The origins of 5 popular Korean dishes, illustrated

Sep 3

Illustrations by Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner.

Around the world, Chinese immigrants have adapted their native dishes to suit the tastes of their adopted countries. In South Korea, the origins of modern Korean-Chinese cuisine can be traced back to the 1880s, when some 4,000 soldiers from the Shandong province were sent to the northwest port city of Incheon to quell a military rebellion. The 40 some merchants, chefs and laborers that accompanied them remained in Korea.

Korean ports began to open up for trade in the following years, encouraging Chinese settlements to form, while at the turn of the century, domestic civil strife and famines in northern China continued to push people towards the peninsula.

90% of the first Chinese immigrants into Korea were from Shandong.

Over time, the modest foods of these early Chinese-Korean settlers evolved to fit local tastes. Some of these restaurateurs also offered some of the first affordable dining-out options for average Koreans, too, writes Yang Young-kyun, a professor of anthropology at the Academy of Korean Studies, in his 2005 academic paper, “Jajangmyeon and Junggukjip.”

By the 1950s, there were more than a thousand Junggukjip (중국집, “Chinese houses,” as Chinese restaurants were called) across South Korea, and within two decades, their hybrid Korean-Chinese dishes exploded into a culinary and pop culture phenomenon. Here are five of those dishes that have anchored Korean-Chinese cuisine’s place within South Korea’s food heritage.

Jjajangmyeon (짜장면)

Photo: Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner

A rich, inky-black sauce, thick with onions and bite-size chunks of pork, melds with plump, hand-pulled noodles to become jjajangmyeon, the anchor dish of Korean-Chinese cuisine. Super satisfying, with noodles a bit thinner than udon, it’s almost like a less chunky pasta Bolognese, if the tomatoes in the Italian dish were replaced with chunjang (춘장), a fermented paste of wheat flour, soybeans, sugar, and salt.

Based on the fermented Chinese sauce tianmianjiang (甜面酱), Korean chunjang became much darker, with more caramel coloring added to appeal to local aesthetics. In addition to sliced onion and danmuji, a bright yellow pickled radish, a dollop of chunjang is served on the side of almost every Korean-Chinese meal.

Jjajangmyeon can be traced back to the popular Chinese dish zhajiangmian (炸酱面), and nowadays the noodles enjoy iconic status in South Korea, even claiming their own unofficial holiday. While couples get to celebrate Valentine’s Day in February and White Day in March, Black Day, on April 14, belongs to the singles, who eat their feelings in the form of these tar-dark noodles—just as salty as tears. Nothing soothes the soul like these tender-soft noodles coated in their mouth-filling, savory sauce.

Jjamppong (짬뽕)

Photo: Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner

For top-notch Korean-Chinese food, hand-pulled noodles are a must. Many restaurants serving up this style of food use the same, pleasantly chewy noodles in both their jjajangmyeon and their jjamppong, a fiery-scarlet noodle soup.

Jjamppong is made with a variety of mixed seafood, such as shrimp, clams, mussels or squid, scored to be wonderfully tender. Its broth is built on a rich chicken base, combined with cabbage, green onions and lots of Korean red pepper powder, called gochugaru (고추가루), stir-fried in oil.

Originally a Shandong-style dish, chaomamian (炒码面), the noodle soup was renamed chanpon, a Japanese name, when Korea was under harsh Japanese military occupation from 1910-1945. Now called jjamppong, a hot, spicy slurp with expertly cooked seafood makes for a palate-pleasing counterpoint to the pitch-black depths of jjajangmyeon.

Tangsuyuk (탕수육)

Photo: Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner

Often described in English as “sweet and sour pork,” tangsuyuk is so much more than the syrupy stuff served up at Americanized Chinese takeout joints. In this Korean-Chinese version, based on tangcurou (糖醋肉), from (you guessed it) Shandong, morsels of pork or beef get a coating of crunchy, yet tender crust that forms from double-frying potato or corn starch batter.

Accented with sliced carrots, onions and wood ear mushrooms, the whole thing gets a glazing of a mouthwatering, acidic sauce with a zing of pineapple-tinged sweetness. The key here is the knobby crust, which retains a delicate chew from its pre-soaked starchy batter. The effect is something akin to glistening, deep-fried meat clouds.

Kkanpunggi (깐풍기)

Photo: Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner

When it comes to this crispy, vermilion-glossed specialty, the most common version is made with chicken. Personally, we prefer it with large shrimp, a version we’ve noticed on the menus of higher-end Korean-Chinese restaurants.

A departure in texture from tangsuyuk, kkanpunggi is derived from Chinese ganpengji (干烹鷄). The spicy dish uses a thin batter that’s skillfully fried till it shatters deliciously with every garlic-infused bite, much like a boneless piece of Korean fried chicken.

Mandu (만두)

Photo: Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner

Pan-fried to a golden crisp, these crescent-shaped dumplings are most often called gun mandu or yakki mandu when served at Korean-Chinese eateries (both names translate to “fried dumplings”).

While mandu are thoroughly Korean, they were introduced centuries ago from China. The lyrics to “Ssanghwajeom,” a Goryeo-era Korean folk song whose name translates to “dumpling shop,” tells of Chinese Uighurs who brought the dumplings to the Korean peninsula, according to the government-run Korean Food Promotion Institute.

Gun mandu play a key role in the 2003 Korean film “Oldboy,” whose protagonist subsists on the monotony of one Korean-Chinese restaurant’s dumplings for 15 years in captivity. After his release, he visits a string of Korean-Chinese restaurants to track down those exact dumplings—and, he hopes, his captors. Vengeance never tasted so good.

Hannah Bae and Adam Oelsner are a wife-and-husband team who illustrate and write together. Hannah is a longtime journalist who was co-editor/writer of food and drink for Monocle’s Travel Guide to Seoul. Adam works in film/TV music, and he has also cooked professionally in kitchens and bakeries. Find their work at @eatdrinkdraw on Instagram.