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Basic Korean Taste Words You Should Absolutely Know

Learn how to say the five basic tastes sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami in Korean.

Today we’re going to learn the 5 basic taste words that you must know to describe flavors in Korean. 

But first…

Did you know the Korean language has a huge variety of adjectives compared to other languages?

For instance, it has more than 20 words for ‘yellow!’

노랗다, 누렇다, 누리께하다, 누르끄레하다, 누르무레하다, 누르스름하다, 누릇하다, 누릇누릇하다, 누르툭툭하다, 누르칙칙하다, 샛노랗다, 싯누렇다, 노르께하다. 노르무레하다. 노르스름하다. 노릇하다. 노릇노릇하다. 노르톡톡하다, 노리께하다, 누르끄레하다, 노리무레하다, 노릿하다. 노릿노릿하다, 노리톡톡하다….

You get the idea…

A white rabbit wearing yellow sunglasses with a yellow background

Yes, all the words above are for ‘yellow’, but they each have slightly different nuances. Each is for a different shade of yellow. To be fair, most of them are rarely used these days, but at least 8 or 9 of them are still frequently used in everyday life.

The abundance of adjectives is one of many things that make the Korean language extremely hard to learn. In English, when you want to be more precise or descriptive, you put other words before the adjective, like ‘light blue’, ‘midnight blue’, or ‘eggshell blue’. Although we also do that in the Korean language, more often we use different adjectives to convey slight differences in the meaning.

Therefore, Korean has a more abundant vocabulary than English or other Western languages. Sadly, this is not always a good thing. It is one of the reasons why Korean literature has been late to be recognized internationally. The slight differences in similar words are extremely hard to translate. If a writer uses ‘누렇다’ and ‘노르스름하다’ in one paragraph, how would the translator differentiate them?

It also means that Korean learners must memorize lots of words to be able to make a natural conversation. Not at the beginner level, of course, but as you move forward to intermediate and advanced levels, these similar but slightly different words will start to give you a headache.

But don’t worry! I’ll clarify them for you. Today, I’ll explain adjectives describing the 5 basic tastes. Read on if you love Korean food and want to talk about it!

Salty: 짠맛 (Jjan-mat)

Let’s start with the word for salty. The basic Korean adjective for salty is ‘짜다’ (jja-da).

바닷물은 짜다.
(ba-das-mul-eun jja-da)
Seawater is salty.

By the way, do you know the difference between ‘바닷물이 짜다’ and ‘바닷물은 짜다’? The two phrases both mean ‘Seawater is salty’ in English, but there’s a significant difference in meaning. When you use the particle ~은/는 in a such sentence, it means something like ‘is supposed to be’. Saltwater is supposed to be salty, right? It’s one of its main properties, it’s what defines it. There’s no such thing as seawater that isn’t salty.

On the other hand, the particle ‘이/가’ is like just plain ‘is’. For instance, while saltwater is supposed to be salty, say, soup doesn’t have to be salty to be defined as soup. There is such a thing as soup that isn’t salty.

To come back to the topic, ‘짜다’ is the Korean word for salty. You can use it whenever you want to say something is ‘salty’. But there are other words for ‘salty’ as well, such as ‘짭짤하다’ (jjap-jal-ha-da). Its meaning is closer to ‘savory’ than to just ‘salty’. We use ‘짭짤하다’ for pleasantly salty foods, such as French fries and potato chips.

My favorite Korean snack is ‘짭짤하다’: 고래밥 (Grae-bap)

A box of Golaebab, a Korean savory snack

고래밥 means ‘whale’s meal’. It’s in the shape of little sea creatures that whales might actually eat, such as squid, fish, crab, and starfish. I’ve always loved its savory flavor. Try it if you ever come to Korea! But be careful, there’s also a chocolate-flavored version of this snack. If you want the savory one, look for the ‘stir-fried seasoning’ flavor’s iconic green box.

‘짭조름하다’ (jjap-jo-leum-ha-da) is quite similar to ‘짭짤하다’, but it’s for foods in which salty is the strongest taste. We use this word often for foods that contain a lot of 간장 (gan-jang: Korean soy sauce) and different kinds of 젓갈 (jeot-gal: salted and fermented seafood).

갈비찜이 짭조름하고 맛있다!
gal-bi-jjim-i jjab-jo-leum-ha-go mas-iss-da!
The galbijjim is salty and delicious!

a plate of the Korean dish galbijjim, steamed marinated ribs

Sweet: 단맛 (Dan-mat)

Ah, sweet. The most important of 5 tastes. Life wouldn’t be worth living without sweets from time to time. The basic Korean word for sweet is ‘달다’ (dal-da).

사탕은 달다.
sa-tang-eun dal-da.
Candy is sweet.

But there are also other words for sweet such as 달콤하다 (dal-com-ha-da) and 달달하다 (dal-dal-ha-da).

달콤하다 and 달달하다 are basically the same and are interchangeable in most cases. They mean ‘pleasantly sweet’. We use them to talk about chocolates, candies, cakes, cookies, and sweet café drinks.

three chocolate chip cookies with a blurred background

There’s also another word that means ‘sweet’, and that’s ‘달짝지근하다 (dal-jjak-ji-geun-ha-da)’. It’s a bit far from ‘달콤하다’ and ‘달달하다’. Its meaning is hard to grasp, but it basically means a combination of ‘sweet’ and ‘umami’. That is, to be sweet and savory at the same time, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be salty. We use this word for 곶감 (geot-gam: dried persimmon) and 양념갈비 (yang-nyeom-gal-bi: ‘sweet and salty’ seasoned galbi).

Sour: 신맛(Sin-mat)

‘시다’ (si-da) is the Korean adjective for ‘sour’. As there are few sour dishes in Korean cuisine, words for ‘sour’ are less used than other taste words. Nevertheless, they are important.

We already covered ‘달콤하다’ in the ‘Sweet’ section above. The adjectives that end with -콤하다 (com-ha-da) have a positive meaning in them. ‘달콤하다’ (dal-com-ha-da) means ‘pleasantly sweet’, and ‘새콤하다’ (sae-com-ha-da) means ‘pleasantly sour.’ When you say ‘sweet & sour’, we say ‘새콤달콤하다!’

six flavors of the Korean candy saekomdalkom

This is ‘새콤달콤’ (sae-com-dal-com). I used to love this chewable candy in my childhood. Everyone did! I remember anyone who brought a pack of it to school would be the superstar for the day. As you can probably guess, it tastes sweet and sour. My favorite is strawberry flavor, although grape is a close second. Try it if you ever come to Korea!

There is one last word you should know that falls into the category of ‘sour’, and that’s ‘시큼하다’ (si-ceum-ha-da). ‘시큼하다’ is far from ‘새콤하다’. It means to have a strong sour taste. We use this word for things like vinegar and over-fermented 김치 (kim-chi: traditional Korean salted and fermented vegetables).

Bitter: 쓴맛 (Sseun-mat)

Bitter is an important taste in Korean culture. Many Koreans, including myself, enjoy the bitter taste of various kinds of 나물 (na-mul). According to Wikipedia’s English version, 나물 refers to either a variety of edible grass or leaves or seasoned herbal dishes made of them.

Three types of Korean namul on a dish

The basic word for ‘bitter’ is 쓰다 (sseu-da). Like all the other basic words we’ve covered so far (짜다, 달다, and 시다), the word ‘쓰다’ is neutral and can be used in both negative and positive ways, depending on the context.

However, many other words in the Korean language also mean ‘bitter’, such as 쌉쌀하다 (ssap-ssal-ha-da), 쌉사름하다 (ssap-sa-leum-ha-da), and 씁쓰레하다 (sseup-sseu-lae-ha-da). We mostly use these words to talk about 나물.

There are many kinds of 나물.. Almost all of them are fragrant. Although not all of them taste bitter, many of them do. Those that grow in the wild are called ‘산나물’ (san-na-mul: mountain namul) and are usually even more bitter. 

나물 are crucial in Korean cuisine. For instance, we cook them and season them to make 반찬 (ban-chan: Korean side dish). Combine more than three 나물 반찬, add some rice, sesame oil, a fried egg, and some 고추장 (go-chu-jang: Korean red chili paste), and you get 나물 비빔밥 (na-mul bi-bim-bap)!

We also put in 나물s in 국 (guk: Korean soup-like side dishes) and 탕 (tang: it’s similar to 국 but considered as main dish). 미나리 (mi-na-ri), the kind of 나물 made famous by the film ‘Minari’, is one of the main ingredients of 매운탕 (mae-un-tang: spicy fish stew).

A poster for the Korean film Minari

The words 쌉쌀하다, 쌉사름하다, and 씁쓰레하다 are often used to describe 나물s’ bitter but pleasant taste. Each 나물 has its distinct scent and taste. 나물s are often said to be herbs of Korea, although we mostly use them as main ingredients rather than as spices.

Umami: 감칠맛 (gam-chil-mat)

The last basic taste is ‘umami’. According to my high school science teacher, it was given a Japanese name because it was discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda.

Unlike the other four tastes, umami does not have an adjective form in Korean. To use it as an adjective, you should use the ‘noun + ~이/가 + 있다 (it-da: there is) = 감칠맛이 있다 (gam-chil-mat-i it-da).

Or, you can use other words than 있다. For instance, if the dish is so full of umami, you can say,

감칠맛이 가득해!
gam-chil-mas-i ga-deug-hae!
It’s so full of umami!

Some Korean foods full of umami includes 해물칼국수 (hae-mul-kal-guk-su: Korean knife-cut noodles in seafood broth), 두루치기 (du-ru-chi-gi: spicy stir-fried pork often paired with tofu), and 김치 볶음밥 (kim-chi-bok-keum-bap: kimchi stir-fried rice).

A plate of kimchi fried rice with an egg on top

We’ve covered more than a dozen words today, but it may not be enough for you to express your love for food. After all, I left out some important words, such as ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘oily’, ‘fishy’, and most importantly, ‘tasty’ and ‘not tasty’. Don’t worry! I’ll be back with another article in which I’ll talk about all these words, plus words that mean ‘spicy’!

Koreans love spicy foods. We eat 고추 (go-chu: chili pepper) with 고추장 (go-chu-jang: chili pepper sauce). We eat 김치볶음밥 with raw 김치 and 김치국.  We also have 떡볶이 (tteok-bok-ki: spicy rice cakes), 김치찌개 (kim-chi-jji-gae: 김치 stew), 짬뽕 (jjam-bbong: spicy seafood noodle soup)… The list goes on and on. 

It’s impossible to talk about Korean food without knowing words about ‘spicy’. Come back if you want to learn about them! Also, if you want to actually ‘use’ the adjectives covered in this post in real conversations, try practicing with Konju, the only Korean conjugation app that’ll help you make these words truly yours!

Thank you for reading! 🫶

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