“Daebak!” — pronounced DEH-bahk, often with a long, guttural emphasis on the first syllable — can be a noun, an adjective or an interjection that expresses approval when something is truly great.
It’s the Korean word my mother blurted out when she recently tasted my doenjang jjigae, a soybean-paste stew that has taken me years to perfect.
Some might measure a Korean cook’s prowess by their kimchi, an intimate way to get to know someone’s sohn mat, or hand taste, the immeasurable quality of a cook’s personal touch. But I would argue that doenjang jjigae, the humblest and most basic of Korean stews, is a window into a cook’s soul. The precision with which the vegetables are cut, the ratio of broth to soybean paste, and the clarity and balance of flavors can reveal a lot about a cook’s palate, as well as their priorities. Are they showing off or aiming to nourish? Is the stew in your face, or soothing you throughout the meal like a weighted blanket?
When my mother said my doenjang jjigae was “daebak,” I finally felt that I had graduated from her master class in Korean cooking. As the son of South Korean immigrants, I’ve been attending it since I was old enough to walk, a little shadow following her around our suburban Atlanta kitchen, tasting her kimchi for sugar and salt; helping her pick and wash perilla leaves from the garden for a family dinner of ssam; or, later in life, sitting at the kitchen island watching her crush gim, that glorious roasted seaweed, over a homecoming plate of kimchi fried rice.
I am no longer my mother’s shadow, but the way I cook now, the way I move and breathe in my New York City kitchen, has echoes of her movements, her breaths. So much of cooking is using your senses and following your gut, and I never experience those instincts more acutely than when I am making Korean food.
As a child, I used to lament that I had to attend Korean language school every Saturday morning (which is probably why now, every day after work, I unwind by watching all those cartoons I missed). Much like learning the language, learning the cuisine of my parents’ home country is a constant process of self-discovery, with each recipe unlocking a new way of connecting not just to South Korea but to my own culinary identity.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been Korean my whole life, and I’ve been cooking since I was 13, but only recently have I begun to feel like a Korean cook.
It wasn’t just my mother’s approval that made me feel that I had graduated from our lessons, though it meant a lot. It was that I had, over time, folded doenjang jjigae into my everyday cooking, right next to the other dishes in my repertoire like green salad, roast chicken and yeasted bread. As much as our festive tables reflect our aspirations when we’re at our highest and happiest, I’ve always felt that it’s the quotidian things we make for ourselves when we’re especially tired (and need to get food on the table) that tell the true story of who we are as cooks.
So when The Times asked me to share my essential Korean recipes — dishes that are elemental to me and my experience as a person of South Korean descent — I was honored. But I was also terrified.
Throughout my career as a food writer, I’ve often felt the impulse to deflect any claim of authority or authenticity when putting Korean recipes into the world: Who was I, a Korean American, to represent a centuries-old cuisine that has so many layers and variations throughout history and the diaspora?
What I’ve learned, ultimately, is that my experience as a Korean American is my authority. I may not have been raised in Seoul, save for a couple summers while visiting my grandmother, but the city that took care of me, Atlanta, has a rich and bustling Korean American population. (After English and Spanish, Korean is the most commonly spoken language in Georgia homes.)
Many of us are Korean because of what’s in our hearts, not how fluent we are in Hangul, what our parents and grandparents look like or where our families have decided to lay down roots.
These recipes, then, are what define Korean cuisine for me personally, which is why your own favorites might be missing from this list. But rest assured that jjajangmyeon, those slippery black-bean-paste noodles; maeuntang, that blaze of a fish stew; bulgogi, sweet and salty marinated grilled beef; and ganjang gejang, raw soy-sauced crabs, all trailed close behind these 10.
Anyway, in life but especially in cooking, there are no true universal essentials: Every house, every restaurant, every cook does things a little differently. You could have dinner at five Korean families’ homes, for instance, and the doenjang jjigae would taste different at each of them.
Still, there are certain ingredients that come up time and again. (They also explain why Korean food tastes the way it does: savory, balanced, full of heart.)
In the recipes that follow, you’ll see a lot of seaweed — whether as gim (roasted, seasoned sheets that shatter when pressed over a bowl of gyeran bap) or dasima (dried kelp that flavors soups, stews and even pasta sauces with oceanic depth and savoriness) — because South Korea’s shores are rife with it.
Korean radishes — sweeter, plumper and crisper than other varieties — are more than just a vegetable. They imbue broths and jjigaes with immeasurable balance. Daikon works in a pinch, but it is not the same as a Korean radish.
Chewy rice cakes, or tteok (pronounced somewhere between “tuck” and “duck”), are an ingredient, such as in tteokbokki, as much as they are a snack, grilled over a flame or broiled in the oven until crispy — then, in my home, dipped in honey and soy sauce.
Nothing tastes more Korean to me than a drop of toasted sesame oil over a bed of freshly steamed white rice and fried eggs. Its unparalleled nuttiness reaches my soul in a way that few things can.
The same gochugaru, or red-pepper powder, that stains crimson a head of napa cabbage kimchi is also used in other banchan, various dressed salads called muchims and uplifting jorims, or braises. It lends heat, sure, but it can also infuse a dish with incredible sweetness and an almost fermented savoriness, especially when you first bloom it in fats like sesame oil and butter.
I want everyone to experience the smell of gochugaru stirred through a pat of melted butter. You could fry an egg in it, or just use it as your aromatherapy for the day. “Daebak,” my mother would call it.
If I could have only 10 Korean dishes for the rest of my life, these would be the ones. They stem mostly from South Korean food traditions, and especially from Seoul, because that’s where my parents are from. Some of these dishes are more than their ingredients, speaking not only to the history of a divided nation and a war, but also to a gorgeous history of empires. These meals are fit for kings and queens, represent the resilience of the Korean people and come from a long line of home cooks.
I’ve written the recipes in English, but know that their souls are in Korean. And if you need a place to start, I hear the doenjang jjigae is daebak.
A well-executed doenjang jjigae can be a quiet but powerful exercise in restraint. This simple recipe allows the umami-rich flavor of the doenjang (DWEN-jahng), a fermented soybean paste, and the natural sweetness of onion, zucchini and radish to shine. The oil-packed anchovies here may not be as traditional as dried, but they are an effective substitute that I learned from my friend James Park. You can make this dish vegan by skipping the anchovies and swapping the slightly lily-gilding rib-eye steak for cubed medium-firm tofu. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
Samgyeopsal, or “three-layer meat,” refers to pork belly’s fat cap and the two leaner layers of meat below it, one light and one dark. A chill way to have Korean barbecue at home, this dish is less a recipe and more a road map to dinner. Crisp slivers of pork are wrapped in various lettuces and dabbed with doenjang honey and punchy slivers of raw garlic. The lightly peppered, vinegared freshness of pa muchim, an all-occasion scallion salad often served with the grilled meats at Korean barbecue restaurants, is a welcome accompaniment to rich foods like fried or rotisserie-style chickens, pan-seared pork chops, and grilled bulgogi, galbi and samgyeopsal. Don’t skip the sesame oil dipping sauce; its nuttiness lets the pork belly shine. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
Though it stems from the Korean War, budae jjigae — or “army base stew,” named after the leftover United States Army rations that make it up — is a symbol of resourcefulness and survival during a time of great poverty. The fiery broth is fortified with kimchi, gochujang and an assortment of flavorful sausages. Hot dogs are common, but kielbasa, breakfast sausage and Italian sausage all lend their own special character to the final broth, so use what you like. Arrange the ingredients in the pot in sections, and don’t stir too much while cooking: The joy of eating a big, burbling budae jjigae is reaching for your favorite part of the stew. For many, it’s the Spam, both salty and sweet; for others, it’s the American-cheese-laden noodles, bouncy with chew. Serve this soul-warming stew family style, with white rice to balance its punchy flavors. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
People eat miyeok guk on birthdays to celebrate not just their own birth, but their mother’s sacrifice as well — which is why it is often known as birthday soup. This miyeok guk (ME-yuhk gewk), or seaweed soup, forgoes the more common beef broth for mussels and an aromatic base of onion, garlic and anchovies. Though not traditional, the addition of parsnip, for sweetness and umami, yields a broth with body, like the kind you would get with the usual brisket. Scooped out of their shells, mussels become little morsels in the soup, nuggets of briny joy. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
Kimchi fried rice doesn’t need any more streamlining — it’s already so easy. But this oven method spreads the rice out over a sheet pan, increasing the potential for that coveted nurungji, or scorched rice. By baking this dish, you can start with fresh rice (no need for day-old), as the dry oven heat draws the moisture from the wet grains and turns them crispy-chewy. The only active cooking required here is stirring together the ingredients. The oven handles the rest, which means no actual stir-frying. Eggs cracked on top, gently baked to silky perfection, are a necessary finish, as the runny yolks sauce the gochujang-infused rice. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
Seolleongtang (SULL-lung-tahng) is a deeply comforting dish seemingly magicked out of just beef bones, sometimes a small hunk of meat, and scallions, if you have them. This version is especially pared down, relying mostly on the bones, which are boiled over multiple hours to imbue the broth with fatty redolence. The best seolleongtang is made from reused bones kept specifically for seolleongtang, which is why batches made with fresh bones may not have the quintessential milky whiteness characteristic to this dish. The broth is seasoned with a quick, gremolata-like mix of scallion, garlic and sea salt. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
Fish jorims, such as eundaegu (black cod) and godeungeo (mackerel), are staples of Korean home cooking. This easy variation highlights the aromatic flavor of soy sauce, garlic and ginger, a combination that seeps into bone-in, skin-on fish. Steaks of black cod, mackerel and salmon work best here, as they seem almost to melt into rich silkiness, but you could use whatever fatty fish and cut you like. The whole red radishes in this recipe, replacing the more typical Korean radish slabs, gently boil in the salty-sweet liquid until tender, lending their vegetal sweetness to the velvety broth. A barely steamed, basically raw relish of scallions, red onion and jalapeño adds freshness and crunch. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
A dish of royalty, tteokbokki consists of chewy Korean rice cakes (tteok) that are stir-fried (bokki) and slicked in a savory-sweet sauce. Sometimes the sauce is soy-sauce-based, as the kings of the Joseon dynasty enjoyed in the royal court dish gungjung tteokbokki. But more commonly today, as it is here, the sauce is gloriously red, spicy and gochujang-based. Traditional versions might include fish cakes and whole hard-boiled eggs, but this one leans into a base of butter-fried shallots and a layer of melted cheese covered in a crunchy blanket of raw cabbage. A parade of halved, molten-centered soft-boiled eggs bedecks the top. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
This recipe draws inspiration from the old-fashioned rotisserie chickens sold along Seoul’s streets in the 1970s — before Korean fried chicken entered the scene in the next decade. Cornish game hens are an excellent substitute for the smaller, younger birds often used in South Korea for this succulent poultry dish. A simple soy-sauce brine, made even more fragrant with ground white pepper, ensures inimitably juicy, tender meat that, after roasting in the oven for an hour, truly falls off the bone. A nod to pa dak (“scallion chicken”), an early-2000s trend in which shaved scallions were served atop fried chicken to cut the fattiness, this recipe calls for lightly dressed scallions for a verdant counterpoint. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
In Korean, the word kimchi describes a vast category of salted vegetables that are fermented until sour with lactic-acid bacteria. There are white varieties called baek kimchi and red ones stained with gochugaru. This tongbaechu kimchi, made with whole napa cabbage, is a wonderful way to witness firsthand the magic of preservation by salting. Though the first step — salting quartered cabbages to drain excess liquid — may require an afternoon, that time is entirely inactive. Walk away and live your life, then come back to sauce them, which takes only a few, short, relaxing movements. The bundles of sauced cabbage are jarred and left at room temperature for the first couple of days to jump-start the fermentation process, then refrigerated to continue souring slowly for weeks and even months. Fermenting bundled quarters — versus chopped pieces — results in a crisper, more flavorful cabbage kimchi.
This recipe is pared down to its essentials, though you could supplement the funky, savory-sweet flavors here with traditional additions like a sprinkle of raw pine nuts, a palmful of Korean radish cut in matchsticks or a spoonful of saeujeot, salted fermented shrimp. (View this recipe in New York Times Cooking.)
10 Essential Recipes is an occasional feature that explores different cuisines.
And to Drink …
With the more assertive flavors of Korean food, I like young, equally bold wines rather than nuanced, subtle or aged wines that might get washed over by the spice and umami flavors. Among whites, I would look at sauvignon blancs, rieslings (either dry or moderately sweet), crisp Italian options, grüner veltliners and other similar bottles. I love fino sherries with spicy foods, but sherry is not to everybody’s taste. I would also choose fruity reds, like grenaches, whether from France, Spain or the United States, cabernet francs, zinfandels and myriad vins de soifs — thirst-quenching wines. My one caveat would be to avoid wines high in alcohol, above 14.5 percent. Other good choices include frappato or Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Sicily, Beaujolais and Rioja crianzas. ERIC ASIMOV