We are the takeout generation who grew up with Chinese dives on every corner and can now just as easily find sushi, Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian joints. But there's still an authentic Asian cuisine that's exotic to most of our tastes Korean. The rustic fare of this small country is adventure at its finest, served on tables full of fragrant pickles, marinated green vegetables the likes of which we've never seen and dishes served in heavy stone pots. And yet, Korean food also manages to be accessible. Even the most persnickety American will usually accept barbecue, a Korean restaurant staple.
The country of Korea hangs off the Chinese mainland, barely brushing Russia and extending across the Yellow Sea like an acrobat reaching for the tips of Japan's northern fingertips. It is composed of many microclimates and varied topography that nurtures the growth of a wide spectrum of foods seafood from its shores; roots and flowers that flourish in the mountain valleys; green-pastured meats and, of course, a lot of rice. Korea is largely rural, with long, harsh winters. Expect heavier, more primitive dishes than those of China and Japan, which are more refined and delicate. To me, Korean food is perfect for the heartier desires of fall and winter appetites.
Local Korean restaurants still cater mainly to Koreans, so it helps to know a thing or two before you head out to dine at one. Here's what I've learned over the years, in my quest to find and feast on Korean food.
In the motherland, dining establishments usually specialize in one or two dishes, but here in the States, most Korean restaurants have a varied menu that creates a firm stomping ground for unfamiliars wanting to experiment. Among the customs you might witness on a visit, look for a collection of small dishes, called pan chan, that's served before the meal. Familiar items, such as kimchi, fall into this category. They are meant to be nibbled, stimulating appetite, and can be saved to eat with the rice that comes with every meal. Everything else you order soups, pancakes, dumplings, and so on will be delivered all at once. The table will be packed, so enjoy the clutter. It is polite to share a couple of dishes with the group you are dining with. One more important thing: I've heard that leaving chopsticks in your rice is bad luck and symbolizes death, so be careful.
KIMCHI. I mentioned kimchi as pan chan, but it also is an extremely versatile element in Korean cuisine, and it deserves special attention. Growing up with a family that was half-Jewish, I was well aware of the virtues of pickled vegetables, and still, when I encountered my first kimchi, I was mystified. The pleasing taste is so ancient and primal, balancing flavors that I had never even imagined. In general, Korean cuisine strives to balance the essences of sweet, salty, sour and bitter, as well as pungency something not recognized in the Western kitchen. Pungent flavors are thought to stimulate appetite and are brought out by the long fermentation that kimchi requires. There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi, which literally translates as "pickles." But just as we generally refer to preserved cucumbers when we say "pickles," Koreans are usually referring to pickled napa cabbage when they say "kimchi." Different regions are known for different kimchis, the spicier ones coming from the warmer, coastal areas, while the more mild ones come from the highlands. Kimchi also has familial nuances, and young brides are said to be sent off on their wedding night armed with the family recipes. The ability to make quality kimchi is a highly prized skill. Traditionally, kimchi was made in the autumn to preserve fish and vegetables for the long, cold winter. Earthenware vessels were packed with fresh vegetables and fish then buried in the ground where they developed flavor as they were preserved.
JJIGAE. These are hot pots, typically delivered in old-fashioned-looking cauldrons that I can't take my eyes off as servers whisk them across the room in a cloud of delicious-smelling steam. One of the most popular dishes made in a stone pot is bi bim bap, a rice dish with egg and vegetables that cakes and crackles at the bottom of the superheated pot. A complete meal is packed into this one enticing concoction, and I enjoy melding the fried rice and other flavors with each scoop of the chopsticks. Also delicious is kimchi hot pot, which is Korean comfort food at its best, combining pork, kimchi, shiitake mushrooms, garlic and ripe Korean chili paste.
GOOK & JJIM. Basically, gook is soup and jjim is stew. Gook focuses more on the broth, where jjim is about ingredients. There are numerous types of soups and stews, and, as in Western cuisine, the possibilities for combinations are numerous. The most interesting gook I've tried lately is from Korean Kitchen (see below). They feature a "hangover soup," hae jang gook, with blood sausage and tripe in a mellow radish broth.
MANDU. These are Korean-style dumplings, and they're as good as their Chinese cousins. The skins tend to be thicker, and many types are similar to those you'd find at a Chinese dim sum house. That said, I can't get enough of the acidic kimchi version. (Are you starting to see a trend here?)
GUI. Grilled meat is a Korean specialty and appeals to even the least daring diners. My husband's uncle is a Southerner who eats nothing but meat and potatoes. He's from a country town with no Chinese restaurant, which he considers too exotic for his palate, anyway. But grilled meat is grilled meat, and even our uncle appreciated the expert way that Korean cooks seduce flavor out of their meat preparations. Koreans typically eat gui by wrapping it in a lettuce leaf and dipping it into bean paste. Gui was my introduction to Korean food in the form of the popular dish bulgogi, which is tender ribeye marinated in soy, sesame and Korean malt syrup. Also popular are spicy marinated chicken and beef short ribs. Often, meats are grilled in front of diners on a pan in the middle of the table.
JUN. This term really refers to a number of dishes with batter that are fried on a flattop, but I'm only going to address the delicious pancakes in the Korean repertoire. The first time I had a green-pepper pancake, I was giddy with joy at the texture and flavor that came out of something that looked so humdrum. Packed with unripened red peppers and strands of green onions, these pancakes have a chewy texture because the batter is made from rice flour. They are usually served right off the grill so there's no time for a melding of flavors and each distinct ingredients pops in your mouth. Also wonderful is a pancake made of fresh seafood, such as oysters and squid. Delicious pancakes can be found at Shin Jung and the newly opened Gohyang Gip (see below).
Here are my recommendations for further home study:
by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
(Wiley & Sons, 2005)
Dok Suni: Recipes From my Mother's Korean Kitchen
by Jenny Kwak & Liz Fried
(St. Martin's Press, 1998)
Growing Up In a Korean Kitchen
by Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall
(Ten Speed Press, 2001)
And here are mini-reviews of three of my favorite Korean haunts in town.
1638 E. Colonial Drive
Some of the best pan chan around is served here. When our party of two went for dinner recently, our table was loaded with no less than eight small dishes of delectable nibblers, including traditional napa cabbage kimchi, as well as marinated bean sprouts, seaweed, dried tiny fish, battered zucchini and my personal favorite, spiced pickled daikon radish.
Shin Jung is a well-established Korean restaurant, having been open upward of 10 years now, but it's been under the current ownership for the last three years. Shin Jung has a diverse menu and everything is well-prepared. I've remained a loyal customer through several changes of ownership.
1400 W. Oak Ridge Road
This well-worn, almost 20-years-old south Orlando spot recently underwent a major renovation, and I had the pleasure of visiting the new place on their grand opening evening. The friendly staff at Go-Hyang-Gip offered a decent assortment of pan chan and a great bulgogi. Their marinated chicken, dak gui, was lightly spicy, full of garlic and Korean spices.
3225 W. Colonial Drive
This new and quirky spot on West Colonial Drive near Magic Mall in the Pine Hills area has some odd design choices that make it look like a kindergarten class was set loose at arts and crafts time. Despite the weird design, they offer delicious mandu, made fresh in-house.
Korean Kitchen also brews a tasty hangover soup for the more daring, called hae jang gook. It features blood sausage and tripe in a special radish broth. (Yummy, I say.) The cooks make a tantalizing assortment of condiment sauces a bright red, slightly sweet pepper sauce; fermented bean paste, a Korean staple, with deep, nutty flavor; and rich soy paste so dark it's almost black. The server suggested dipping onions into this one, and it makes for a great bar snack with cold firstname.lastname@example.org