Korean Food: Coming to a Dining Table near You
Dinner is ready, and Korean BBQ, Korean-style fried chicken, and Korean tacos served with a side of gochujang (a spicy fermented chili paste) are on the menu. Delicious, loaded with healthy veggies, quick and easy to prepare, and exotic to the American palate, Korean dishes are being hailed as one of the top five food trends in 2021, according to Content Curator Beverly at SideChef. K-pop, Korean shows, and Korean cosmetics are feeding America’s burgeoning interest in Korean foods, and this interest now stretches beyond cities like Los Angeles that are home to a large Korean-American population. “Though New York City’s K-Town is one of the country’s flashiest, it’s hardly an isolated example,” reports John Surico at Serious Eats. “LA, Duluth, Atlanta, Fort Lee, Houston, and many other cities all have robust Koreatowns of their own.” The questions that remain are: will the halal consumer make bulgogi, jjigae, and jeon for dinner? Will hummus and baba ghanoush be replaced by varied banchan? Will chutneys make room for kimchi and ssamjang? Most importantly, can Korean dishes that call for pork be transformed using halal alternatives without compromising their authenticity?
According to Fair Lawn, New Jersey, resident Shahab Noman, if you love the spicy flavor profile of South Asian foods, you’ll love Korean food. His wife is Korean-Muslim, and his family—including his mother who only recently moved from India—relish Korean and South Asian meals both at home and at local restaurants. Nearby Palisades Park boasts about seventy Korean restaurants, he says, and in Flushing, New York, Korean restaurants increasingly offer halal-certified meat. While Los Angeles has the most Korean restaurants in the U.S., Flushing is a close second. However, Palisades Park wins nationally per capita. In Noman’s hometown, Fair Lawn, there are three halal Korean restaurants.
Korean-Americans are responsible for opening most restaurants serving Korean food in the U.S. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that pochas are popping up in northern New Jersey and other cities with large Korean-American populations. Food is served in a pocha, an outdoor tent that is popular in Seoul, and people gather there late into the night, even in winter. “If they don’t have outdoor heaters, you just eat hotter foods [to keep warm],” says Sana Noman, Shahab’s daughter.
Besides the amazing taste, Shahab says one of the reasons Korean restaurants are popular is the social aspect. Cooking and eating together is part of what has made Korean restaurants so popular, he says. People usually go as a group: “you order different flavors of BBQ or fried chicken, you cook it around a grill at the center of the restaurant yourself and dig into it together. Traditionally, Koreans eat straight off the same serving platter [family-style].”
Sana agrees. “In East Asian culture, in general it’s not ‘I love you’ but rather ‘what have you had for dinner? Have you eaten?’ as a way to show you care,” says Sana. Like the media, she, too, believes that America’s growing fascination with K-pop and K-drama is also fueling its love affair with Korean food and family-style eating in Korean restaurants. “The food is very much an important part of Korean culture, and all the important scenes in the dramas are done around meals with family.”
That said, when zabiha is not an option, Shahab Noman asks that the restaurant hold the meat. This tweak doesn’t typically diminish the experience, given the availability of seafood and side dishes. For home cooking, Shahab says that “the cuts of meat we get at the halal butcher are never as thin as what a traditional Korean recipe calls for.” He adds that if Muslims are to authentically replicate Korean meals, halal stores will need to offer more specific cuts of meat.
Oak Park, Illinois, resident Tariq Sachleben fell in love with Korean cuisine on a trip to Seoul. Pork is a common ingredient, but he says that “there are so many Korean recipes that call for beef or chicken that you won’t miss out by restricting yourself to those [when cooking it yourself].” Turkey strips, watered-down vinegar instead of alcohol for marinades, and plum extract are some halal substitutes. Though these may take a bit away from the authenticity, Sachleben says they do not affect the overall taste.
Like his grandmother’s Indian cooking, Sachleben notes that red pepper, onions, ginger, and garlic are central to Korean cooking. However, in Korean food, “there is more of an emphasis on using fruit as an additive. For instance, cabbage kimchi is often spiced with Asian pear. It has a crisper flavor profile than an American pear and heightens the taste of the kimchi.” His weeknight favorite is the hearty, easy-to-make kimchi-jjigae (stew with seasoned fermented vegetables). “Instead of fatty pork belly, I use beef [strips]. I fry [it] in a pot on high heat, add the cabbage kimchi, then top [it] off with a seafood or beef broth and simmer everything for twenty to thirty minutes. In the meantime, I start some short-grain rice. In the last ten minutes, I add tofu and green onions to the broth to round out the flavor.” He notes that a little goes a long way: even a small amount of Korean food can be filling, contributing to its health benefits.
For Sachleben, summers are for making Korean BBQ, or galbi, from scratch. Making galbi calls for thin short ribs marinated in generous amounts of garlic and sesame oil, creating a sweet and savory flavor. Grated Korean pear is used as a tenderizer, though you can substitute apples if it is unavailable. Another favorite of his is bulgogi, which is tender, thinly sliced marinated sirloin, ribeye, or flank steak. “For bulgogi, the marinade is typically soy sauce, gochugang…and a small amount of sesame oil, which is optional,” he shares. “If I want a caramelized meat color, I’ll add two teaspoons of brown sugar.”
Besides the taste, what makes for Korean food’s growing popularity? “The visuals when it is presented,” says Sana. Korean food is always served with various side dishes, called banchan, which make for a very appetizing presentation, she adds. She also believes that home chefs can learn to cook Korean food relatively easily, another reason for the cuisine’s popularity. “I grew up eating Korean food, and cooking it is easier than other cuisines,” says Sana. “It isn’t time consuming. All you need is a couple of ingredients, and you can practically make anything. You can add tofu and vegetables to your jjigae and have it with your rice with a side of kimchi.”
One of her recommendations is jeon, a savory pancake-like Korean side dish served with rice and stew. To make the pancakes, you can add different types of meats, vegetables, seafood, or kimchi to the pancake dough and then pan fry it. “You can buy pre-seasoned flour, just add water, and pan fry the pancakes. I add green onions or kimchi. My mom puts tuna,” Sana says.
Korean cuisine comprises significant amounts of fish, legumes and vegetables, and little red meat, making it healthier than the typical American diet. Kimchi is an especially healthy example. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food by Kun-Young Park et al., “Health functionality of kimchi…includes anticancer, antiobesity, anticonstipation, colorectal health promotion, probiotic properties, cholesterol reduction,…antioxidative and antiaging properties, brain health promotion, immune promotion, and skin health promotion.” If you’re looking to start enjoying these health benefits, you can buy kimchi at your local Korean store or grocery chains such as Walmart or Whole Foods rather than making your own.
Besides rice, a staple in Korean cuisine, traditional Korean recipes don’t call for many carbohydrates. While most stocks are made from fish and meat, side dishes are typically vegetables, including spinach, cabbage, and sprouts. Meat dishes are cooked on a charcoal grill or pan fried in a little oil, not deep fried. The cuisine also emphasizes seafood and different kinds of seaweed.
Saffron Road™ first introduced consumers to IFANCA halal-certified Korean frozen meals back in 2014. Today, you can pick up their Korean Stir Fry Simmer Sauce and Korean BBQ Crunchy Chickpeas at your local grocery store. Korean halal certification body KOHAS announced its agreement last year with IFANCA to operate the “Two Logos System,” a multi-certification issuance program. This means that Korean companies will be able to use the certification logos of both organizations in order to demonstrate that their products are halal certified, allowing them to market them in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Over the past few years, Korean cosmetics, Korean dramas, and Korean pop music have all found a home beyond Korea’s borders. Will Korean food join their ranks? Will we cook up a storm in our kitchens? Will Korean take-out become part of the norm? Chinese, Thai, and Indian food, all hailing from Asia, have crossed geographic borders to become globally loved cuisines. There is no reason why their Korean cousin couldn’t do the same!
Naazish YarKhan is a content and communications strategist, writer, editor, and college essay consultant with over 25 years of experience. Connect with her at writersstudio.us.