Korean cuisine in the U.S. is fairly similar to what's available in Korea but the major difference is price. In the States, what can best be described as appetizers are often more expensive than main dishes. For instance, dukboki at a pojangmacha is $2 in Seoul but around $10-$16 in the U.S. Arguably, you're standing on the street when eating at a pojangmacha but still! Korean-American takes on traditional dishes, like kalbi (marinated short ribs) and soondubu (spicy tofu stew), make it to Korea as well. L.A. kalbi is still popular and L.A. soondubu made a big splash a few years ago. But there are still some regional dishes that don't make it out of Korea and restaurants I return to every visit.
Samgaetang is perhaps the most traditional stew in Korean cuisine. The most basic description is chicken soup with ginseng though preparing it is much more complicated than it sounds. A whole chicken or hen is stuffed with rice that is prepared with ginseng, chestnuts, pine nuts, garlic, ginkgo and dates. Ginger and green onions are added to the broth. Though it's a stew, samgaetang is often eaten in the early summer for stamina and energy to help deal with the hot weather. Nancy took me to To Sok Chon, one of the most famous samgaetang restaurants in Seoul. Lines can go around and around the block in the summer. They have a secret recipe for the broth which is thicker and milkier than other broths. The meat was so tender and just dropped off the bones. The soup leaves you feeling like you've just been swaddled in a warm blanket.
On every visit, I go to a famous vegetarian restaurant called San Chon in the art district Insadong. San Chon, which means mountain village, serves fresh vegetables found in Korea's woods and mountains. The dishes are derived from temple cooking which the proprietor, Mr. Kim Yon Shik, came to know during his years as a Buddhist monk. Nancy and I thought they added salt as a seasoning which they hadn't done before. Everything tastes pure and though there's no meat, you get quite full. As always, it was delicious.
Korean evening dramas are popular all over Asia and one of the most popular is "Dae Jang Geum" or "Jewel in the Palace" from 2003. The story's main character is Jang Geum, who is loosely based on a historical figure from the Joseon Dynasty and the first female royal physician. One of the features of the drama was royal cuisine and the actress who played Jang Geum trained at Korea House, a well known restaurant and performance hall in Seoul. Korea House was a private residence during the actual Joseon Dynasty period. Its modern reincarnation is inspired by Geunjeongjeon which is located in Gyeongbok Palace (write up to follow). The menu is based on descriptions in works of literature and royal court records. Table manners, kitchen utensils, ancestral rites table setting method and the names and ingredients of foods were all recorded during Korea's dynastic periods and Korea House serves according to those records. They also have folk arts performances. Compared to "peasant" food, royal cuisine seemed kind of bland. Korean food is pungent and spicy and royal food is basically the opposite. The decor and presentation were beautiful. We all felt satisfied and not stuffed like we normally feel after a meal which was a nice change.
Photos of Korean cuisine can be found here.