Photo: Sanga Park/Shutterstock

Inside a Korean Kitchen

South Korea Travel
by Anne Merritt May 2, 2011
Anne Merritt takes us through the equipment found in a traditional Korean kitchen.

My Korean tutor held a dinner for her students the other night, and I showed up awkwardly early.

I sat in the kitchen, watching soups simmer, meat marinate, and endless rice being scooped swiftly into aluminum bowls. I offered to help, but my tutor sat me down and quizzed me about food terms. The whole time, her swift hands were maneuvering clay bowls and bamboo mats.

One of travel’s highlights for me is getting to know a culture through its cuisine. But I haven’t often sat back and thought about the tools used behind the scenes. What about the kitchenware, both traditional and modern, unique to the culture, and tailored to the local food?

A Korean kitchen, it turns out, is full of a lot of cool, unique tools.

Rice Cooker

Jeongi bapsot / 전기밥솥

A staple of many, many East Asian kitchens. I first glimpsed one of these in a university dorm years ago, but didn’t fully appreciate the simplicity of the tool.

Add rice, add water, and soon you’ll have a big supply of fluffy, evenly cooked rice.

Most Korean families make a big batch in the morning so that rice is available all throughout the day. The cooker’s gentle steam keeps things warm for hours.

You can also get crafty with brown or black rice, beans, lentils, and oatmeal. Some folks make bread and cake in the rice cooker too. While the steam doesn’t render the same toasty flavor as an oven, it’s a cool party trick for Korean potlucks.

Barbecue Grill Plate

Babekyu guhlil / 바비큐그릴

I think Korean barbecue best exemplifies the food culture of Korea. It’s communal, with dozens of shared dishes covering the table. You don’t even get your own plate. It’s interactive, with diners helping to cut, cook, and turn the meat. No one sits idly at the table waiting for mom to serve up dinner.

It’s insanely tasty, too. Bite-sized strips of meat are grilled at the table, and eaten with vegetables, sauces, spicy salad, and rice. The sharing reminds me of a campfire dinner.

The grill is versatile. I’ve seen mushrooms, onion, garlic, and kimchi, grilled and eaten alongside the meat. A good grill plate is slightly domed with a trough around it for oil to run off. It should be sturdy, but light enough that cleaning doesn’t give you bicep cramps.

Kimchi Storage

Kimchi is Korea’s culinary pride and joy, served a hundred different ways at Every. Single. Meal. Every Korean kitchen has a few bits of hardware that are kimchi-specific.

Kimchi preparation stays true to tradition, with the use of onggi, 옹기 – earthenware pots made from clay that’s just porous enough to encourage fermentation. Kimchi, soybean paste, red pepper sauce, rice wine, or fish can be preserved in these pots. In Korea, you’ll see these huge clay jars in every backyard corner, where they’re kept cool.

The more modern trend in kimchi storage is a kimchi fridge, 김치 냉장고 – or kimchi naengjanggo. These fridges are designed with multiple chambers, each set at a temperature for different levels of fermentation (or preservation).

I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t simply toss kimchi into the fridge along with other perishables. It will stink up everything. Goodbye tofu, goodbye cheese, goodbye milk. This potent stuff needs some extra attention in the kitchen.

Bamboo Mats

Daenamu Kimbal / 대나무 김발

When I first came to Korea, I bought a few sets of these mats, thinking they were rustic-looking placemats.

While they work just fine in that role (and doubly nice as potholders), the real purpose of these bamboo mats is to guide the assembly of kimbap , 김밥 – a sushi-like rice roll and popular meal-to-go.

A sheet of dried seaweed is placed on the mat, topped with warm rice (from your cooker, naturally) and long strips of carrot, crab meat, cucumber, sweet pickled radish, and whatever else you may be craving. Using the bamboo mat, you can guide the thin and delicate seaweed sheet to fold and roll the gimbap.

Stone and Earthenware bowls

Ddukbaegi / 뚝배기 and Dolsot / 돌솥

I always have that “Why don’t we do this in the West?” thought bubble when I see these items, which are like saucepan/bowl hybrids. They’re deep and heavy, used to prepare stews and soups by placing them right on the stovetop, then served on a (room temp) matching dish.

Since the thick bowl retains heat, your food stays hot for ages, which is handy at a leisurely, chatty Korean family dinner. Also, since the saucepan and bowl are one and the same, that’s one less dish to wash. Huzzah.

The stone bowls are used in one of my favorite dishes, dolsot bibimbap. The bowl is coated with sesame oil, and then rice, veggies, and sauce are added. This dish is served with a raw egg cracked into the centre. When you stir the egg into the hot bowl, it cooks and crisps up with the rice, giving you a great crunchy dinner.


What unique hardware is in your kitchen? Which do you use most? What country’s cookware should Matador Life cover next?

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