Understanding the Korean Spice – And how to be at one with Kimchi

I get a lot of tourists saying to me, “Rob, I’m a foodie! Take me some place good to eat where all the Koreans go!” Or, “Rob, I’m an adventurous eater! I want to try new things!”.
Seeking out for some of the exotic
Seeking out for some of the exotic
I say, “Alright, let’s do it! I know just the place”
And they say, “But nothing spicy. I don’t like spicy.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 9.22.30 AM And then my mouth just drops. Whaaaaaa?? How can you tell me you are any sort of self-respecting adventurous eater of foodie, if you can’t indulge in anything spicy? It is the crux of Korean cuisine and the centerpiece of every dining table here. Look, I get it. You were hurt once. Stung…and you don’t want to feel the pain of it again. But that was years ago…it’s time to move on!

kimchi
kimchi

The Korean spice is a very different kind of spice. Other spices will give a sharp sting on contact and leaving a lingering singe in your mouth. Others you’ll feel it after you ingest it as it makes its way through your stomach and eventually scorches the other end of your gastro-extremities. The basic Korean spice is a bit of a warming spice. You won’t feel it right away, but as you fill your stomach with beef, rice and kimchi. And more beef, more rice and more kimchi…you’ll start to notice some tingling sensation in your taste buds. Things are starting to get warmer but you can consume it at a pace where you don’t overwhelm your mouth with any singular flavor.

soon dubu jiggae
soon dubu jiggae

There are many different levels of spice in Korea. To simplify, I’ll just break it into two groups. The first is this warming spice. On this level, you’ll find foods like kimchi, soon-dubu jiggae (soft tofu soup) and dalk galbi (Nami Island’s famous stir fry chicken). These are spicy but tolerable by any means. In fact, with the latter two, you can always ask the restaurant to make these less spicy. Generally speaking, you can tell the amount of spice by how red it is or how much it makes your nose sweat from smelling it.

dalk galbi
dalk galbi

On the other side of the spectrum, there is the fire spice, or what we call bul. This by means is only for the I’ll-try-anything-type of eater. Even a lot of Koreans won’t eat this kind of spice, as it is beyond the realms of kimchi. Be wary if someone wants to take you out for haemul-ddeok-jjim, agu-jjim, or maeun-galbi-jjim, as these foods are pushing the envelope for spice.  Just kidding, you should try it. But there is no point in asking the waitress to make these less spicy as there is no middle ground. See #2 below to get an idea of why we do this to ourselves.

Haemul Ddeok JJim
Haemul Ddeok JJim

Regardless, when you do come to Korea, you should try something spicy. So what if you sweat? There are showers and saunas on every street corner called jjimjilbangs where you can always go to cleanse yourself.  Who are you here to impress anyway. Just go with it!

Maeun Galbi Jjim
Maeun Galbi Jjim

But in the event that things do get to hot for you here, Koreans have preventative measures that are tried and true. Simply drinking water could actually spread the spice to different parts of your mouth causing you to fan the flame even more rather than extinguishing it.

Agu-jjim - and those are not noodles, but congnamul to spare you from spice
Agu-jjim – and those are not noodles, but congnamul to spare you from spice

1. Eat congnamul alongside spicy dishes – It’s seasoned bean sprouts and often found as a side dish when served spicy food. It’s a simple dish, bu eat some after you eat something spicy and you’ll find it to be a neat trick. It actually NATURALLY cools your tongue. COOL! TRY IT!  A lot of tour guides in Korea often fail to explain this to you because they usually don’t sit with you during lunch. They are always hastily wanting to run off for a their time of break. (We do because we genuinely like you^^)

congnamul

2. Carry around a carton of Coolpis with you – Yeah its peach juice! Found in any convenient store in Korea, its proven to quell any burning sensation taking place in your mouth on contact. In fact, restaurants that specialize in super spicy foods will sell it on site just like they would beer and soft drinks. Not all spicy food in Korea is this spicy-warm sensation I’m talking about. Some foods are made to be super spicy because they are believed to relieve stress in this crazily-stressed country. In fact, they will add in capsaicin, an ingredient known to make things hotter! In these cases, even Koreans need to counter the spiciness. We’ll purposely eat something spicy, sweat and then drink some Coolpis. Eat something spicy, sweat and drink some Coolpis. Repeat.

IMG_4038

3. Drink Soju – Soju is the national spirit of Korea. A Russian female tourists of mine once called it the baby vodka due to its similarities, with it only being half the alcohol content. She said she could drink it forever. The fact is that it goes well with Korean spicy food as everything is in conscious design with one another. Cocktails and hard liquors might not suit the Korean dinner table. Soju is just enough alcohol to get your mind off over matter.

soju one shot 20% alcohol

4. Drink a glass of milk – Probably the oldest trick in the book for you, but most Koreans are lactose intolerant. Plus milk is expensive in Korea. Regardless, if it works for you then do it. Just so long as you get out of your comfort zone and explore something new here in Korea. Just make sure you don’t chug milk too fast…

Although it might be tempting after eating Korean spice!
Although it might be tempting after eating Korean spice!

I remember years ago, somebody said to me at a dinner party trying to make a point, “Why do you Koreans like eating spicy? It kills the flavor of the food!” Reflecting on what he said, I wish I was quick tongued to tell him off saying something like, “Maybe if you put some spice in your food, you’d get your son to start eating his broccoli!” Spice does add something extra to what might otherwise be ordinary.

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