Even if you’re not among the millions bouncing to the Korean wave with Oppa Gangnam, you can’t deny the beat in bibimbap. Korea’s most popular dish, bibimbap which knocks together vegetables, meats and boiled rice, is usually top in the mind of those making an initial foray into a Korean restaurant.

Bap or boiled rice is the starting point for many Korean dishes which certainly see the unavoidable influence of its immediate neighbours, China and Japan. Yet it holds its own. The range of sauces, pastes known as jang, made from soy sauce and bean paste, plays no small part in defining this identity. They account not only for the flavouring in a number of dishes but also for a   few of the many side-dishes which are customarily served along with the bowl of rice on the Korean table.

There is one banchan (side dish in Korean) in particular that will always find a place in any table setting. Kimchi, the Korean national dish is essentially a pickle which in its classic form uses mainly nappa cabbage but which can be made from just about any ingredient; seafood-based kimchi is fairly common. This historic food is so loaded with cultural and societal significance that in the olden days, families considered it an embarrassment to have to depend on anyone for either jang or kimchi.  

It’s not all about bap, jang and kimchi. Soups are an expected accompaniment to rice and greens are expected to make an appearance.

In fact colours mean a lot in any Korean spread that will nearly always include the five colours – red, green, yellow, white and black. Where there’s a shortfall of any of these colours in the dish, raw garnishes come to the rescue. Unexpected as it may seem, barbecue has a long history in Korea where it is referred to as gogigui and enjoyed in a distinctly communal style.

ICONIC DISHES: Bibimbap, kimchi