A variety of herbs and spices are used to add flavor and complexity in Korean cuisine. Hot pepper flakes and pastes spice up sauces and stir-fries, ginseng and bellflower roots add bitter notes to soups and stews, and toasted sesame seeds add crunch and nuttiness as a finishing garnish to salads and meat dishes. You can buy Korean herbs and spices at specialty markets, but in some instances, you can use substitutes if a particular item is difficult to locate.
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Also known as Asian chives, fresh garlic chives are tender green shoots that add a vibrant, garlicky pop of flavor to many Korean dishes. Garlic chives frequently star in fresh salads, are used to create savory chive pancakes and are a popular addition to kimchi -- a fermented vegetable side dish typically made from cabbage. If you can’t find garlic chives, also known as buchu, scallions are an acceptable substitute.
Fresh Ginseng Root
Ginseng has a bitter, earthy and slightly sweet flavor, and is generally ground and used to make tea and candy. It is also used to flavor soups, most notably chicken soups. Fresh ginseng, or susam, can be found in the refrigerated section of Korean grocery stores.
Dried Bellflower Root
Dried bellflower roots, or doraji, are similar in taste to ginseng --bitter and earthy. Often seasoned, sauteed and served as a side dish, bellflower roots are also commonly used in soups and salads. Before using bellflower, soak the dried roots to reconstitute them. This also tames the bitterness. Look for bellflower with thick, white roots.
Hot Pepper Flakes
In Korean cooking, hot pepper flakes are used to add heat to everything from soups and stews to stir-fries and cold noodle salads. Unlike the hot pepper flakes that are typically used in American cuisine, Korean hot pepper flakes, or gochugaru, resemble a coarsely ground powder as opposed to large chunks of flakes and seeds. Korean hot pepper flakes can either be mild -- deolmaewoon gochugaru -- or hot -- maewoon gochugaru -- and should be stored in an airtight container in the freezer to preserve their flavor after opening. Look for flakes made from sun-dried peppers.
Hot Pepper Powder/Paste
Hot pepper powder, or gochujanyong gochugaru, refers to finely ground hot pepper flakes and is mostly used to make hot pepper paste, or gochujang. Making your own allows you to control the heat and depth of flavor of the resulting hot pepper paste, but you can buy pastes with varying levels of heat. Hot pepper paste is used to flavor stir-fries, create spicy sauces and add a kick to soups.
Mustard Seed Powder
Mustard seed powder, or gyeoja-gara, adds a zesty kick to sauces and is used to flavor cold salads, including cold noodle and shrimp salads. If you’re having trouble locating mustard seed powder, substitute with English powdered mustard, which has a similar flavor.
Perilla leaves, or kkaennip, can be consumed raw or cooked and have a light grassy and minty flavor. The leaves are large and are often used to wrap other foods, such as rice, barbecued meats and vegetables. They are often consumed whole, quickly pickled in a spiced soy sauce marinade, as well as chopped and added to savory pancakes and salads.
Perilla Seed Powder
Much like fresh perilla leaves, perilla seed powder has a grassy, slightly minty taste, one that is reminiscent of wild basil. Perilla, or deulkae-garu, can be purchased pre-ground, or you can buy the seeds and grind them yourself. Perilla seed powder is typically used to flavor soups and stews.
A popular addition to everything from stir-fries to salads to dipping sauces, and as a finishing touch to short ribs, fish cakes and fried chicken, sesame seeds lend a rich nuttiness to Korean dishes. Sesame seeds, or bokkeun-kkae, are always toasted prior to use by heating them in a pan on the stove top. White and brown sesame seeds have a pleasant nutty flavor, while black sesame seeds are slightly nuttier with a distinct bitterness.