Korean cooking is based on hundreds of years of native cultural development and the mingling of Korean culture with that of Japan, China, and the West. Needless to say, it comes with its own complexities relating to ingredients, preparations, and tradition. Exploring Korean cuisine can easily become a life long journey: sampling new foods & flavors, trying your hand at new preparations, and chasing after all the rich and rewarding experiences that come with dining, cooking, and serving great food.
All that said, a sense of the fundamentals goes a long way in expanding your knowledge of Korean food; both your ability to appreciate it and prepare it yourself. (If the latter is of interest to you, check out these great videos on YouTube.) To start you off, here are the basic seasonings that go into Korean food and how to prepare them.
Korean mustard sauce typically goes onto vegetable dishes. In fact, it makes a great salad dressing. To make, mix 1 part mustard powder with 2 parts warm water and let stand for 1 hour–this makes it extra spicy and gives it a more complex flavor.
Vinegar Soy Sauce
This vinegar soy sauce preparation is common on deep fried dishes as the vinegar cuts the fat flavor. Mix 1 part soy sauce with 1 part vinegar and 1 part water, whisk to combine.
In Korea, soy sauce is often passed at the table with beef dishes. This version is basically an enhanced version of the stuff that comes out of the bottle. Mix 2 tbsp soy sauce with 1 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp minced scallion, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 1/2 tbsp sesame seeds, 1 tbsp sesame oil, season with black pepper, and combine well. You might want to sweeten it with scallion juice (just process scallions with an immersion blender).
Vinegar Red Pepper Paste
Vinegar red pepper paste is typically used to season raw fish dishes. Combine 2 parts red pepper paste, 1 part vinegar, and add sugar to taste.
This sweet sauce is seen in many Korean rice-based desserts. Heat 2 tbsp of white sugar in a small saucepan until melted. Stir constantly to avoid burning. Mix in 1 tbsp of oil and let the mixture brown. Thicken with 1/2 tbsp corn starch and 3 tbsp warm water, whisking thoroughly. Boil for one minute while stirring constantly.
Another sweet Korean sauce. To make, heat 1 tsp water, 1 tbsp white sugar, and 1 1/2 tbsp starch syrup in a saucepan over medium heat until sugar is melted and mixture is combined.