Gluten-Free Korean Cuisine

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When thinking about Asian cuisines, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese or Japanese might first come to mind. Possibly a lesser-known cuisine to some – but well worth exploring – is Korean cuisine.

Two hallmarks of Korean cuisine are the inclusion of numerous side dishes, called “banchan,” with meals as well as the presence of kimchi, a mix of fermented and spiced vegetables, at virtually all meals. Many of the side dishes, like kimchi, are fermented, pickled, or salted – all originally used as food preservation techniques and that add unique and intense flavors to Korean cuisine.

We’ve identified some popular Korean dishes and ingredients and outline which are naturally gluten-free, which can be made gluten-free, and which ones you should avoid unless you can verify that they are safely gluten-free.

Kimchi

A mix of fermented and spiced vegetables often considered the national dish of Korea. Traditional ingredients include napa cabbage, carrot, and daikon radish with salt, garlic, ginger, and chili seasoning.

Some kimchi contain flour – traditionally rice flour – although there are versions without flour, too. Endless varieties of kimchi can be made using different vegetables and spices. In addition to being a popular side dish, Kimchi is used as a condiment and to flavor other dishes, like soups. If purchasing kimchi at the store or eating it in a restaurant, confirm that any flour used in it is gluten-free. Although not traditional, soy sauce could be used in a kimchi dish, so as with everything you eat but don’t prepare yourself, confirm that all ingredients are gluten-free.

Banchan

Means “side dish” in Korean. Numerous small side dishes are served with rice and with most meals, some fermented, some pickled, some salted, to add different tastes to the meal. In addition to kimchi, banchan can include radish pickles, seasoned seaweed salad, candied sweet potatoes, and anchovy stir-fry. Banchan is generally served for the whole table to enjoy. If you’re eating out, and especially if sharing with others at your table, confirm the gluten-free status of each banchan or request a few that you know are safe for your own enjoyment.

Bibimbap

A staple Korean dish that means “mixed rice” and consists of rice with various fresh and fermented vegetables, often with meat, plus an egg. There are endless varieties of this dish, from simple to complex. Some sources theorize that Bibimbap was invented to use up various leftover vegetable side dishes. It is typically served with the different components of the dish placed in distinct sections of the plate or bowl, topped with a fried egg, to make a pleasing presentation. Prior to eating this dish, you mix all the ingredients together.

 

Bibimbap  usually contains Gochujang, an intense spicy, sweet and savory condiment made from chili and fermented soybean. Caution: Gochujang usually contains wheat or barley but may also be made using rice. Gluten-free Gochujang is available but may not be served in most restaurants. If gluten-containing gochujang is included in a restaurant’s bibimbap, ask for your dish to be prepared without it or inquire about other chili sauces that may be available. Gochujang is also used as a staple starter for various Korean stir-fries and stews.

Bulgogi

Korean beef barbecue made with thin slices of any cut of beef marinated in a savory-sweet sauce and cooked over a very hot flame. This flavorful dish is usually served with various banchan, kimchi, and rice and can be wrapped in lettuce leaves. Some restaurants cook the meat right at your table, and the thin slices cook quickly. The marinade includes soy sauce so you should confirm its gluten-free status or substitute the soy sauce with tamari.

Jjigae

Traditional Korean stew. There are many varieties, but they all typically contain vegetables, meat, seafood or vegetables and may be seasoned with gochujang, fermented miso, and sesame oil. Kimchi is a popular ingredient.

Noodle dishes

Could be made using wheat, buckwheat, or “glass” noodles made from vegetable starch. Wheat noodles are most used, so always ask at restaurants about the noodles. When cooking dishes with noodles at home, use only gluten-free noodles.

Bossam

Steamed or boiled pork cut into squares, wrapped in a lettuce or salted cabbage leaf, and served with dipping sauce. Confirm the gluten-free status of the broth that the pork is cooked in as well as the dipping sauce.

Tteokbokki

A traditional street food made by stir frying rice cakes with a variety of other ingredients, including chili, onion, and anchovies. Make sure soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients are not used.

Gyeongdan

One of the many types of rice-based desserts in Korean cuisine. Gyeongdan are rice balls made with sweet rice flour, traditionally wrapped around a sweet red bean filling. This treat is gluten-free.

Barley Tea

A popular Korean beverage that should be avoided because it contains gluten.

Soju

The traditional distilled, slightly sweet spirit of Korea. Can be made from rice, barley, or wheat. Since it is distilled, it is gluten-free even when made from gluten-containing grains.

As you can see, Korean cuisine provides dishes with intense flavors that create a unique culinary experience. Like most Asian cuisines, there are many ways to enjoy Korean food if you are eating gluten-free. Because wheat- and barley-based ingredients can be used in almost any Korean dish, make sure to check that noodles, sauces, and marinades are entirely gluten-free.

The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.

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