Korean Kitchen: food not trying is not living!
written by Hugo J. Smal
‘The table looked a bit like Korea just after the war. An area of disaster. So-who-so it is always overcrowded during dinner. The integrated barbecue, the many trays with side dishes, trays with peppers, garlic and salad leaves, the bottles and tins, the trays with rice, the plates, chopsticks and napkins, it is always quite a task for the waitresses to put it all down. We had enjoyed it well and it showed. Kim Young Soo signalled that it was done. He walked to the counter to pay. Over there two men had a fight. They clearly enjoyed the Soju. The fight was not about who should pay, but about who wants it. (From my book in progress working title: The Koreans and I, applies to the other quotes to.)’
We ate at Saranche in Goyang Si. Just around the corner from the Baedagol theme park and the Goyang Koi farm. Sarangche here literally means barbecue for the people. And that is always there: a lot of people. The restaurant is extremely popular. The owner and his wife always shine when you enter. You are made to feel welcome and the food is an adventure. Cow or pig from the barbecue with many side dishes and a bottle of Soju. They made me addicted to Korean cuisine.
The Koreans ferment a lot. Kimchi is, of course, the most famous. Originally, vegetables were fermented for the scarce winter period. But making Kimchi in the fall is still a tradition. Many Koreans, especially in the part of Goyang Si where I stay, have a small garden where they grow their own vegetables. Kimchi not only harmonizes well with meat and rice, but its pro-biotic effect is increasingly recognized. In short, Kimchi is very healthy.
Rice, also very important.
In earlier times the influence of the Chinese philosophy on Korean Hanguk eumsig was great. If you don’t eat well, you will get sick. Sounds logical, but this concept is often forgotten nowadays. The Koreans do everything they can to promote health through good food. Nourishing and healing foods were developed over the centuries. Adding herbal remedies to regular alcoholic drinks and eumcheongs (nonalcoholic beverages) was popularized.
Herbal remedies used include honey, cinnamon, pine nuts, ginseng, ginger, jujube, Schisandra Chinensis (five-flavour berry) and goji. The concept of Yak-Sik-Dongwon (literally “medicinal food” or “medicinal rice”) developed from ancient times. Koreans believe that there is no better medicine than rice.
Lots of plant-based ingredients!
The proportion of flora is very large in Korean cuisine. Ingredients such as vegetables, mushrooms, seeds and seaweed are widely used. They are used in the cooking of almost all foods. Rice, porridge, rice cakes, soup, stew, wraps, steamed vegetables and pastries, you will always find green in it.
Herbs from the mountains and fields, in particular, are rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre and antioxidants. The traditional cooking method of vegetables is cumbersome and takes a lot of time and effort, but vegetables are eaten as a staple food and thus a very important part of the Korean diet.
Of course, meat and fish have traditionally been the more expensive products in Korean cuisine. That is the case worldwide. In the past, these types of products did not take up such a large place on the table. That is still not the case at the Korean home. That is why Korean cuisine is also called “almost” vegetarian. This is of course completely different in the restaurant. The barbecue with meat or fish or poultry is literally the centre of the table there. When you are in a Korean restaurant for the first time, the service will certainly help you prepare the meat. But as soon as they see that you know how to do it, they let you go ahead.
“Kim Young Soo set the gas grill to the right temperature and put the meat on it. He broke a pepper and offered it to me. I take a small bite because every now and then they are very hot. So spicy that even Soju, sugar or water won’t help.
When the meat was ready I took a piece with my chopsticks. Put it on a lettuce leaf, with some kimchi, a clove of garlic, ginger slices and black bean sauce. I folded it into a package and put it in my mouth. I don’t know what could match the flavour explosion I felt and tasted. It reminded me of the streets of the artists’ district Insadong: busy, colourful, dynamic and above all of the abundance of scents. You don’t taste Korean food, but you experience it.”
Eating in a Korean restaurant is a group event. Everyone helps prepare the meat. The dishes on the barbecue must be turned regularly. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep them from turning black. So you eat and you are busy with the preparation at the same time.
And this is getting worse. In the west, everyone gets their own bottle of beer. Waiters fill the wine glasses or provide you with stronger drinks. In Hanguk, it is completely different. Providing yourself with a drink is as much an insult to your table companions as putting your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. You wait until someone else sees that your glass is empty. They will automatically fill it for you. In turn, you make sure that your partners still have something to drink.
“When I noticed that the Soju bottles were almost all empty, I pressed a button on the table. A bell rang in the kitchen and then I heard the sound I loved most in Korea. The waitress all said at the same time, “deh!” We’ve heard and we’re coming. I do not know a clearer expression of hospitality. It’s all so dedicated. However, Kim Kung has already jumped up and got bottles from the fridge. He drinks Hite beer.”
This is just an introduction. I’m not a cook or a specialist, especially in Korean cuisine, just a big fan. During all my visits to Korea, Kim Young Soo has taken me to a lot of restaurants. From simple maegju chicken to the very exclusive kitchen of the Yi dynasty Royals. The eel in the small eatery on the Han River was a feast for the palate. It is a great feast to visit one of the fish markets in Jeju-do or Gangwa-do, for example.
A large hall at the water. Fishing boats bump against the shore. The scent of the sea creatures fills your nose. Thousands of “fruit de Mer” are displayed in hundreds of stalls. You make your choice and negotiate the price. Then you take your delicacies to a small restaurant in the market hall. Sometimes you have to wait because fish is popular in Korea. The specialized chefs bake what you scored, enjoy it!
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