A Quick Guide to 21 Most Important Korean Pantry Mainstays

A Quick Guide to 21 Most Important Korean Pantry Mainstays

A Quick Guide to 21 Most Important Korean Pantry Mainstays

In recent years traditional Korean food has become somewhat of a big thing. About half a decade ago, most U.S. citizens would likely find it troublesome to name even half a dozen traditional Korean food items. The most prominent driving force behind its popularity was Maangchi with her Youtube recipes, though her audience, however broad, was still limited.

But then BTS overtook as the biggest boy band in the world, triggering obsession with all things Korean in the new generation, including the cuisine. Then came the 2020 pandemic, and the meteoric rise of K-Pop and K-Dramas came with it.

Cultural obsession bled over into an obsession with food. Bled over into social media like Youtube with its “What I Eat in a Day” and “Aesthetic Korean Cafe” videos. Bled over into more people than ever hunting for ingredients at their local grocery store to make authentic teokbokki, ramyun, and japchae at home.

The deal was sealed.

Traditional Korean food became mainstream.

Which is, we have to emphasize, a good thing. Traditional Korean food is highly diverse, nutritious, often relatively easy to make, and - most importantly - delicious.

The best part about it is that often you can combine the few same ingredients to make different dishes. You just need to know which ingredients, exactly, to have on hand.

21 Items to Have on Hand for Traditional Korean Food

These days, it’s not nearly as hard to find a Korean grocery store somewhere nearby, but if there isn’t one near you, or it’s small with limited options, or you just want to save time and effort, you can shop for Korean snacks, sauces, condiments, etc. online!

Here at Yummy Bazaar, we have a large and carefully curated online Korean grocery store. We host selections from some of the largest Korean manufacturers, with a wide variety of choices to satisfy even the most well-versed Korean cuisine enthusiasts.

Now let’s get down to what a newbie needs to stack their pantry on their first trip!

Rice

It should come as no surprise that rice is a must for the Korean pantry. Not only does it serve as the main ingredient for a multitude of traditional Korean foods like bibimbap, kimbap, or gukbap, it’s a must-have side dish for significant meals. 

Your Korean grocery store might even have instant rice pots, and you can simply microwave them for a few minutes and have a meal ready. They’re a very convenient, though not the tastiest option.

If you want to up the ante, try to get Korean multigrain rice (japgokbap) for your pantry. That purple rice dish that always looks so interesting in Korean dramas? That’s japgokbap.

Noodles

It should come as no surprise that noodles are as crucial for a Korean pantry as rice. And we’re not talking instant cup noodles here (though that, undoubtedly, is a big part). In fact, many popular noodles you’ve seen, like Nongshim Ramyun and Samyang Ramyun, need to be cooked, even if they come in colorful packages similar to instant ones. It’s that they’re a versatile and filling ingredient that can be easily turned into a delicious and hearty dish in several minutes. 

There are several popular types, with wheat-based ramyun being the most popular. But if you want to staff your pantry for variety, try adding dangmyeon (potato starch noodles, used for japchae and kimbap stuffing) or buckwheat noodles (usually served as a cold soup called memil guksu) to your purchases.

Eggs

Okay, not really a pantry thing, but if you want to cook traditional Korean food, you likely need to have a carton of eggs in your fridge. Many traditional dishes utilize eggs both as a garnish (raw or fried egg on bibimbap, Korean egg omelet gyeran-mari in kimbap, beaten eggs to coat jeons, and boiled eggs to garnish noodles, etc.).

Again, as it’s been a theme here, traditional Korean food often calls for ingredients that are easy to use and can be utilized in various ways.

Sesame oil

Sesame oil is derived from sesame seeds and can be used both as a neutral cooking oil and as a garnish. The intensity of the flavor depends on what kind of sesame seeds the oil has been derived from, raw or toasted. 

Raw sesame seeds yield pale golden oil with a neutral flavor that can be used for cooking. Toasted sesame oil is much more intense and typically only used as a garnish. The color is usually a good indicator of flavor intensity; the darker the color, the more intense the flavor. Toasted sesame oil can vary from anywhere pale brown to dark reddish.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is one of the primary flavoring components for traditional Korean food. It can be used as a seasoning, a dipping sauce, a marinade (or an ingredient in marinade), etc. Basically, if you’re cooking something Korean, there’s a 90% chance it has either already been flavored with soy sauce or it can be flavored with soy sauce. 

What sets Korean soy sauce apart is that it’s made entirely out of soybeans, water, and some salt (amount depending on the variety and manufacturer of soy sauce in question). Korean soy sauce contains no wheat.

Gochugaru

Gochugaru is Korean red chili powder (or sometimes chili flakes, but the powder is more common). Tae Kyung, for example, offers both varieties.

It can vary from moderately spicy (a variety called deol maewoon) to very spicy (maewoon). It’s used as one of the primary seasonings in Korean cuisine and goes with everything from salads, to soups, to (probably most importantly) kimchi.

Gochujang

Gochujang is a fermented red pepper paste. It’s complex, spicy, savory, and sweet all at once, and is actively used as a flavoring ingredient in Korean cuisine. Gochugaru is one of the main ingredients in gochujang, but the gochujang flavor is quite different, so they’re not always interchangeable in cooking. Often gochujang and gochugaru are used alongside each other. Korean manufacturer Haechandle produces several varieties for different uses.

Doenjang

Similar to gochujang, doenjang is a variety of fermented condiments. But while gochujang is heavily seasoned, doenjang is traditionally made with only soybeans and brine. It’s most often used as a broth flavoring for soups and stews but can be used as a relish as well.

Ssamjang

Ssamjang is a combination of doenjang and gochujang (often additionally seasoned with garlic, sesame oil, green onions, and, sometimes, brown sugar to up the complexity of its flavor). Ssamjang is most often used as a garnish for Korean wraps called Ssam, hence the name. Grilled meat (like Samgoypsal) slices are wrapped in lettuce or perilla leaves and topped off with ssamjang, along with other ingredients. Ssamjang can also be used as a dip and, more rarely, as a soup base.

Kimchi

Kimchi, undoubtedly one of the most renowned traditional Korean foods, is actually a variety of fermented vegetables. The most popular sort is made with napa cabbage (and it’s the one people usually refer to when they mention kimchi), but radishes, green onions, chamnamul, etc., are also common. Many seasonings are used, but gochugaru, garlic, spring onions, and ginger are traditional. 

Tteokbokki

Tteokbokki is actually the dish’s name, not the ingredient, but these days the term is used interchangeably. When someone refers to tteokobokki, they usually mean medium-length cylindrical white rice cakes. The rice cakes are simmered in a sauce, either flavored with gochujang (the spicy variety) or ganjang (a non-spicy, soy-based sauce). Often, tteokbokki is served with other ingredients like eomuk (fish cakes), boiled eggs, and noodles. 

Pancake Mix

Korean pancakes are called jeon. It’s usually by coating the main ingredient (usually meat or vegetable slices) in wheat flour and egg wash and frying them in hot oil. Pancake mixes are often used instead of flour, especially if one is making pajeon (green scallion pancakes) or hotteoks. Like American pancakes, the mixture can be made from ingredients at home, but it is typically easier to achieve the right texture and saves a lot of time.

Tea

Surprising, no one, traditional tea is a common item in Korean pantries. Korean citron teas, like yuja tea, are popular since Koreans believe consuming them has health benefits, particularly for the immune system. Nokchawon, for example, manufactures a variety of teas with an emphasis on traditional Korean flavors.

Bibimbap Paste

Not many know this, but bibimbap is traditionally garnished with a sauce that’s been mixed to accentuate the multitude of flavors. The sauce is usually gochujang-based, but there are non-spicy twists with doenjang or soy-sauce-based garnishes as well. 

Simple gochujang can be used as well, especially with other seasonings and sesame oil. But bibimbap paste will cut down on preparation times and will likely be better seasoned. It can also be used for various purposes, like classic gochujang. 

Bulgogi Marinade

As traditional Korean food goes, bulgogi is right up there with bibimbap and ramyun as one of the most well-known dishes. The premise is simple, thin slices of meat (most often pork or beef) are marinated and then grilled on a barbecue (or a stove-top griddle).

Bulgogi marinades are typically soy sauce-based but are very carefully seasoned and characterized by complex sweet-and-savory flavor. Pre-packaged marinades make bulgogi preparations easier and ensure the tastes are just right.

Korean Seaweed 

Several varieties of dried seaweeds are often used in traditional Korean food. 

The most popular varieties are miyeok, also known as wakame (this is the seaweed used in the famous traditional Korean birthday soup, miyeok-guk), and gim (also known as laver or nori), used for wrapping different ingredients, most often together with rice. Gim is used for dishes such as kimbap or served as a side dish, either to be eaten in-between dishes or to wrap steamed rice served alongside the main course. 

If gim is to be eaten on its own, it’s often cut into squares and toasted in sesame oil. They can also be deep-fried to make popular Korean snacks called bugak

Frozen Dumplings

Okay, we veer from the pantry towards the fridge again, but it’s with good reason. Mandu or dumplings are a pretty big part of traditional Korean cuisine. They come in a wide variety of forms and stuffings (meat, seafood, vegetables, etc.) and can be either steamed, boiled, pan-fried, or deep-fried. 

Mandu is often used as ingredients in soups or served as side dishes to up the satiety factor. They’re delicious but very labor-intensive to make, so families either make them in large batches or (as is most common these days) purchase frozen varieties from large manufacturers. Mandu is as ubiquitous in most Korean households as rice and noodles. 

Instant Porridges and Soups

It may sound somewhat surprising, but Korea, in general, is rather big on ready-made foods. Large companies have long figured out how to manufacture packaged versions of traditional Korean food for sale. Many porridges and soups come in a packet, and they’re not considered to be in any way worse than freshly cooked varieties. They’re sometimes even better as they’re already seasoned and require little effort on the home cook’s part.

One of the largest companies manufacturing packaged porridges would be Dongwon, while another, C.J., is more known for its packaged soups. Both companies have a large selection of ready-made packaged dishes that can easily be stored in the fridge or pantry. Their products can be a good starting point for newbie chefs who’ve not cooked much before but want to try their hand at making traditional Korean food.

Korean Tuna

Korean canned tuna is slightly different from canned tuna in most other countries. The easiest way to explain is to mention that in Korea, canned tuna is called gochu chamchi. Yes, that gochu prefix means what you think it means. It literally translates to spicy tuna, though some varieties are not that spicy. Dongwon, as we mentioned before, offers several types, including kimchi-flavored tuna. 

However it may be flavored, Canned tuna is an oft-used ingredient in Korean cooking. It can be used as an ingredient for bibimbap, stews, or kimbap. As well as for more non-traditional dishes, like a sandwich filling or as a garnish for rice or ramyun. 

Korean Spam

Spam became popular in Korea back in the 1950s, when the U.S. soldiers stationed in the country introduced it to local populations. Spam popularity in the U.S. has declined since that. Still, in Korea, it has remained a popular treat, more or less on the same level as other processed meat options like ham and salami (one would argue it’s even more popular, but that’s a debate we won’t be getting into).

Korean spam is used in many ways, from simply turning it into jeon (coating in flour and egg and frying), adding it to stews like budae jjigae, and adding a twist to traditional Korean food like kimbap or bibimbap.

Snacks

Koreans are, unsurprisingly, big snackers. Keeping an authentically Korean pantry means keeping a few Korean snacks in there. Trends are a big part of Korean snacks, with specific products becoming very popular one second and disappearing the very next. Still, certain items do manage to become a pantry mainstay. Orion’s turtle chips, Lotte’s choco pie, and Gilim Tom’s seasoned almonds come to mind.

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