Korean Food Basics #1: Bokkeumbap
One of the glories of Korean food is that even when your meal is finished, it isn’t always finished. Koreans love dipping into communal pots bubbling with meat, vegetables and spicy broth, but liberating the last piece of chicken from the bowl isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Ask nicely, and the ajumma will reappear with two or three portions of rice, together with (sometimes) some extra veg, flakes of laver for flavour and texture, and even – as in the photo below – a little cheese. This is bokkeumbap (볶음밥), literally fried rice, and it’s a great way to finish off the meal and get the best out of your flavoursome main course. And, since it’ll only run you an extra 1,000-2,000 won per portion of rice, it’s a brilliant way of getting value out of your meal, too.
The bokkeumbap option is generally available where you are eating dishes from a central pot or stone cooking in the middle of the table; for example with dakdoritang (닭도리탕 – chicken stew in red pepper sauce) or gamjatang (감자탕 – pork and potato soup). You’ll also get to fry up some rice with the meat and kimchi scraps at some Korean BBQ restaurants, particularly those where you’re cooking your food on a metal or ceramic tray, rather than a grill. And of course frying up rice, cabbage and ddok (떡 – rice cakes) is the centrepiece of the perennial expat favourite, dakgalbi (닭갈비) – which is, by the way, absolutely the best drunk food you can get in Korea.
If you prefer noodles, as many do, you can throw some ramen in there instead, but I always feel that rice is the way to go. Try to order your rice when there is still some sauce and leftovers remaining in the pot. They’ll ask you how many portions of rice you want – depending on how many you are and how much good stuff is left in the bowl, two or three portions will usually be plenty for a group of four.
If your Korean is entry-level, no worries; just ask for “bokkeumbap” and, if you like, make a circular stir-frying motion over the dish, together with two or three fingers to indicate how many portions of rice you need. Pretty basic, but it always seems to work for me!