A wide variety of fermented offerings make Korean food stand out from the cuisines of its geographical neighbors. The positive health effects of fermented foods are a fairly recent field of study. Yet a growing body of research suggests fermented foods keep our gut bacteria well-fed and in tip-top shape, resulting in improved gastrointestinal health, possible boosts to immune health, and even help with management of certain skin conditions such as eczema.
As with other Asian cuisines like Chinese and Thai food, the main landmines to watch for with Korean food are sauces high in sugar or sodium. These sauces can quickly turn an otherwise healthful dish into the nutritional equivalent of a fast food meal.
Korean food is also quite rich in red meat, which the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting to 18 ounces a week. When eating at a Korean restaurant, try making a filling meal out of three or four vegetable and soy-based side dishes.
Here are, from a health perspective, are the best and worst things you can order at a Korean restaurant.
Five worst Korean dishes:
1. Kalbi/Galbi: These dishes are all made with barbequed beef short ribs. The science on red meat indicates it is best consumed rarely. Certain compounds in red meat, regardless of fat content, are associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer.
2. Samgyupsal: Although samgyupsal is cooked on a grill (healthy!) at your table, what you are grilling is pork belly meat (unhealthy!).
3. Bulgogi: Red meat shows up again, this time grilled after being marinated in soy sauce (hello, sodium), sugar, and spices. While it’s better than a deep-fried entrée, there isn’t much healthfulness to be found in a dish with beef as its focus.
4. Mulnaengmyeon: This cold noodle soup can pack anywhere from half to three quarters of the sodium you should have in an entire day.
5. Tteokguk: This broth-based soup is high in sodium. It also contains softened rice cakes known as ‘ttaek’—empty carbohydrates with minimal nutrition, which quickly spike blood sugar and don’t offer fiber.
Five best Korean dishes:
1. Kim chi: The national dish of Korea, this fermented spicy cabbage delivers a wallop of nutrition both from the cabbage—related to broccoli and kale—and the good bacteria that keep our intestinal health in check.
2. Saengchae: Thinly sliced radish is combined with a dressing that contains red chili pepper, garlic, sesame seeds, and scallions.
3. Kongnamul muchim: This popular side dish consists of mineral-rich soybean sprouts mixed with garlic, hot pepper flakes, green onions, and a small amount of sesame oil.
4. Hobak namul: This simple sauteed zucchini side dish is sometimes topped with red chili flakes for a spicy kick. Red chili flakes also offer vitamin C, vitamin A, and capsaicin, an anti-inflammatory compound.
5. Gaji namul: This eggplant-based side dish uses a small amount of soy sauce for flavor, and instead goes heavy on healthful herbs and spices such as garlic, hot pepper flakes, and onions.