Get started with Korean cooking: A beginner’s guide to ingredients


Drawings and writing by Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner

Korean cuisine is full of deep, complex flavors -- but that doesn’t mean cooking it at home has to be complicated.

To get started with cooking simple Korean dishes, you need just a handful of ingredients, several of which may be in your pantry right now. Based on our experience of cooking Korean food in our (small) Brooklyn apartment, here’s our guide to the most basic staples that you should stock in the beginning. With these 10 ingredients, and some good veggies and proteins, you can make hundreds of flavor-packed Korean dishes.


Korean food isn’t Korean food without kimchi. Sour, crunchy, salty, and tongue-tingling, kimchi is a finished side dish (banchan / 반찬) of fermented vegetables, but it's also an important ingredient to have on hand for any number of easy Korean recipes like kimchi fried rice (kimchi bokkeumbap / 김치볶음밥), kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae / 김치찌개) and kimchi dumplings (mandu / 만두). With the growing popularity of Korean food and fermentation, it's becoming more common to see good kimchi in grocery stores. It's usually made with fish sauce or salted shrimp, but vegan versions are available.

Gochu and Gochugaru

This is the little pepper that puts the fire in Korean cuisine. Peppers are called gochu (고추) in Korean, and gochugaru (고추가루) is the ubiquitous hot red pepper powder that comes in coarse and fine grounds. You can mix it into sauces, fried rice, soups, and anything else your heart desires.


Spicy, sweet and tangy, gochujang (고추장) is a red pepper paste that works on everything from bibimbap to sandwiches. It's made of gochugaru (고추가루 / hot red pepper powder) that's sweetened and fermented.


Garlic = goodness. Called maneul (마늘) in Korean, garlic is a major building block of flavor. We even eat it raw with Korean BBQ if we're feeling particularly spicy or pungent.



Fresh ginger adds its bright, peppery, pungent notes to the symphony of Korean flavors. It's used in everything from kimchi to tea. It's called saenggang (생강) in Korean. Try to find fresh-looking ginger that isn't dried out.

Scallions and Onions

Scallions (pa / 파) and onions (yangpa / 양파) are potent, pungent, and essential to Korean cooking. You'll find them raw, cooked, and fermented, bringing spice and depth of flavor to Korean cuisine. A little milder than onions, scallions are especially good raw, and they're often used as a garnish. 

Soy Sauce and Sesame Oil

Sesame oil is extracted from toasted sesame seeds. It's used as a nutty, rich seasoning in hundreds of Korean dishes. In Korean it's chamgireum (참기름). There are several variations of soy sauce (ganjang / 간장) traditionally made in Korea, but any high-quality soy sauce will do for a beginner. 



In Korea, the word for rice is synonymous with "food." A steaming bowl of bap (밥) completes nearly every Korean meal. Koreans like to use a short-grained variety, steamed to soft, sticky perfection. In its uncooked form, rice is called ssal (쌀). By the way, did anyone else's mom have this rice cooker?


We’ll be doing more posts for intermediate- and advanced-level Korean ingredients, so stay tuned!