My Travel Map

My Travel Map

04 December 2014

Korean Food

One of the aspects of traveling in Korea that I was most looking forward to was eating the local foods.  I have enjoyed Korean food for quite some time now, so I was pretty sure that I'd really appreciate exploring that cuisine at its source.  A lot of people aren't that familiar with Korean food though, which is really sad considering it is definitely one of the great cuisines of the world.  So, I figured it was well worthwhile to document my experience eating there to offer a brief introduction to Korean cuisine from a foreign perspective.  Hopefully, this post sufficiently serves that purpose while maintaining the respect that Korean food rightfully deserves. 

The above picture shows huge bowls of the various banchan, or side dishes that are always served with any meal.  These are often fermented vegetables, though you'll also find tangy, funky tofu, beans and bean curd, and even small fish.  Fermentation is a very important technique in Korean cuisine, and its widespread use originated for a very practical reason: long ago, people found that by fermenting food in huge clay pots (which are even sometimes buried in the ground), they were able to safely store the bountiful fresh foods produced during the warm, pleasant summers throughout the long cold winters of the Korean peninsula.  The most famous and popular of Korean banchan is kimchi, which I will detail below, but there are seemingly countless types of banchan, and they are a fundamental part of Korean cuisine. 

Korean food is healthy, colorful, and fun.  For example, my favorite: bibimbap.  Bibimbap starts as a bowl full of piles of individual ingredients.  This one had pickled radish, bean sprouts, carrots, peppers, some kind of white gelatin, and marinated minced beef.  Often, like shown here, the ingredients are topped with a lightly fried or raw egg.  Mine was raw (don't worry, without battery chicken farms, salmonella isn't a major concern in Korea).  A bowl of rice is served on the side as is a tube or small dish of red hot and slightly savory chili paste (possibly the most important and widely used ingredient in Korean cuisine).  But this is all just how it is served... to eat it, you must mix.  Above is a picture of: Bibimbap, before...

And here is: bibimbap, after.  Once mixed, the bowl has been transformed into a beautiful explosion of mixed colors and textures.  Now it is ready to eat!  The chili paste, egg yolk and starchy rice work as the glue of the dish, and it is surprisingly easy to eat perfectly mixed bite-sized mouthfuls with your chopsticks.  If you do have any problems with the last few grains of rice though, and trust me you will eat the whole bowlful, you can always resort to the long spoon served with it that is used for mixing.  I love the combination of flavors and textures that bibimbap offers... plus it is really, really healthy with all the fresh vegetables (most of which are raw or only lightly cooked) in there.   Served on the side here I had a bean sprout soup and of course banchan consisting of pickles, kimchi, tofu, plus a drink of spiced herbal tea.

Eating in Korea is an affair for family and friends.  As is ingrained throughout Korean culture, sharing plays a dominant role in Korean cuisine.  A typical meal consists of main dishes served in large serving bowls, grills, or platters in the middle of the table and are surrounded by a huge number of smaller side bowls with various banchan.  Everything on the table is meant to be shared, and it is not unusual to see family and friends placing food on one another's plates.  Different people around the table will take responsibility for any more complex dishes, that require extra work mixing or cooking, such as at Korean BBQ places, where it is pretty normal to see one grill master cooking and serving food to the rest sitting around the table.  Mind you, all this sharing and passing of food is done with an individual's chopsticks, which is what sets it aside from anything we have in European or American culinary practices!  It is a very communal and beautiful thing really.  This all made things a little difficult for a lone traveler in Korea, since I ate all of my meals in Seoul solo.  I found myself being looked at with sadness (and pity?) by many of the groups of people eating around me, as I sat at oversized tables and tucked into large mains and more sides than I could possibly handle alone.  However, that didn't affect the quality of the food... it was delicious!  And, fortunately, once I got to Cheongju for work, I was able to share all my meals with colleagues and friends.

Korean dining is typically also accompanied by sometimes copious amounts of alcohol.  Beer is common, as is a milky-white, fermented rice or wheat drink known as maekgeolli, but the standard tipple of choice is soju, which is often described as "Korean vodka".  Fortunately, soju, which is a distilled ethanol spirit, is now most often diluted and does not pack the alcohol-by-volume punch of a standard vodka, a fact that has probably helped preserve the livers of many considering the sheer amount of the stuff that Koreans can and will toss back in shot form during a good dinner.

Now, to the heart of it.  Is it a pickle?  Is it a condiment?  Is it a side dish?  Whatever you call it, and however you eat it, kimchi is Korea's favorite food.  This all around consists of vegetables (most often cabbage) with garlic, spices, and chili paste that have been packed away into clay or plastic containers, buried in the ground (or put into some other, relatively temperature controlled environment), and allowed to ferment for months.  In Korea and at Korean restaurants around the world, kimchi is served alongside pretty much everything you eat.  It will be one of the first things that is brought to the table, sometimes even before your cup of water.  Kimchi is potent, a fiery and tangy combination of spicy hot and sour.  It is most often served as a side but can also be prepared as a main, such as is shown above in a warm "stew" with tofu.

I was extra fortunate to be able to see a group of folks preparing kimchi in Seoul.  This was completely random, as they were apparently restaurant owners/operators and had just set up shop outside the restaurant to pack away some cabbage and chili paste to let it sit and ferment over the next few months.  I think there are several reasons why they were doing it outside: 1) the smell of chili paste and garlic was rich in the air, even in the crisp fall air; 2) that red chili paste was getting onto everything, and let me tell you, it stains (note their rubber gloves, boots, and body-length aprons); doing it outside meant they could hose down the whole area afterwards; 3) they could turn it into a community experience!

Making kimchi: a fun affair for family and friends.  This group was obviously having fun with this, and the best part about it...  

They were sharing with any and all random passersby on the street!  This is just another example of how friendliness and sharing are key components of Korean culture.  So this kimchi making session was fun for a lone traveler too.  They had the raw ingredients of the kimchi laid out on the table and were pouring bowls of maekgeolli too.  Basically, they feed you and get you drunk... and all for free!  I was called over by the guy here in the vest, who didn't speak a lick of English.  He pointed to the others and obviously invited me to join them.  Then he poured me some maekgeolli and went back to his prep-work, stopping every couple of minutes to join us for a bite and a sip.  When I figured I'd had my share, I thanked them profusely and took out my wallet to pay (expecting they would charge something for it all).  With giant smiles on their faces, they refused any cash... which really drove the message home: a big part of this event was to share what they had and make others happy (which of course is a great marketing tactic for their business too!).  It was a beautiful thing.

OK, back on to food.  This was a dumpling soup... which was absolutely perfect to warm the core on a wet and chilly afternoon.  The ingredients were quite simple overall: seaweed, peeled ginger, chopped cabbage leaves, leeks, and of course, those pillowy pockets of deliciousness, the pork dumplings.  The broth is key though... and like broth-based dishes throughout Asia, it is so much more complex than the simple additional ingredients thrown into it.  Note too my side of kimchi, which was brought to the table with my place setting!

Another pork dumpling soup.... soooo good.  This one in Cheongju was the best I had there.  Those little morsels of galbi in the upper right were awesome too.  The kimchi served here was made with daikon radish instead of the much more common cabbage.

Korean BBQ and galbi... yumm.  This was the Korean food I was most familiar with before visiting the country, and these places are also very popular within Korea.  This one was all you can eat, and they had a huge self-serve bar of options that would satisfy any carnivore's most voracious appetite.  It was a surf and turf smorgasbord of beef, pork, chicken, offal, fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.  Many of the meats, like the spectacular galbi (marinated ribs), were marinated in complex rich, umami, or subtle sauces.   Another thing about the cuts of meat and choices of seafood is the importance of textures... it is not all uniform like in North America.  As with many Asian cuisines, texture is one of the cornerstones of Korean dishes.  So, you'll get plenty of tendon and cartilage alongside your lean and fat.   Oh, and of course, there were also many buckets of different kimchi and other vegetables and fungi to be put on the grill.

The best thing about these restaurants is that you are your own grill master... you have the control of the electric - and sometimes charcoal - grills in the middle of the table, and you get to cook all of those delicious pieces of meat and seafood to your own form of perfection.  Did I mention they were all you can eat too?  These restaurants are basically a paradise for any adamant meat-eaters.

Kwangjang Market in Seoul : this is heaven for any street-food enthusiast.  It is a little tough to find if you show up after dark.  The food market is in the middle of an enormous - I'm talking many, many city blocks - market selling just about anything you can think of.  The greater market district is a labyrinth of covered lanes and tightly-compartmentalized and dense department blocks that should be avoided by anyone with even mild claustrophobia.  The district has something open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but after 11pm or so a lot of the place is closed for the night.  I was there closer to midnight, so I was wandering for a while through some pretty empty lanes of closed up shops before I ended up stumbling upon a tiny courtyard near where the food market was supposed to be.  This courtyard was lit with christmas lights and filled with groups of mostly older folks huddled around people cooking at some pretty makeshift grills and boiling pots.  This couldn't be the legendary market I was told of... however, I was starving at this point and had been wandering through the mostly closed district for over half an hour.  I decided to give it a try.  I sat down at an old woman's bench; she had a big, high-walled oven pan full of potatoes, onions, and offal stewing over a couple gas burners.  I asked for a small plate, but she didn't speak any English.  With a giant grin, I received a huge plate of guts and stewed root vegetables served over rice.  The best part was as I was eating, the tiny, sweet old woman - who reminded me a lot of my Gram - kept stirring around and dishing out more and more of what she signed were the choice bits.  So there I was, filling myself to the brim with huge chunks of stewed beef heart, stomach, lung, kidneys, and liver and plenty of potatoes and onions and rice in seemingly never-ending supply, regardless of how much I tried to convey that I was already full.  At the beginning, I was really hungry and digging in, but by the end, it was really, really tough continuing.  I was struggling to chew and force swallowing those last few bites, especially of the liver, which I really am not a big fan of, and heart, which can be just way too chewy and gives you lots of time to think about exactly what you're noshing on.  The gran finally must have felt that I'd eaten my fill, and she stopped scooping more out for me.  I paid my $4 worth of Korean won, thanked her profusely, and moved on.  Of course, right after that I stumbled around another bend upon the greater wonderland that is the Kwangjang food market!  

Being nice and full of beef guts and that ever-expanding rice.  I started drooling more and more over the other options available in the main part of the market.  Wishing that I could somehow make room for something else in my stomach.  These pots of crabs were just beautiful and very tempting, with their array of colors and guarantee for flavor.

You could get whatever kind of salty, savory, or spicy dried seafood snack you wanted there too.

And then there was this.  Kwangjang should be a Mecca for foodies worldwide.  This is evidence of how seriously Koreans take their food... remember that these pictures were taken around midnight.  Eating is a social time to be enjoyed with friends and family and never rushed.  They take their time over several hours enjoying their food and pacing through a meal that must end up leaving them near paralyzed or comatose as their bodies devote any energy available to digesting all that food.  The worst thing for me was that I was already full when I got there... a point that made me decide to return again the next night for some blood sausage (one of my favorites) and pajeon.

Pajeon is kind of like a potato pancake made with a touch of egg and scallions or leeks.  An example of one is shown here on the right, with my bottle and drinking bowl of maekgeolli on the left.  The pajeon was awesome, especially dipped in that onion infused soy sauce.  And this was also my second taste of maekgeolli too, which is like a rice beer... so good, milky, sweet, slightly carbonated, and all-around delicious.

And now for some fusion... Japanese style noodles in broth, Chinese style shrimp dumplings, and both with a Korean flare (and kimchi too, of course!).  I actually got to try some Chinese food in Korea too... and as American Chinese is very different from traditional Chinese, so too is Korean Chinese different from both.  The dishes I had were thick noodles in brown sauce and stir fried beef and vegetables, which were both delicious, but obviously custom catered to Korean palates.  Even the hot and sour soup was completely different from the Americanized form I know so well.

Another bibimbap, this time in the mountain region around Songnisan National Park.  This bibimbap was amazing, with all locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, like wild mushrooms, herbs, nuts, and seasonings.  On the side we got some crazy veggies in the background... they were kind of like carrots or parsnips, but were different.  They had been roasted on a smoky grill and were so savory, spicy, and sweet.  Important to style, they also had an intriguing and inviting crisp yet smooth texture.  The cabbage and pork broth soup on the side was awesome too.

Mountain bibimbap after mixing and ready to dig into.  Yum yum.

After a long hike into Songnisan National Park, what better to come across than a little place in a beautiful valley along the trail that served up fresh food?  This was a mountain salad (with an awesome toasted sesame dressing), pajeon, and maekgeolli.  The salad was one of the best I've ever eaten, the pajeon was the best I'd had on the trip, and the maekgeolli was brewed on site, served using a ladle from a giant clay pot, and was as cheap as bottled water.  The pajeon was warm and chock full of big pieces of onion, leek, and egg, and the maekgeolli was rustically unfiltered.  The salad had these weird, but very tasty, gelatin pieces in it too, which again, were a wonderful play on textures - regardless of how difficult they were to grab with chopsticks - and had this incredible acorn flavor.  This meal was perfect for refreshing the body and mind midway through a nice hike in the densely wooded mountains.

At my departing banquet, which was held in a beautiful hanok (floor-heated wooden building), we had this crazy bony fish dish, which from everything I could make out was stonefish - a large, hideously ugly bottom dweller with a very poisonous sting!  The fish itself is very mild, but it makes you work for those little morsels of meat.  It is so bony...  The skin was tasty too, but the sauce made the dish.  This was a prime example of how Koreans often use hot plates, hot stone bowls, and grills right at the table to keep food warm throughout a long meal or even to allow for cooking at the table.  This meal was also accompanied by many somaek shots, basically a shot of soju poured into a small glass of beer, stirred by using an immersed chopstick as a tuning fork by striking it sharply with the other, and chugged.  The trick with the chopsticks is pretty cool, as the vibrations releases CO2 bubbles by way of cavitation leaving a hypnotic, swirling vortex within the glass, and is enabled by Korean's typical use of metal chopsticks, a point which I also appreciated for its environmental friendliness.

And saving the best for last... OK, not at all really.  Can anyone guess what these are?  Bet you can't...  These little lovelies are sautéed silk worms... or in other words, Korean bar snacks.  I'm serious.  These actually weren't too bad, and I ended up eating a lot of them.  However, I had a lot of trouble with the texture; despite bathing in that ambiguous brown sauce, they were dry as chalk inside and quite chewy.  I don't think I'd order any silk worms again anytime soon.  Another popular bar snack is fried spiced chicken pieces, which are most definitely delicious and go perfectly with a cold bottle of beer.

Eating in Korea was adventurous as anywhere and so, so rewarding.  They have a rich culinary heritage and a broad variety of styles and techniques. You have to get used to the fiery hot chili paste, which is used in the majority of dishes, but if you delve into it, you can find such an amazing variety of flavors, textures, and scents.   Korean is most definitely one of the world's great cuisines.  

1 comment:

Unknown said...

bundegi.... a large number of women can't eat in korea but Bundegi(silk worms) has much protein