It’s often said that Koreans can’t go a day without rice, and once you get to Korea, you’ll find out it’s true! Rice is the main ingredient in Korean cuisine. Typically, Korean rice can be eaten at all three meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — people will never tire of eating it. Rice can easily be served as a side dish to soups, stews and barbecue. It can be mixed with vegetables and meat. It can be fried with sausage and egg. It can be ground and made into rice cakes or even bread. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of ways to cook with rice, and Koreans have probably tried – and perfected them all.
If you’ve been to Korea, you’ve probably noticed that Korean rice isn’t like the types of rice eaten in India, Vietnam, or China. So what makes Korean rice Korean, and what are some of the best types of rice you can get?
What is Korean Rice?
Korean rice has a shorter grain than rice from Southeast Asia and is a lot stickier. It is very mild in taste and goes perfectly with spicy or flavoursome soups and stews. Korea is not the ideal place to grow rice – with more than 70% of the country covered by mountains, growing rice was quite a challenge. Nevertheless, rice has been a staple of Korean cuisine for as long as anyone can remember.
Koreans are so serious about their rice that they even have two different words for it. 쌀 (Ssal) is used to indicate uncooked rice. Once the rice is ready, it is called 밥 (bab or bap). That is why many Korean dishes end with the word bap: this means that the dishes have rice as the main ingredient. Think of Bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and meat), Bokkeumbap (fried rice), or Deopbap (rice with a vegetable and meat sauce).
Types of Korean Rice
Koreans don’t just eat just one type of rice, of course. In fact, there are many types and flavors of rice, each serving its own purpose. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used varieties.
1. Short Grain White Rice (백미, Baekmi)
Short grain white rice is the most basic rice you can get. It is fully milled which means it does not have much nutritional value, but has an incomparably smooth and mild taste. It is also really easy to digest. Usually Koreans use this type of rice as a side dish for soups and stews, or they mix it with some whole grain rice or nuts and seeds to add some nutritional value. It is best cooked in a rice cooker, to get it all fluffy and sticky.
2. Short Grain Brown Rice (현미, Hyeonmi)
Short-grain brown rice still has its germs and brains, making it full of vitamins and fiber. However, because it is whole grain, it is a little harder to digest and has a stronger taste. Therefore, this type of rice is often mixed with plain white rice to make it tastier and easier to digest. Since it is low in sugar, diabetics prefer this rice.
3. Short Grain Glutinous Rice (찹쌀, Chapssal)
Short grain glutinous rice is extremely sticky, meaning it is often used in making Kimbap – Korean rice rolls – or when people want to eat very soft, sticky rice. It is also used to make sticky, chewy Tteok (떡, rice cakes). It has a higher glycemic index, so it can give you a bit of a sugar spike if not combined with food dishes. If you mix this glutinous rice when brewing Korean alcohol, you can make a very attractive honey-sweetened ‘cheongju (clear rice wine)’ with a balanced acidity and sugar content.
If you want delicious, airy and slightly sticky rice, it is recommended to mix Chapssal with regular white rice.
4. Black Rice (흑미, Heukmi)
Black rice has a unique, nutty flavor and is packed with iron and fiber. Because of its taste, it is often seen as a delicacy. You sometimes get it in fancier – or traditional – Korean restaurants. At home, it is often mixed with white rice. If you go to a Korean rice cake shop, you will see many rice cakes colored with black rice.
How to prepare Korean rice?
Make sure to always wash Korean rice before cooking the rice. There is a lot of starch in Korean rice, so washing it away makes the rice less sticky and heavy.
Every Korean has a rice cooker – a pressure cooker that quickly cooks the rice to fluffy perfection. If you have a pressure cooker, it’s just a matter of learning how much water is needed per amount of rice. Usually it comes with clear descriptions.
You can also cook Korean rice on a stovetop, although it is slightly more difficult. It is recommended to soak the rice for about 20-30 minutes if you cook it on a stovetop as this will soften the rice. After you’ve soaked the rice, generally use a 1:1 ratio of rice versus water. Add both the rice and water to the pan and cook over high heat for 3.5 to 4 minutes. Then turn the heat to low and let the rice simmer for another 15 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let the pot stand for another 5 minutes. This should make perfectly cooked Korean rice.
Korean rice brands
Let’s take a look at Korea’s most famous – and most delicious – rice brands.
1. Cheorwon Odae Rijst (Odaemi of Odae Rice)
Cheorwon Odae rice is a white rice that comes from Cheorwon Province, right on the border with North Korea. It is in the middle of the peninsula, and because it is quite close to the DMZ – Demilitarized Zone – not many people live there. This means that there is enough land to grow rice. Cheorwon Odae rice is known for its high quality and is grown with fresh water flowing from the DMZ.
The grain of rice has a hard texture, so it is better to soak it in water longer than other brands of rice.
2. Cheongwon King’s Table Rice
Another white rice, King’s Table Rice, is known by many Koreans as a good quality rice that is easy to digest and has a mild taste. This makes it the perfect basic ingredient for many dishes. It can be stored for a long time and retains a fresh taste without getting old and dusty.
3. Haenaru Samkwang-rijst
Haenaru Samkwang Rice comes from Chungcheongnam-do Province, on the west coast of Korea. It is grown in wide fields and has a light and natural taste due to the western sea breeze. It is known for its distinctive rice scent.
4. Gouden tafel verse rijst (Golden table with more new rice)
This rice is grown around Daegu, a large city in the middle of South Korea. It is fresh rice – Haepssal – which means it is this season’s rice and not older seasons. In general, Haepssal is said to have more flavor and fresher taste. It can be kept for a long time, but will lose some of its flavor over the years.
5. Hongcheon Rivier Sura Rijst
Sura Rice is grown around the Hongcheon River, about 1,000 meters above sea level. High in the mountains, this rice gets a unique, pure taste and contains many healthy amino acids. This type of rice is often given as a gift.
6. Regional Rice
Each province in Korea has its own type of white rice. Because the soil and climate differ slightly per province, the rice usually also has a slightly different grain, taste and stickiness. It is therefore considered a nice gift to give someone rice from different provinces, so that they can try the tastiest rice from all over the country. They usually sell this kind of gift packaging at large supermarkets around the big holidays, Chuseok and Seolnal. In addition, today it is often used as a gift for guests, such as donating rice or at weddings.
Buy rice in Korea
Buying rice in South Korea is very easy. You can go to any supermarket, big or small, and there’s a huge aisle full of rice. Be careful, you buy rice in large quantities of 10 or 20 kilos, because rice is eaten every day, several times a day. Therefore, it may be easier to buy rice online or have it delivered.
As for the rice to buy, we recommend that you just go to the supermarket and look for the white rice you prefer. There are countless brands and variants. It is always good to have plain white rice on hand, as well as a small packet of whole grain rice and some glutinous rice to make Kimbap. Usually you can buy glutinous rice, whole grain rice and black rice in smaller quantities because it is mixed with white rice. We also recommend buying some nice seeds and grains – such as sorghum, chickpeas, barley, etc. – that can be mixed with white rice to give it some extra fiber, protein and nutrition. But there’s nothing wrong with a simple bowl of hot, steaming white rice at the end of a long day!