A Sumptuous, Scrumptious Spread of Korean Food Vocabulary
Did you know kimchi is considered one of the world’s healthiest foods?
But get ready for a mouthful, because kimchi is just one of the many foods Koreans love.
That’s right. In this post, we’re going on a vocabulary-expanding food tour.
- Your Different Food Groups… in Korean
- Famous Korean Dishes
Learning the names of foods and dishes in Korean is important, but don’t underestimate the power of a few Korean phrases that you can use at a restaurant.
In fact, you’ll want to learn all the words and phrases possible to make your Korean dining experience seamless—and thus, delicious! For that, I recommend the following video:
Whether you’re trying to order food or you’re looking for and trying to understanding recommendations from the waiter, learning beyond the basics can turn your dining experience into a full-on Korean cultural experience. Korean speakers are passionate about the food they make and serve, but they’re even more passionate about foreigners trying something new and taking an interest in Korean cuisine.
Your Different Food Groups… in Korean
Korean meals typically contain at least five different colors (green, red, yellow, white and black). This wallop results in a wide variety of tastes and textures that thrill the palate.
Koreans don’t just eat to quiet a grumbling stomach. They think of food as medicine. Each meal contains a healthy assortment of veggies that provide nourishment, keep organs in fighting form and boost immunity.
Here’s a listing of common vegetables found on Korean tables and their English translations.
생강 (saenggang) — ginger
인삼 (insam) — ginseng
양파 (yangpa) — onion
당근 (danggeun) — carrot
후추 (huchu) — pepper
고추 (gochu) — red pepper
마늘 (maneul) — garlic
무 (mu) — radish
상추 (sangchu) — lettuce
브로콜리 (beurokkoli) = broccoli
가지 (gaji) — eggplant
감자 (gamja) — potato
버섯 (beoseot) — mushroom
Fruits, as it turns out, make up an easy vocabulary group to commit to memory. Often, the Korean names of fruits sound very similar to the English names, so you just need to “Koreanize” them. I’m not saying all, but there’s a significant number of them.
Here are your most common fruits in Korean.
오렌지 (orenji) — orange
망고 (mango) — mango
바나나 (banana) — banana
레몬 (lehmon) — lemon
멜론 (mellon) — melon
체리 (cheri) — cherry
올리브 (olibeu) — olive
파인애플 (painaepeul) — pineapple
파파야 (papaya) — papaya
토마토 (tomato) — tomato
포도 (podo) — grape
사과 (sagwa) — apple
복숭아 (boksoonga) — peach
Although Koreans often consider meat like punctuation to a vegetable-based diet, they do have excellent meat dishes like 불고기 (bulgogi), or grilled marinated beef slices, and 삼겹살 (samgyeopsal), or grilled pork belly.
I’m sure you’ve heard of “Korean barbecue.” It’s when you go to a restaurant and spend your hard-earned cash… to cook your own food, your own way, and love it. The grill or stove is often built into the table, and you fire up any piece of meat you have on hand, and even grill veggies if you like.
Speaking of meat, Koreans love to pair their beer with their fried chicken. 치맥 (chimaek) comes from a mashup of 치 (chi) from 치킨 (chikin), which is “fried chicken,” and 맥 (maek) from 맥주 (maekju), which is the Korean word for “beer.”
South Korea is dotted with thousands of 치맥 restaurants that offer different arrays of batter, frying oils and dips. You don’t even have to dress decent to enjoy your chicken. Many restaurants deliver straight to your doorstep.
That said, here’s a list of common Korean meats and their English translations.
닭고기 (dakgogi) — chicken
오리고기 (origogi) — duck
소고기 (sogogi) — beef
물고기 (mulgogi) — fish
돼지고기 (dwaeji gogi) — pork
스테이크 (seute-ik) — steak
베이컨 (beikon) — bacon
햄 (haem) — ham
Korean food is known for being spicy. One slurp of 육개장 (yukgaejang), a beef and vegetable soup, and you know what it would be like losing your tongue and lips in an inferno. But Korean cuisine isn’t just about the heat. It’s about the whole range of flavor profiles, from savory, to sweet, to sour, to bitter and salty.
Here’s a list of some seasonings and ingredients that give flexibility and flair to Korean dishes.
소금 (sogeum) — salt
식초 (sigcho) — vinegar
간장 (ganjang) — soy sauce
설탕 (sultang) — sugar
기름 (gileum) — oil
밀가루 (milgaru) — flour
계란 (gyeran) — egg
버터 (beoteo) — butter
치즈 (chijeu) — cheese
Koreans also have a wide range of common beverages, from banana milk, to teas, to alcoholic drinks that not only reflect history but, heck, also make drinking games a whole lot of fun.
Koreans have many teas, including citron, omija, corn, barley, chrysanthemum and green plum. These are known for their exquisite taste and positive effects on the body.
Koreans observe drinking etiquette, so as to get sloshed in a proper way. When receiving a drink, receive it with both hands—right hand holds the glass, left hand supports the bottom.
Here’s a list of some of the most common beverages in Korean and their English translations.
물 (mul) — water
주스 (juseu) — juice
우유 (uyu) — milk
차 (cha) — tea
맥주 (maekju) — beer
소주 (soju) — rice, wheat or barley wine
막걸리 (makegeolli) — rice wine
Famous Korean Dishes
So, we’ve done individual food items. But are you wondering what happens when you cook and mix all of those ingredients—all those meats, vegetables and flavors? Coming right up are some of the most famous Korean dishes that deserve to have a permanent place in your vocabulary and a temporary home in your mouth. You can find even more in this video from sweetandtastyTV.
밥 (bap) is “rice” in Korean. Every time you see 밥 on a menu, expect a bed of rice somewhere on the plate.
Famous examples include:
흰밥 (huinbap) — white rice
볶음밥 (bokkeumbap) — fried rice
김밥 (kimbap) — seaweed rice
김밥 looks very similar to sushi because they’re both wrapped in dark seaweed sheets. 김밥 tends to be a little bit sweeter and often doesn’t include raw fish. Instead you get meat fillings like beef, ham, crab meat and pork cutlets, surrounded by veggies like radish, cucumber, kimchi and perilla leaves.
비빔밥 (bibimbap) — mixed rice
This is sautéed veggies, meat and chili pepper paste placed on a bed of rice. Your job is to mix all the ingredients before taking a mouthful. Sometimes, a raw or fried egg is added.
김치찌개 (kimchi jjigae) — kimchi stew
된장찌개 (dwenjang jjigae) — fermented soybean paste stew
Thrown in is an assortment of available meats, seafood and veggies. (Add a little bit of chili paste to show your date how brave you are.)
부대찌개 (budae jjigae) — “army stew”
This contains Spam, sausages, cheese, ham, baked beans—in short, all the different ingredients available on a U.S. Army base, thrown together in a pot and reinforced with stuff like kimchi, chili paste, ramyeon noodles and a platoon of available veggies.
삼계탕 (samgyetang) — chicken ginseng soup
Imagine slurping warm soup flavored by a whole chicken that’s stuffed with ginseng, garlic, pine nuts, jujubes and, of course, sticky rice. Koreans often eat this during the summer months.
갈비탕 (galbitang) — short ribs soup
This is made by simmering beef short ribs for several hours, and throwing in onions, radish, green onions, garlic, black pepper and even noodles. The hearty dish is often served during weddings, although you can get one any day of the week from a good Korean restaurant.
미역국 (miyeokguk) — seaweed soup
Because it’s rich in calcium and iodine, seaweed soup is often served to mothers after they’ve given birth. And because of this, as homage to one’s mother, 미역국 is also traditionally eaten for breakfast on birthdays.
라면 (ramyun) — instant noodles
This is Korea’s answer to Japan’s ramen.
짜장면 (jjajangmyun) — black bean noodles
This is noodles served with black bean paste, some soy/oyster sauce and topped with a little meat/seafood, along with some aromatics and veggies. The dish looks like a squid squirted ink on your noodles. And yes, it really is tasty!
냉면 (naengmyun) — cold noodles
If one eats hot noodles during the dead of winter, why not an ice broth during the hot summer months?
The Korean side dishes that dot your table are called 반찬 (banchan). Unlike with Western meals, where your food comes in courses—soup, appetizer, salad, main course and dessert—Korean dishes are served all at once.
The basic table setting is called 반상 (bansang). In front of you, you’ll have a rice bowl and a soup bowl that will sit side by side. In front of them, farther from you, will be the condiments like chili and soy sauce. Hot foods, like stews, will be placed on your right. Cold dishes will be on your left. Side dishes will be placed in front of the condiments, in the third row.
(Here’s an article that explains Korean table setting in more detail.)
When you take a look at everything together, you’ll see all the different colors (and be able to imagine all the different flavors) of the 반찬. You’ll have your sweet, sour, salty and savory side dishes, and there’s really no proper order to eating them. You can have at them any time during the meal.
To give you an idea of the great number of Korean side dishes, here’s an infographic of what’s possible.
Some examples of 반찬 are:
김치 (kimchi) — spicy pickled cabbage
잡채 (japchae) — stir-fried glass noodles mixed with vegetables
계란말이 (gyeran mari) — rolled omelette
가지나물 (gaji namul) — steamed eggplants
멸치볶음 (myeolchi bokkeum) — dried anchovies
So there you go! This has been a mouthful.
You now have a full buffet of Korean food vocabulary. You know individual food items in Korean, as well as Korean dishes that are definitely worth a try.
My advice? Memorize and practice this vocab so you can properly pronounce each item. Create a dedicated flashcard deck on Anki and check out some Korean video recipes. Learning platforms like FluentU have these sorts of videos available with interactive subtitles to instantly look up unfamiliar words and review quizzes to practice them.
And then, when you have a chance, go visit a Korean restaurant and have a taste of what you’re talking about. There’s really nothing like kimchi in your mouth.