In Korea, it often feels like there are never any really fat Koreans (…okay, they are exceptions; but it’s rare)! Obesity is not a chronic problem in Korea, as it is in the west. One theory is owned to how Koreans eat healthy. Korea may have restaurant chains like McDonalds and Burger King, but they aren’t a ‘fast food’ kind of country.
Frozen or microwave foods ? Koreans like their food fresh.
Preservatives? The keyword is fermented.
Koreans do however, occasionally like their meals served simple, cheap and pali! pali (fast)!
Kimbap restaurants chains are the healthy equivalent to fast food joints.
The meals they sell are often thought of as “simple home foods”, which are made quickly and sold cheaply. Most of the dishes on the menu is under 5,000 won. Kimbap (sushi rolls), jigae (stews), ramen or udon (noodles dishes) and rice meals such as bibimbap are all standard platter of most kimbap shops (photo examples here). Order it as takeout or dine in; either way, your dish comes with a small plate of panjan (or side dishes).
simple panjan (or side dish) for your meal.
How to order at a kimbap joint:
Are there picture menus or menus in English? Hah! Does the outdoor sign read : K-I-M-B-A-P ? Seldom. So how does one recognize a kimbap shop or order from it?
Memorizing the menu:
Let’s say you don’t read a lick of hangul. Knowing what you want and how to order is all you need to know!
Until you can read Korean, memorize the names of the foods you’ll want to order. Maryeats.com has an excellent breakdown and translation of Kimbap Nara‘s menu (a brand of kimbap joints) and Katie’s Korean Adventure has examples of the food here.
Decoding the Menus:
Staring at the menus might have a dizzying effect– they look like a Korean multiple choice quiz– until you realize they’re organized by category. Recognizing the categories above will help you locate your dishes quicker. They might change slightly according to restaurant, but they typically range from:
- 김밥 kimbap = sushi rolls
- 식사 shiksa = general meals (with or without rice)
- 찌개 ji-gae = soups
- bunshik = meals with noodles
i.e. 라면 ramyeon = ramen noodles 우동 udon = thick white noodles
Photo credit: Maryeats.com. A kimbap restaurant menu. The numbers in the boxes are the number count of dishes on this menu. There are 72 dishes.
Placing an order:
When you roll in and sit down, you’ll see a menu pad on the edge of your table. Check the item and quantity you want in the item box or you can order it directly from the ajumma waitress. Your ajumma may be sweet or a bit rough around the corners, as if life’s dealt her more blows than a NYC waitress. Don’t take it personally; that’s just ajummas, in general!
If you know what you want, then you can rattle it off:
• ” ……. issoyo?” (Do you have ……?)
• “……. chuseyo” (…….., please)
A vegetarian’s notes: To baego or not to baego
Generally, every dish will have a bit of fish or seafood splash to it. If you want to remain meat and ocean-free, then kimbap (sushi roll) is your best bet (approx. $1.30-$2.00, it’s also the cheapest thing on the menu)! But you’ll still have to baego it. Baego means the equivalent to “without” or “hold”. A friend of mine, Anika, taught me this word and it’s been a silver life-saver for me when I order in restaurants.
• Baego kieran (without egg)
• Baego kogi (without meat)
For instance, I might say:
“Yache kimbap chuseyo. Baego keran, baego kogi.”
( Translation: I’ll have vegetable kimbap, please. Hold the eggs, hold the meat)
Then watch to see if they prepare it the way you asked. Koreans don’t always see eggs and seafood as “meat” so you’ll have to watch them as they make it. Sometimes, I don’t think they even see ham as meat because occasionally, I’ll catch an ajumma sneaking it in.
Where’s the utensils?
It’s all self-serve when it comes to utensils. There will be a wooden or plastic box and if you lift the lid, you’ll see metal chopsticks and spoons.
How to recognize a kimbap shop:
Kimbap restaurants usually have franchises or chains and they seem to be everywhere. They almost always have recognizable signs if you pay attention. On the outside:
- A garishly, bright orange sign which have the word 김밥 kimbap.
- Open 24 hours: You’ll see “24″ somewhere in their advertising.
- You may see happy, dancing kimbap painted on window or signs.
- Inside, there’s a kimbap counter near the door entrance, as kimbap is the quickest takeout food to serve. The a counter with all the kimbap fixings.
Have you ever eaten at a kimbap joint? Any tips or recommendations you’ve discovered?
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