’s list, we look at dishes that most of us living outside of Korea find very unusual. Despite this, it is worth trying all of the dishes if you get a chance as they are such unique and tasty aspects of Korea’s amazing culinary heritage.
After enduring the second world war, and then the Korean War, the Korean people were left hungry and in need. In order to feed their families, many parents who lived near US army bases took surplus supplies of army goods such as spam and canned frankfurters and added them to a basic kimchi stew. The end result was Army Base Stew. This stew, which can have virtually anything in it – including eggs and ramen noodles – has spread across South Korea and is wildly popular to this day. [Image © jetalone]
Chicken feet are probably one of the least unusual entries on this list, considering that most countries with a Chinese restaurant can get Chinese-style chicken feet. The texture of this dish is very unusual to western palettes – it is sinewy and chewy. Once you get past the idea that you are eating feet, this dish is truly delectable and I couldn’t recommend it enough.
These delightful little crabs are not cooked before consumption; instead they are seasoned with various sauces and eaten raw. Interestingly another raw seafood dish of baby crabs is soft enough that you also eat the shells which are not unlike a slightly harder version of an M&M shell. These are very popular in Korea, and you will see bundles of these crabs tied together in chains at most fish markets. [Image © Caspian blue]
While the idea of live seafood soup sounds rather awful, it isn’t as bad as you think. The seafood is all raw when taken to the table, but it is cooked in a very hot soup prior to consumption. The soup contains gochujang (hot pepper paste) and is spicy, sweet and full of flavor from the amazing array of vegetables and herbs that are added (including crown daisies!) This soup is extremely popular in Korea, it is delicious, and it will soon become one of your favorites if you try it. [Image © stuart_spivack]
It is commonly believed in the west that Asians don’t eat dairy products. In fact, in both China and Japan, small amounts in the form of ice cream and occasionally milk or yoghurt are consumed – though seldom in cooking. Korea, on the other hand, has a long and venerable tradition of cooking with milk. Tarakjuk originated as Royal Cuisine, and milk has been drunk and cooked with in Korea since the fourth century. This undoubtedly reflects Korea’s great love of eating unusual things for their health benefits and not just taste, and it makes them unique in that area of the world. [Image © The Taste of Korea]
While acorns are poisonous, the toxins can be removed by cooking. In parts of Korea (especially mountainous regions), acorns grow in huge numbers. During times of hunger in the past, the people living in the mountains discovered that acorn could be cooked and powdered to provide a starch that can be cooked. The result is a jelly with a very subtle and slightly bitter flavor. When seasoned with soy based sauces and vegetables it becomes a truly delicious side dish. [Image © HapaK]
Korean’s aren’t the only people to eat fermented fish, but this is definitely one of the strongest smelling you will find in the world. Skate doesn’t urinate like other fish – it passes its uric acid through its skin. When it is fermented, the uric acid breaks down into a compound which smells exactly like ammonia. The smell of this fish is so strong that some people recommend breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose to reduce your exposure to the odor. [Image © egg (Hong, Yun Seon)]
Dead body soup is so-nicknamed in the west because its odor is so strong and repellant to many. In fact, there is a story (undoubtedly an urban legend) that states that some Korean students living in Germany cooked this soup in their flat, only to have the neighbors call the police fearing that they were keeping a corpse in their home. The soybean paste used for this soup is only briefly fermented (unlike typical soybean paste – pictured above), which means that much of its strong ammonia smell remains. It has largely whole soy beans which stick together with a slimy, gluey substance. But, despite the dreadful description and smell, it is incredibly delicious. Before you think to refuse it on the grounds of its smell, think of how so many of us love to eat blue cheeses, and the strongest of the French soft cheeses like Livarot.
Other than the name, Korean sundae has no relation to western sundaes. Sundae is a cow or pig’s intestine, stuffed like a sausage with various ingredients. They are a type of blood sausage and can be stuffed with seafood to give you a squid sundae (I bet you never thought you would hear that) or a dried pollock sundae. Typically, the dish is boiled or steamed. Sundae is a very popular street food in both South and North Korea, and you should try it if you get the chance. [Image © ayustety]
Gopchang is similar to sundae, except that the intestines (small and large) of a pig are grilled without any stuffing. The texture is very chewy, and while the dish is often served cooked alone, it can also be used as an ingredient in other dishes such as stews. Gopchang really is incredibly delicious and it is usually very fresh, so you can be sure of the best taste. When eating it you often have a dipping sauce along side. Despite what it is, this is something most westerners should not have too much difficulty eating. [Image © keizie]
A gizzard is part of an animal’s digestive tract which functions to grind down food. It is made of thick muscular walls. Dak Dong Jib is often wrongly referred to as chicken rectum, but this is not accurate. It is actually a form of sundae and is very common (and popular) in North Korea. Because it is such a heavy dish, it is very popular as a drinking side dish as it helps to absorb alcohol. While it is very common in North Korea, you have to hunt a little harder in South Korea to find it. [Image Source]
Beondegi is another Korean street food. It comprises steamed or boiled silkworm pupae, which are seasoned. As well as being a popular snack on the streets, Beondegi is often served with alcohol. When you find a vendor selling silkworm pupae, you can be fairly sure that roast crickets are also not too far away. This is one of those dishes that take a little steel to try for the first time, but when you do you can appreciate why it is such a popular snack.
If you search youtube you can find various video clips of people eating Sannakji. The octopus is taken fresh from the water, quickly gutted and expertly chopped into many pieces. You then eat it while it continues to writhe on the plate in its myriad parts. This is the only dish on the list which also comes with a danger warning: octopodes’ suckers continue to function even when they are chopped up, so they must be chewed very thoroughly. There have been a number of deaths due to eating Sannakji, because the octopus managed to suck on to a person’s throat.
Canine meat is surprisingly common in many Asian countries, and Korea is no exception, though consumption is much less than average there, with dog meat being the fourth most common meat eaten. A special breed of dog is preferred for consumption, and there is a different word for dogs fit for eating and dogs fit for pets. Many Koreans are opposed to the consumption of dog meat for similar reasons to Westerners, but it is quite legal and most restaurants purchase their meat from trusted dog farms. Bosintang is a stew made with dog meat that is eaten on the three hottest days of the year (sam-bok) in order to keep strength up. The texture and taste is not unlike goat. Generally, you find bosintang at restaurants that specialize in the dish. If you want to read a fascinating article that discusses the ethics and laws around this dish, read “Dog – it’s what’s for dinner“.
Spoon worms are marine animals, and if you look on youtube for videos of them in a tank of water you will see that they bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy that I won’t mention here. When consumed, they are cut into bite sized pieces which continue to move (like sannakji) on the plate. I chose this entry for number one because it is not only unusual for us in the west to eat moving creatures, it is even less usual to eat something we are so completely unfamiliar with that we don’t even recognize it. Despite the somewhat alien appearance of these sea worms, gaebul is meant to be very delicious and certainly safer to eat than the raw octopus if you are a lazy chewer.
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Unless otherwise specified, all images above are commercially licensed for use in this article.