A common problem with trying different cuisines is the issue of “What should I order?” It is somewhat easier if you only know one dish from the cuisine in question, but you can only order that dish so many times in a row before you start to look for something else. Even worse, if you do not know the different categories of food within a specific cuisine, you may find yourself at a restaurant without your favorite item on the menu. Imagine trying to order pizza at a steak restaurant! Korean food is much more diverse than the plethora of barbecue and tofu restaurants would have you believe.
Korean restaurants that have similar-looking menus often belie their specializations. While there are staple dishes that all restaurants may serve, there are often specific dishes for which the restaurant is known — at least by Koreans. While it may be obvious to native speakers, or gourmets and gourmands familiar with the cuisine, many specialty restaurants have their crown jewels eclipsed by more well-known dish names, or more identifiable pictures or ingredients. While bulgogi is a dish known almost universally, many places that serve it actually specialize in something else. Like mandu (dumplings). Or chicken.
My neighbors and I went to a popular Korean chicken restaurant a number of years ago. The first two pages of the menu showed different types and flavors of chicken, which made sense. The last two pages, however, were filled with the typical fare you would find at any Korean restaurant, primarily beef and noodle dishes. We quickly chose two chicken combination plates and perused the latter half of the menu looking to “complete” our meal. I asked the owner what he would suggest, as he patiently stood beside us waiting to take our order. “This is a chicken place,” he stated matter-of-factly. I reminded him about the two chicken dishes we had ordered and explained that we were looking at the other dishes to “round out” our dinner. “This is a chicken place,” he repeated, collecting our menus. “You should have enough food with what you ordered.”
I did not understand what that meant until several months later. It really was just a chicken place. Although there were other items on the menu, the kitchen was not really set up to make them well, and there was nothing special about them. The problem was that this was a Korean chicken restaurant, and the “Korean” caused a great number of customers to look for “Korean food”. Like bulgogi. So the owner had them on the menu, to look more “Korean”. But it was a chicken place. And, as many patrons discovered, the chicken was good enough to stand on its own.
Native speakers get a huge advantage in just being able to see restaurants’ “real” names. In Santa Clara, there was a cozy place that, in Korean, was called Haejangguk Jib (해장국집), but went by the unassuming English name “Sui Tofu”. People conversant in the language of Korean cuisine recognize that haejangguk basically tells you what kind of food to expect, while the only identifiable English word is “tofu”, and who knows what kind of impression that gives to people who want table-top barbecued pork and meaty soups.
Restaurants that do not print their menus in a language you are familiar with present another challenge, but that is only the tip of the iceberg, even for cultures that use Latin/Roman or other familiar-looking alphabets. Inconsistencies in Romanization, spelling, and transliteration cause further confusion as a restaurant order may go through a “telephone game”-like journey from native language speaker, to informal English, to parsing by a formal English speaker, to a best-attempt English approximation of what the original translator thought the native language representation should be. Even if the Romanization and agreed-upon spelling are correct, how does one actually pronounce Tteokbokki? For reference, you may also see any one of the following spellings for the same item: ddukbokkie, ddeokbokki, dduk bok ki, dduk bok kee, topokki, or any combination of the aforementioned, or similar, syllables.
This is how this site is intended to help:
- Introduce you to new restaurants, foods, businesses, and products
- Explain the specialties and uniqueness of each business
- Suggest dishes, and even entire meals
- Get you comfortable with the words and terms