Spicy Grilled meats and garlicky pickled vegetables are the outward-facing hallmarks of this cuisine, although Korea’s kitchen also includes subtle soups, chewy noodles and a rich culinary heritage that you would expect from a peninsula that has for centuries been influenced by its Japanese and Chinese neighbors. It’s distinctive spicy bean paste, gojuchang, is a signature flavor of the cuisine, and banchan, the array of cold side dishes served as part of a meal, is one of its most distinctive characteristics.
Korean food in the United States stayed mostly quietly confined to ethnic neighborhoods until 2008, when Roy Choi introduced his Kogi truck to Los Angeles, serving “Korean tacos” made with kalbi — marinated Korean short ribs — served in tortillas.
Although kalbi was what won over Angelenos, it’s Korean pickles, or kimchi, that have gone mainstream. Usually made with cabbage, kimchi actually can be made with virtually any vegetable, and New York celebrity chef David Chang has even made it with green apples.
Kimchi possibly has benefited from the pickle trend that has swept the country in recent years. Independent restaurateurs put it on sandwiches and in cocktails, and a number of chains have introduced kimchi to their menu in the past year.
Mama Fu’s added Korean Street Tacos to its menu earlier this year, made with flour tortillas filled with a choice of pork tenderloin, chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu and topped with kimchi, pickled carrots, daikon and scallions.
In April, California Pizza Kitchen introduced a Spicy Korean Barbecue Pizza, made with charred Korean barbecue, slivered scallions, sesame seeds and mozzarella, and garnished with a “nontraditional” cool, spicy kimchi made with Napa cabbage, cilantro, carrots and cucumber tossed in Sriracha vinaigrette — a sauce that originated in Thailand.
But don’t count out kalbi or other Korean barbecue. CPK and Mama Fu’s items also rely on the zesty flavor of those dishes for its success.
And Soju, the Korean spirit about half the strength of vodka — known in Japanese as shochu — has proven to be a popular spirit for cocktails. It takes easily to infusions and because of its relatively low alcohol content, can, depending on local liquor laws, be used in some restaurants that are only licensed to serve beer and wine.