Setting up your pantry, Part 1: Ingredients

Every time I learn about a new cuisine and decide I must cook foods from that cuisine, I rush to the store on payday and buy everything I can get my hands on. This leaves me broke and confused.

This guide is intended to help you at the store. Make a list, head over.

But first, be realistic about your expectations. How much will you cook? How many times do you plan on making Korean food? Once? Once a month? Once a week?

And second, evaluate your own tastes. Do you like spicy food? Do you prefer milder dishes? Do you like to eat seasonally? (By “seasonally,” I don’t mean seasonal goods, I mean eating cold food in the summer and hot food in the winter. Boyfriend and I prefer to eat whatever food sounds good for the night. I have been known to eat cold noodles in January and boiling hot soft tofu stew in the heat of summer.)

Take this list alongside your own expectations. You don’t need to rush out and grab everything at once.

Note: This list is for the person who has never cooked any Korean food before and has limited or no knowledge of these ingredients.

  1. Hot Pepper Paste: Gochujang or 고추장: This paste is sticky, sweet and spicy. It’s not nearly as hot as it looks. If you’re unsure of how to use this, or don’t know how often you will use it, buy the smallest tub possible. It comes in a red, opaque plastic tub. If you don’t think you will use it often, cover the top of the paste with plastic wrap before storing it in the fridge. It can and will dry out into a hard, sticky lump. The paste is super sticky. I have found when using it that I must use two spoons, one to measure and the other to scrape off the paste off the surface of the utensil. Because it is so sticky, it doesn’t come off in the dishwasher. Instead, it turns into cement. I strongly recommend washing your spoon by hand and right away. Gochujang is also very salty. When using it in conjunction with soy sauce or any other salty thing, use the measurements specified in your recipe and taste before adjusting salt.

    A medium sized container of Gochujang

  2. Sesame Oil: Chamgireum or 참기름: Sesame oil is probably one of the most used ingredients in Korean cooking. The distinctive flavor and smell of sesame oil defines Korean cooking. (For me the smell of sewage combined with the smell of sesame oil takes me back to Seoul.) If you watch Maangchi’s videos, you will notice that she finishes many, if not most of her dishes with a drizzle of sesame oil. You can cook in sesame oil, but I think that its flavor is best raw, and as a seasoning. Buy only a small bottle at first. We use it at our home so much that we bought a gallon tin of it and just pour some in a small dispenser for easy use. If you find you rarely use it, store it in the fridge. Otherwise, it’s fine in a cool cabinet. Don’t store it above the stove if you have cabinets up there. It can go rancid if treated poorly. Sesame Oil is an essential ingredient and one you must have for Korean food.

    A reasonably sized bottle for a first purchase. This brand has an easy dispenser top for drizzling.

    Once you get to cooking a lot of Korean food, you ought to buy one of these big cans of oil.

  3. Soy Sauce: The variety of soy sauces across Asia are staggering, and terms can be confusing. For your pantry stocking purposes, look for a simple soy sauce. I plan on doing a larger, more comprehensive post on soy sauce later. Unless you know what you’re doing, avoid the bottles that say “Korean Soy Sauce for Soup.” It’s way more salty than “plain” soy sauce and can really throw you off. For the beginner, plain Kikkoman will do. I know it’s the most readily available sauce across America, so look for that. I don’t recommend the low-sodium variety of soy sauce, so unless your doctor has ordered you to cut back on the sodium for health reasons, just get the standard variety.

    Look for “Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce” for a more standard variety.

    Look for “Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce” for a more standard variety.

  4. Garlic and Ginger: Nearly every Korean recipe will use garlic and ginger. I strongly urge you to buy a large piece of ginger (the last one I bought was a pound and a half), peel it, and puree it in your food processor. Scrape it all into a zip-lock bag, flatten it out and throw it in your freezer. Make sure it’s flat and thin, because the sugar content in ginger is very low and it freezes very hard. Simply snap off a piece of frozen ginger for your recipes. Do the same process with garlic. With a food processor, you can whir up two or three pounds of garlic, freeze it flat and grab bits when you need it. Many Korean markets will sell bags from 8 ounces to 5 pounds of peeled garlic. Koreans use so much garlic that you can be guaranteed that the cloves are fresh and pungent. Now, for dishes that rely on a strong raw garlic or ginger flavor, go ahead and use fresh. But for anything cooked, this method saves a lot of time and fuss. I used to buy a small piece of ginger every time I needed it, then half of it would go bad before I could use it up. A mini chopper works for this trick as well, you just can’t do as much at a time.
  5. Hot Pepper Flakes: Gochugaru or 고추가루: For nearly everything, you will want to buy coarse ground pepper. There is a type of gochugaru that is fine ground, but that’s for making gochujang at home, and we just aren’t that hardcore yet. There is a brand called Wang that makes a shaker of gochugaru that holds about 2 1/2 cups of flakes. If you think you’re going to cook lots of Korean food, buy this shaker and keep it when it’s empty. You can then fill it with larger bags for easier use. A friend of mine from Korea brought me some of her parents’ homemade gochugaru. It was great, but it was about twice as hot as the store-bought stuff. Then I found a market in my old city that also prepared their own pepper powder fresh. It was also mighty hot. So if you get good fresh stuff, lucky you! And also, be judicious in your use of the stuff.
  6. Soybean Paste: Dwenjang or 된장: This is a non essential item in my house. However, if you and your family prefer non-spicy foods, you might find yourself making dwenjang stew often and you will need to use this ingredient. Again, like gochujang, dwenjang is sticky. It will also need to be covered with plastic wrap if you don’t use it often. It’s a savory, salty paste that gives a good strong flavor to soups and stews. I find this ingredient to be optional for a good pantry, but many will disagree with me. Remember, just because I don’t use it, doesn’t mean you won’t! A note about my romanization of “dwenjang.” Most places will romanize it as “doenjang,” but the phonetic pronunciation is “dwen” not “do-en.”

    Dwenjang is almost always sold in a brown tub like this. Some Korean markets will have dwenjang in the refrigerated section. These are higher end brands and cost a bit more. They are sometimes sold in clear glass tubs, or squat jars meant to mimic the traditional clay pots used for making dwenjang.

  7. Tofu: Doobu or 두부: It might seem like there’s a million different types of tofu out there, but it’s easy to learn the basics. “Cotton” tofu has a spongy texture. “Silken” tofu is smooth, like the best puddings. Silken tofu doesn’t mean soft tofu. For most major brands, tofu not labeled “silken” will be the cottony type. I prefer silken tofu in all applications, but that’s my personal preference. You may find you like the spongy texture better. Buy tofu with the intent to use it within about 5 days. “Soon tofu” or “soon doobu” is extra soft tofu for stew. It comes in either a tube or a square package. When you cut the tube open, water will squirt out. I have yet to come up with a non-messy way of opening these packages. Instead, I use my cutting board with a channel around the outside to catch all the water. (Another tofu in a tube to look out for is Egg Tofu. This is a Japanese item, not Korean. You will usually find it in all-purpose Asian markets, but never in Korean markets. Don’t use it in soft tofu stew, instead slice it into coins, quickly dip it in cornstarch and fry it. It’s so good with a meaty sauce of some kind. The Cantonese and Vietnamese seem to like Japanese Egg tofu so if this product interests you, seek it out in Chinese or Southeast Asian markets.) If you think you don’t like tofu, I would encourage you to try soft tofu stew at least once. It changed my mind on what tofu is and can be. I think many people think of tofu purely as a meat substitute and not as an ingredient. I will be posting methods and suggestions for tofu later, but try to be open to tofu. It’s pretty good, really.

    This tofu is “silken” but firm. A frustrating convention among Korean tofu brands is to only label one aspect of the Tofu. This happens to be firm, which I only know because it was the only package that didn’t say “soft” or “extra soft.”

    Firm tofu of the cotton variety. This doesn’t say “cotton” on it, and 99% of this kind of tofu will not be marked as “cotton.”

     

  8. Vegetables: Most vegetables aren’t “pantry” items, but I am going to list a small amount of Korean veggies here that will be used commonly. Green onions are used extensively along with Asian Chives. These chives go by many names: Buchu, Nira, Garlic Chives, Asian chives,onion chives. They look like long, flat blades of grass, and they reek. Don’t leave them in your car. They are cheap and easy to use, simply cut off the root ends in one swift slice and cut the chives according to your recipe. Yellow onions are used often as well. Korean radish or “mu” is a very commonly used ingredient. Good mu should be firm, unblemished and not flexible. I found a pile of mu once and all of it could bend. Pass on it if it’s in that condition. If you can find good daikon, substitute that. Good daikon instead of bad mu is a kosher suggestion. No mu is better than lousy mu. To store it, keep it in the fridge, in a plastic bag. Mu can be huge, but you can find it small here and there. There appears to be no appreciable differences in texture or quality between sizes of mu. Napa or Chinese cabbage is used mainly for kimchi. If you plan on making your own kimchi, buy a small head to experiment with. Look for a head that is heavy for its size, feels firm and compact and has fresh looking leaves and an intact core. I have yet to see Napa used for anything but kimchi, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Korean peppers are often used as garnish or finishers for a dish. Red peppers tend to be hot, and most often you will see that the peppers labeled as Korean Red Peppers are red jalapenos. This is fine, just remember that they can be pretty hot. If you can’t stomach spicy foods, you can leave out red peppers. I strongly recommend gloves when handling raw hot peppers. If you get pepper oil on your hands, scrub well, especially under your nails. Taste your fingertips, and if you get a slight pepper burn on your tongue, keep washing. Green Korean peppers are long, about 6 inches, and thin. They are a teensy bit spicy, but for the most part they just have a nice, bright green pepper flavor. Used in conjunction with red peppers, they make a lovely garnish. You may notice a huge variety of greens at your Korean market. Don’t worry about those for now.

    Many Korean markets will only sell these peppers in packages. Green Korean chilis are long, slender and usually straight. You’ll get the odd curved pepper here and there. Skins should be smooth and unblemished.

    Beautiful Mu. Notice the mutant mu in the front. This stuff is great looking, bright and clean and firm.

    Napa, or Paechu is looking its best in the fall. This is kimchi season, and many Koreans are looking to stock up. Note that these cabbages have intact cores. Avoid split cores! Leaves should be smooth and the cabbage should feel heavy for its size.

     

    The all-purpose green onion. Always wash these really well. The last thing any dish needs is gritty green onion bits.

     

    Red Chili Pepper. These are red Jalapenos. I have yet to find red Korean chilies around here, and I live in Los Angeles. I have seen Maangchi use them, so perhaps they are easier to find in New York.

    Nira, AKA: Garlic chives, Asian chives, Puchu, onion chives, and in some cases, Korean Leeks. Koreans do use leeks, and they resemble the standard leek, just a bit smaller and usually with longer green leaves. These nira in my market are much smaller that Nira found in Chinese or Vietnamese markets. I have found them to be interchangeable.

     

  9. Dried Anchovy: These come in sizes from microscopic to the size of your average adult index finger. I like the little ones, about an inch long the best. These are used for soup stock, along with dried mushrooms and kelp. They can also be stir fried for a delicious beer snack. I list this as a pantry item because you will need it for soup stocks, and they keep forever in the freezer.

    These are the biggest size. I have placed my finger here for comparison. Many Korean recipes will call for removing the head and guts. This is a bit of a pain, so if you want to use these, start cooking early.

    These guys are tiny. They tend to be for stir-frying and not so much for stock.

     

    These are the size I buy. They are about 1 inch long. I like all-purpose products. These can be used for stock, or stir-fried with other ingredients for a good snack.

  10. Dried Shitakes or Pyogo or 표고: The ones imported from Korea smell like cocoa powder. I throw these directly into water for stock. Boiling water will soften them faster. Once they are soaked, they can be sliced and used or discarded. Spend a couple of bucks more to get good quality mushrooms. Their rich and savory flavor is well worth it. You can not substitute fresh shitakes. Fresh shitakes don’t have the same concentrated flavor and aroma as dried ones.
  11. Kelp: Dried sea kelp is what you’re looking for. Kombu is the Japanese term for this type of kelp. Do not use: Nori, Kim, Laver, Wakame or anything that isn’t a thick, hard flat sheet of kelp. It may have a white residue on the outside, which may be wiped off if it bothers you. I use scissors to cut off a two or three inch piece of it. It doesn’t need too much time in water before it lends its flavor to the stock. Keep it wrapped up well in your cabinet. It’s not ever going to go bad, but you do have to worry about cabinet moths taking up residence in your kelp. Ask me how I know.

    This isn’t the greatest picture of sea kelp. It’s also known as “Kombu” in Japanese. Note the soft brushes of white powder. You can wipe this off if you wish. I don’t bother. Kelp becomes slimy if overcooked. Let it steep from 10-20 minutes in your stock, then discard. It can be frozen and reused once, but not any more than that. This kelp isn’t pleasant to eat.

I will get into intermediate ingredients at a later date! Did I forget anything basic? Let me know in the comments!

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About zorazen

I am a white woman living in LA's Koreatown. I moved here to continue my study of Korean. I have only one year of Korean language under my belt, but I can read and write. I probably won't be able to translate any but the simplest of words for you. In one year I will be studying formally again. My love of Korean food comes from a trip I took to Korea a few years ago. I started cooking my favorites from Seoul when I came home because Korean restaurants in my area were so expensive. I found I enjoyed the process. I was grocery shopping the other night and remembered when I first started cooking Korean food and all the struggles I had without someone to show me the way. I hope to help others out in my situation. I also have 12 years of professional cooking and baking experience to share.

One response to “Setting up your pantry, Part 1: Ingredients”

  1. nazhuret says :

    I love the smell of chives.
    Good list. I will try to spread the word.

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