The 3 Things Nearly Every Korean Cook Treasures

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

The Korean kitchen is not like the American kitchen. For starters, at any given time you’ll have to look down toward the floor to find the mistress of the Korean kitchen, who may be crouching or sitting on the floor with a giant vat of vegetables, pouring in gochugaru, a ground red chile pepper spice, and massaging it into the veggies with glove-clad hands. Secondly, with the Korean cuisine come different preservation methods and different aromas — thus, a completely different tool set from the traditional American kitchen most of my friends grew up with.

And so in the spirit of exploration, here are the three things nearly all Korean kitchens have.

(Image credit: Amazon)

1. A Mandoline

Every Korean cook rushing to suddenly host her mother-in-law knows that the mandoline is her trustiest weapon of war to impress her harshest critic. Without the time to individually chop the many veggies that render a Korean bapsang an impressively colorful cornucopia, she must resort to either a food processor or a mandoline. But the mandoline makes prettier, more even cuts than a food processor — and Korean banchan should be as pretty as they are mouthwatering.

My mother, a Korean-American immigrant, was never without her battered, decade-old, off-white Benriner plastic slicer. Like a miniature washboard, my mother held it at an angle, running the veggies back and forth to slice with speed.

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to use the mandoline because my mother deemed it too dangerous for childish hands. But the young cook in me was jealous — how else would I learn to beautifully and quickly julienne the mu radish for our musaengchae (a side dish of radish salad)?

A Korean cook wields her mandoline like Paul Bunyan held tight to his trusty axe. If you’ve never had a mandoline, get thee a Joyce Chen Asian Mandoline Plus immediately — your salads will thank you, and then you can advance to adding julienned carrots and potatoes to your kimchi pajeon. Just watch those hands when you slice!

(Image credit: Amazon)

2. A Mortar and Pestle

Do you hear what I hear? It’s the sound of some poor Korean child pounding garlic and sesame seeds until the end of time, crouching on a cold kitchen floor in wintertime. (Okay, boo hoo, that was me.) But I loved the wooden mortar and pestle my omma kept in the low cabinet since before my birth. Every day after school, come four o’clock, I could be found sitting on the kitchen floor pounding raw garlic to a pulp, all the while whining that I wasn’t watching after-school cartoons like “normal” American kids.

Sesame seeds are essential to Korean cuisine, and their essence can’t be released without a mortar and pestle. I’ll argue that no existing food processor today can “process” tiny toasted sesame seeds like a mortar and pestle can. Also, just like with the mandoline, the process is quick, needs no electricity, and requires very little cleanup.

The rhythmic pounding of garlic and ginger for kimchi, the aromas released from that small cavern of years of culinary secrets … these are memories I treasure.

(Image credit: Amazon)

3. A Dimchae

I suppose you don’t know the pain of dripping kimchi juice on your leg on the subway; I do, and I’m not sure those stockings ever recovered (appearance- or smell-wise). There’s an almighty potency, an everlasting skunky stain, in the aroma of kimchi — but we consider this passionate pain all worth it and in fact even part of the appeal. In fact, kimchi is so worth it, we’re willing to sacrifice thousands of dollars and a good few square feet of real estate for an entirely separate fridge — a kimchi fridge that’s colloquially known as a Dimchae, after the best-known brand of kimchi fridges. Otherwise, we’ll feel the wrath of kimchilicious aromas permeating all of our other food in our “American fridge.”

The Dimchae has other perks, too — often several sections, each of which can be personalized by temperature and deodorization. You can even turn one section of the Dimchae on while turning the others off. I like to keep riper kimchi in colder compartments to slow their fermentation; at other times, I might want to allow a kimchi to ripen more quickly for kimchi stew, which requires “old kimchi.” I find that cabbage kimchi ripens more quickly than radish kimchi, so I adjust where I put my kimchi accordingly.

If you get serious about making kimchi, just trust me and get a dimchae or a mini fridge for your kimchi, because even James Brown never knew funk like this.