This is a totally shameless ploy for traffic but I couldn’t resist. And honestly, it can be a pain in the ass to get the right equipment and ingredients for Korean cooking, which means if you go to that extra trouble, you will be extra-appreciated.
Some of the items below are linked to Amazon. The others are linked to various other stores. Unfortunately, I’ve never ordered from them, so I can’t vouch for them. If you have a Korean grocery store of any serious size in your area, though, you should be able to find most of these items there as well.
A great cook should be able to make great rice with a pot and a stove, but when you’re juggling pots and pans on all four burners, it really sets my mind at ease to know my rice is cooking away perfectly, without a care in the world. I’ve never owned a super-cheap rice cooker, but I’ve been served good rice made with ones that look like this, and it’s still better than hovering over a pot on your stove.
If you want to splurge and get a gift that is hard to get yourself (if you are not me), it’s worth getting a fancy one that can make brown rice, rice with barley, rice with beans, etc. Zojirushi is the BMW of rice cooker makers, well-regarded and expensive. Somewhat cheaper, though still pricey, are the ones made by Sanyo. I can’t compare the two brands because I’ve never had a Zojirushi, but I cannot imagine living without my 10-cup Sanyo. 10-cup is better than 5-cup if you anticipate cooking for more than 4-6 people at a time.
As our recipe-testers have learned, Korean cooking requires a lot of knife work. All that chopping is infinitely more enjoyable if you have a good knife. There are others who can speak more intelligently about different kinds of knives, but for me, when you need to cut into giant Korean radishes and heads of Napa cabbage, the heft of a German-style 8-inch chef’s knife is the way to go. My mom bought me a Henckels knife similar to this one over 10 years ago and it is still going strong. That said, a knife is a very personal thing, so it might be best to get a gift certificate for $80-$100 at a nice kitchen store, and have the Korean cook in your life go and try holding different ones. This will also avoid the bad luck Chinese people believe you incur when you gift a knife.
A mandoline is not an excuse for not developing knife skills, but man does it make your life easier! It will transform your feelings about making any sort of Korean salad that requires you to cut hard, rooty vegetables into thin matchsticks. The Benriner is cheap, sturdy, and does the job.
Korean Clay Pot
As much as I love a good dolsot bibimbap, or mixed rice and vegetables in a stone pot, the stone pot is not must-have home equipment since it’s really only good for that one dish. A clay pot is much more versatile. A small clay pot full of spicy tofu stew, or kimchi stew, or soybean stew bubbling away on the stove is really a beautiful sight. (Mmm, how about a lovely, jiggly steamed egg custard?) You don’t have to have a clay pot to make a good Korean jjigae, but it’s traditional and it’s practical since it means you can move the stew straight from the stove to the table. (Given how many dishes you have to wash after a Korean meal, one less pot is important!)
Large Wide-Mouthed Glass Jars
If you’re serious about making your own kimchi, you need some proper equipment. My mom says that kimchi made in a traditional clay jar, aged outside in the cold air of late fall/winter really does taste the best. That said, she uses giant plastic containers that fit perfectly into her kimchi refrigerator. I don’t make kimchi in such huge quantities, but if you’re going to make some, you should make more than a tiny jar for two reasons. One, the kimchi tastes better when it’s ripening in a large quantity, and two, it’s just too much work to do for so little output.
The containers need to be airtight. Plastic works fine, and I own a couple of big rectangular containers with lids that lock down. But glass looks better, and although I might be imagining it, I think it tastes better, too. I normally ferment two to three pounds of cabbage or radish at a time, and if I want to pack all the kimchi in one container, I need anything from a half-gallon to one-gallon container. These hermetic glass jars aren’t perfect, because the mouths are a little narrow, but they’re the best ones I’ve found so far in the U.S.. The 2.1 quart and 3.2 quart jars are probably most versatile.
It’s practically impossible to salt vegetables and add seasoning in a normal-size mixing bowl. I have a very broad, flat bowl that holds 22 quarts or so that I bought at a Korean grocery store for $15. It doesn’t fit in any of my cabinets so it sits upside-down on top of my refrigerator. It’s ugly, I don’t care. That’s how much I need it.
I have no idea what these bowls are like, or how reliable the online stores are, but it looks like restaurant supply stores are a good place to find 20-quart broad bowls if you don’t have a large Korean grocery store near you.
Plastic or Rubber Gloves
I find this image weirdly terrifying, and plastic gloves are the most unromantic gift possible, but they are so useful. I had a hell of a time finding them in regular grocery stores. I should probably just recommend that you buy a pair of rubber gloves.
I can’t really recommend that you buy some fancy gochujang or soy sauce because even though the quality really matters, it’s not like you’re going to be able to find anything really special outside of Korea. Still, if you know someone who has no idea how to navigate in a Korean grocery store, it would be sweet to get a tub of gochujang and put a red ribbon on it! This was our favorite from our taste test. Other key condiments and pastes: doenjang or fermented soybean paste (this one is the same brand as our favorite from our taste test), Korean dark soy sauce, and Korean soup soy sauce. Maybe you could make a little starter Korean cooking set!
I would be pretty happy if someone bought me some fancy, expensive Japanese rice. Or if you want to be creative, how about a bag of black rice? If you add half a cup of black rice to 2.5 cups of white rice, you end up with gorgeous purple rice with a subtly new and exciting flavor. You can get a 2-pound bag for $8 at a Korean grocery store, or you can pay over $20 for 15 ounces of “forbidden rice” from Lotus Organic Foods. I am not pooh-poohing the organic stuff, which I have never tasted — it might be worth it!
Awesome Korean Mini-Series About Royal Palace Cooking
I lost a good chunk of my life to watching all 54 episodes of Dae Jang Geum, an epic Korean mini-series set in the 15th and 16th centuries. It follows a young girl who struggles between the need to avenge her parents’ death by becoming the Royal Kitchen Lady and the desire to follow her own dreams, including the possibility of romance with a young scholar who is so attractive, he looks good even in those traditional hats with the mesh screen across the forehead.
It’s melodramatic and riveting, with expansive scenes of hundreds of royal kitchen maids preparing elaborate and luxurious meals. The show was popular all over the world — just look at the names of the people posting to this Facebook group. (Serra Ozgiray, Paula Fernandez, and Devina Patel on the first page!) I think it actually says something about how universal her struggles are, especially to people in cultures that value collective traditions but who also yearn for greater individual freedom.
You can find it here, but do not only buy Volume 1. You will kick yourself when you get to the end of it and the next DVD is not ready to pop into the player.
If you don’t want to spend $100 on all 3 volumes of Dae Jang Geum, you could get a stocking stuffer or two.
Standing Rice Scoop
This is just genius. All nice rice cookers (see above) come with a little pocket on the side of the machine to hold the paddle. But if you don’t have such a wonderful machine, you end up putting the paddle down and the rice gets all over the counter. This standing paddle avoids the mess.
Chopstick rests are pretty useless, but they can be so fun. I got these “peas in a pod” chopstick rests for Diane last year. As a Korean who loves Korean food, she can attest that she loved them!
The elephant in the room, of course, is the question, “What is the best Korean cookbook?”
Diane and I wholeheartedly hope and believe it will be available next year!