The best Korean food finds

In contrast to the conscious uncoupling of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin…

Gwyneth's sweet potato muffin recipe 7          Gwyneth's sweet potato muffin recipe 3

…this article is an unconscious coupling of all things sticky rice, from rolls and triangles to cakes and dumplings.

My list of best-loved cottage-industry products at the cashier’s counter of Korean shops is, I realised, an unconscious collection of things mainly made using sticky rice (a.k.a. glutinous rice or sweet rice).

With this simple ingredient, Koreans prepare a profusion of products to suit every palate.  They come:
~ in every shape and colour
~ as sweet or savoury items
~ as snacks, mains and desserts.

Let’s check out the checkout counter of a typical mom-and-pop Korean grocery shop in Sydney to see what sticks.

Korean Discovery #1:  Triangular Kimbap

Korean sushi is called kimbap (or gimbap).

Kim = seaweed.  Bap = rice.  Kim bap can be cylindrical or triangular.

koreansushikimbapgimbap copyIn small Korean grocery shops in Sydney, you will find kimbap at the cashier’s counter.

I’m partial to the triangular ones because of their clever packaging.

koreansushitriangularkimbaptriangularsushikimchibulgogiYou can’t tell from the picture, but the plastic wrapping cleverly separates the seaweed from the rice.

Follow the red numbered arrows for the special unwrapping technique, so you end up with the intact seaweed properly encasing the rice.

Why all this palaver with the packaging?  It’s to prevent the seaweed from touching the rice and getting soggy.  Because: 
Crunchy seaweed
+ Soft rice + Salty filling = Joy

Triangular kimbap costs around A$2.50 at my local.  There are spicy and non-spicy versions, like tuna, bulgogi and kimchi.  And kimchi+bulgogi.

Clever people wanting to make their own triangular kimbap can buy the mould from Daiso or some Asian household or grocery shops:

trianglesushimakerIn Korea, kimbap is available everywhere.  I think it qualifies as fast food in Korea’s convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart; it’s as ubiquitous as the dehydrated sausage rolls skulking in Sydney’s 7-Elevens.

Before you get the impression that everything in Korean convenience stores is wholesome, here’s a digression.  Do you know why many such stores sport a free hot water dispenser?  Here’s a clue:


The hot water dispenser is a considerate touch, so that customers can:
~ stroll in,
~ buy some high-sodium cup noodles,
~ just add water,
~ then slurp while perched on a bolted-down stool in the store.
In 5 minutes flat.  En route to work or uni.

The Korean convenience store is nothing if not convenient.

Korean Discovery #2:  Japchae

Sydney’s Korean grocery stores don’t have free hot water dispensers.  But that’s OK, because you can still get ready-to-eat noodles: japchae.

The cashier often shares counter space with takeaway boxes of japchae, delivered by small catering businesses.  These slippery sweet potato noodles are fragrant from having been tossed in soy sauce, sesame oil, cooked veggies and (sometimes) bulgogi.

These are instant noodles too, because you can eat them at room temperature especially if you picked it up from the cashier’s counter (and not a fridge).

Japchae is commonly eaten at room temperature.  A customary food at Korean parties, there’s usually a big platter of japchae on the party table, and guests just help themselves throughout the day.

Japchae Korean sweet potato noodlesA small oblong takeaway box of noodles might be as little as A$6.  It’s a rare beast that ticks all boxes in the holy trinity of being cheap AND good AND fast.

But wait, there’s more.  Like many foods, japchae is even cheaper home-made, so here is a Cheat’s guide to making japchae.

Korean Discovery #3:  Sticky rice cakes 

Variously labelled ddeok, dduk, ttuk or tteok, these cylindrical rice cakes are as versatile as Kim Jong-un’s shaved-sides-and-puffed-top hairstyle is…er…unique.  (Or maybe not so unique anymore, seeing as all North Korean male university students must now get the same haircut: see the BBC’s report on the North Korean leader’s fashion decree.)

Freshly made ddeok comes on styrofoam trays, tightly cling-wrapped to preserve their softness.  You might even encounter a version containing a little brown rice:


Exactly how versatile is the ddeok?  Let me count the ways.

Ddeok type 1:  Non-spicy

Add it to a braise with a sweet, non-spicy, soy sauce marinade.  This is said to have originated in the ancient Korean imperial court, to feed little royalings who were too young to tolerate spicy food.

Below:  Rice cakes with soy sauce, chicken and vegetables

chuncheondakgalbi5koreansavouryfoodDdeok type 2:  Spicy

Ddeok commonly manifests as the infamously spicy ddeokbokki, with a fiery gochujang chili paste.  For authenticity, eat it with a skewer, like Koreans do at supper.

Below:  The burn of red-hot ddeokbokki is sometimes tempered with melted cheese.

ddeokbukkicombinationchiliricecakesgochujangKorean cities have late night street stalls with steaming vats of crimson ddeokbokki, surrounded by not much more than plastic stools, foldable tables and tarpaulin overhead.

Because, apart from being a punchy main course at dinner, ddeokbokki also functions as the Korean equivalent of a 3 am post-pub kebab or hot dog.

Ddeok type 3:  Sweet

Okay, this isn’t a traditional dish as such.  I kinda just made it up – albeit still using traditional ingredients.

Because sometimes, a fresh, soft rice cake may want to be treated more gently than being slammed and slathered with explosive chili sauce.

So, here are my steamed rice cakes rolled in crushed black sesame, toasted white sesame, and sugar:


If you can’t find freshly made ddeok, use the vacuum sealed version that appear even in some Chinese grocery stores.  Texturally, they are harder than the fresh version.  They look like this:

rice cakes

Korean Discovery #4:  Traditional sticky rice desserts

Sweet Korean rice cakes.I always zero in on the array of sweet steamed rice cakes at the Korean cashier’s counter.  For the best picks, go mid-morning (which is usually just after delivery time). The popular ones are sold out by the afternoon.

Here are 3 types commonly seen in Sydney.

Rice cake type 1:  Dumplings

Sticky rice flour is used to make the pastry.  The filling is commonly sweetened bean paste or a mixture of sesame seeds and sugar.

Half-moon shaped dumplings are called songpyeon, a seasonal specialty for the Mid-autumn Festival.

songpyeonkoreanricecakekoreandumplingdessertRice cake type 2:  Yaksik

One of my favourite Korean desserts is yaksik (pronounced yaahk-shik).

Yak = Medicine.  Sik = Food.

The literal translation is “medicinal food”.  After I explain, this seemingly strange name will make perfect sense to you.

sticky rice yaksikNow, many people regard dessert as a naughty treat, and rightly so when it comes to cream cakes and rich puddings.

But truly traditional Chinese and Korean desserts (and food, in general) are often made with health benefits in mind, reflecting the philosophy of food as medicine.

For example, the Chinese have all manner of “sweet soups” (tong soei in Cantonese) that are almost like tonics, containing nutrient-rich ingredients like:
gingko nuts,
– lotus seeds,
– apricot kernels
– jujubes
More exotic ingredients include sparrow’s nest and hasma.  Hasma is – sit tight , readers tissue near the fallopian tubes of snow frogs.  Both are transparent and have an uncontroversial taste, akin to unsweetened jelly.

Okaaay.  Getting back to yaksik.  Its name derives from health-giving and (to some readers’ relief) relatively familiar ingredients like cinnamon, jujubes, pine nuts, seeds and sesame oil.

This subtly sweet dessert is a delightful study in textures: chewy from sticky rice and crunchy from nuts and seeds.

Rice cake type 3:  Steamed cakes

Uncooked glutinous rice grains are ground into flour, then used to make various steamed cakes.

Below:  Steamed sticky rice cakes with pumpkin and sweet beans.

Below:  These steamed rice cakes are slightly sour.  They taste similar to the pastel-coloured Chinese fatt-koh often used for praying.  The lilac coloured one was contains flour made from black sticky rice.

koreansweetricecakesoftblackricecakeThe next picture depicts lavish trays of celebratory Korean rice cakes and preserved fruit.  These are a feature of weddings and significant birthdays.

No, you won’t find them at the Korean grocery cashier’s counter; this were at a specialty stall at Seoul’s vast Gwangjang Market.

Korean market scene.  Festive sweets.

Nifty (inedible) Korean discoveries

I can’t talk about a Korean grocery store without mentioning these handy products, even though:
~ they’re on the shelf and not the cashier’s counter, and
~ they’re not edible.

Nifty Discovery #1:  A “hippo odour eater” for your fridge 

Industrial-grade to combat that pervasive kimchi smell:

odoureaterkimchifridgeNifty Discovery #2:  Remarkably long rubber gloves

These are a boon for preventing water splashing into the gloves and the dreaded internal squelch.

Here, you compare:


A Cautionary Tale

It’s really only in places with a significant Korean population that you’ll find the edible delights at the Korean shop’s cashier’s counter.  Sydney is one such place, as are various cities in California.

But not all cities are similar.  Case in point:

A dear friend who lives in Singapore (let’s call her “SW”) enthusiastically raced to the only Korean grocery in Singapore that she knows, in search of fresh Korean treats.  Multi-racial as my country of origin is, Koreans nevertheless comprise less than 0.5% of the Singapore national population. instantnoodlescupnoodles

But this is what SW found there (in her words):
[The] cashier counter of this Korean supermarket is surrounded by…aghast…Korean instant noodles.  No hand-made, seasonal, preservative-free, cottage industry, secret family heirloom recipe-produced dainty foodstuffs.

However, while in that shop, SW did sniff out a jar of sweet fruity tea which provided some comfort.  I am also very fond of this.

At this point, I shall consciously uncouple the topic of beverages from this article.  There is such a variety of intriguing Asian drinks that it’s a topic for another day’s talk show.

A Final Tip

Cashier Counter Discoveries exist in many small Asian grocery shops, not just the Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean shops that I’ve profiled in this 3-part series.

Some examples for you to hunt down:

Indian shops
~ Look out for home-made roti canai, spicy fish parcels, curry-filled roti rolls

Thai shops
~ Keep your eyes peeled for grilled cylinders or cones of sticky rice with dried shrimp wrapped in banana leaf, and other street food

Filipino shops
~ See if you can spy banana lumpia – a diabolical deep-fried spring roll encasing bananas, caramel and – secret surprisejackfruit

Indonesian shops
~ Spot the beef rendang in convenient one-serve boxes – more on beef rendang in this write-up Making Makan: The Rendang Diaries).

Related Posts

How to get your hands on the best Chinese food

Top 3 Vietnamese food finds


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